Updated: Jun 24
Advice to help introverted teachers avoid feeling like they need to curl up in a hole and hide at the end of each school day.
I consider myself a textbook introvert. I've been known to intentionally avoid acquaintances when I spot them at the grocery store. I've pretended not to recognize people I went to Kindergarten with, people I know so well I could tell you ten fun facts about them without even thinking too hard. Why? I find small talk excruciating. Sometimes I just don't want to do it. It drains the life out of me, sapping all my energy like a giant invisible vacuum.
I remember being shocked to learn that some people feel refreshed and invigorated after meeting someone new or having a conversation with an old friend or, perhaps, even a neighbor (cringe). I thought everyone felt like curling up and disappearing after social interactions. Nope, apparently not. But I'm not alone. An introvert is defined as a"reserved or quiet person who tends to be introspective and enjoys spending time alone." Which is fine, of course, unless your job is to be surrounded by people all day long - people who seem to never stop talking to you.
Teaching is undeniably draining even for extroverts. It's physically, mentally, and emotionally demanding. Mix in the anxiety and energy expenditure typically experienced by introverts during social interactions and you've got a recipe for disaster. But that doesn't mean introverts don't make great teachers. They just need to find ways to cope with the constant onslaught of conversation and mandatory social interaction without crashing and burning. Here are 4 game changing tips you can implement right away, fellow introverts.
Tip #1: Use Nonverbal Communication
Think about it for a minute, which questions do your students ask you the most? For me, it's "what are we doing today?" and "can I go to the bathroom?" I used to hear these all day long and mustering any response at all made me feel like pulling all my hair out. They also tended to ask these questions when I was in the middle of something else, breaking my focus and leaving me feeling flustered and overwhelmed. Why don't I hear these questions anymore, ever? I implemented nonverbal communication to address them. Here's how:
Use hand signals to avoid any unnecessary interruptions
Many routine classroom questions can be asked and answered without any exchange of words at all. Questions like the dreaded "can I go to the bathroom?" but also "can I sharper my pencil?," "can I get a tissue?," "can I get water?," etc. can all be avoided with simple hand signals.
I introduce my hand signals on the very first day of school and have posters hanging at the
front of the room all year. For me they are:
Click here for editable hand signal posters you can start using right away
So when someone needs to use the bathroom, they just silently hold up two fingers. I give them a little nod and they head off. No interruption, we don't miss a beat.
Let them know what they're doing today before they ask
This is quite possibly the bane of every teacher's existence - being asked over and over and over again "what are we doing today?" But really, there's no need for any verbal exchange here at all. The key to avoiding this unnecessary social interaction is to write/post/project exactly what they'll be doing each day somewhere in your classroom. Here are some easy ways to do that:
Write a list of tasks on the board. Something like: warmup, mini-lesson about fractions, practice page, fractions card game, review...
Create reusable signs that either magnet to the board or pin to a bulletin board so that you don't have to rewrite the same stuff every day. You can't get quite as specific this way but it is a time saver and might be enough to get them off your back.
Project a to do list using Google Slides (I have a free one here!) or something like classroomscreen.com. This is great because you can easily add details without having to hand write it all out each day.
For younger grades with lower reading abilities, consider adding pictures or symbols to your to do lists.
Have a nonverbal way of getting their attention
Whether it's clapping your hands a certain way, tinging a bell, or ringing chimes, there's no need to say a word to get the attention of your class or signal that it's time for them to stop and clean up. The beauty of ringing a bell and standing back to watch as 25 students scurry to clean up, transition back to their seats, and sit quietly waiting for the next activity is indescribable. Idealized, sure, there will likely be some redirection needed. But the sooner you teach them this routine and the more consistently you use it (and reward them for following it!), the more likely they are to stick to it. Just ring the bell and relax!
Tip #2: Explicitly Teach Independent Learning
This is admittedly a HARD one for me. I'm a bit of a control freak and I have a very hard time letting people struggle. When I first started teaching, you would often find me rushing around the room, bouncing from desk to desk, answering questions, helping students with their work, redirecting students who were off task. No wonder I was completely exhausted by the end of the day. This teaching style was unsustainable for me, and it wasn't doing my students any favors either. What I didn't realize is that children need to be explicitly taught to work independently. I thought I could give them an assignment and just sit back while they all did it. Nope. This takes intentional training and practice. Here are some tips for establishing independent learning in your classroom:
Set the expectations - Describe to your class exactly what "independent work time" should look and sound like. Can they get out of their seats? Can they talk? What type of situation or emergency would require your assistance? Set clear expectations and be sure to discuss rewards/consequences with them.
Start small - In the beginning, set aside a short period of time (maybe 15 minutes) as independent work time and explain that, for those 15 minutes, they will be working alone while you do X, Y, Z (maybe you're working with a small group, grading papers, planning for next week, etc.) You can increase the amount of time gradually as students build up endurance and establish the habit of working alone.
Set a timer - Set a timer for the length of the independent work time. I suggest using a visual timer, especially for younger grades. Remind them that you will be available to help, take questions, etc. as soon as the timer goes off.
Give them an "easy" assignment - Give students tasks that are possible to accomplish independently: silent reading, a simple worksheet, or continuing a project or activity that they already started with you. Eventually, you can increase the difficulty of the independent activities but, at least in the beginning, make it very doable for them.
Reflect on and reward them for their successes - Be sure to reflect on how independent work time went after the time is up. Ask them to self-reflect: "How do you think we did working independently today? Thumbs up, down, or in the middle?, "How can we do better at working independently? What's something we can try tomorrow to make independent work time better?" You can even keep track of their growth by charting or graphing the length of successful independent work time each day. Consider throwing out a reward of some kind when independent work time goes exceptionally well.
Scale back if needed - If you've worked your way up to an hour of independent work time but they are off task and chatting to their neighbors 20 minutes in, you need to scale back. Shorten the length of time, make sure the work is easy enough, spend more time reflecting afterwards and rewarding successes.
Tip #3: It's Okay to Avoid Your Colleagues
I'll tread lightly here because colleagues can be powerful allies and wonderful friends. It's hard to be the only adult in the room all day. Sometimes having a rational conversation with another adult is a breath of fresh air. But sometimes it isn't. Sometimes it's venting and gossip and the toxic negativity and constant complaints just drain your energy even more. If that's the case, just know that you don't HAVE to subject yourself to it.
When I returned to teaching after maternity leave with my first baby, I was still nursing. I had about 20 minutes a day to pump during my "lunch break." That meant that every day, instead of joining the other teachers for lunch in the teacher's lounge, I shut myself away in my classroom with a do not disturb sign on the door. And you know what? It was awesome! I felt completely rejuvenated and refreshed after that time alone. It got me through the rest of the day. I continued my solo lunches even after I finished nursing. Sorry, not sorry.
Tip #4: When You're Off, You're Off
I'm not going to tell you to leave work at work because I know that's just not always possible as a teacher. Often grading and planning become evening or weekend activities. It sucks but it is what it is. However, that doesn't mean that you are on call 24/7.
DO NOT, under any circumstances, give parents (or students) your personal phone number. I gave out my cell phone number to parents my first year teaching in an attempt to be reachable. Trust me, you don't want to be that reachable! Your school phone number and email address will suffice.
Avoid checking and responding to emails after your contract hours have ended. Consider turning off email notifications and just checking it in the morning when you get to school.
Teaching is an exhausting and overwhelming job no matter what but, for introverts, it's exceptionally draining. I hope these 4 actionable tips help you avoid unnecessary energy expenditure and find ways to refresh and recharge during the day so that you aren't a hollow shell of a human by the time you get home!