An Introvert In The Classroom
I am an introvert. I have known this for years, but before I read the word in an article, the only word I knew to describe it was shy. As a child, I barely ever answered questions in class. My face burned when a teacher called my name. I was the quietest member in group activities.
Yet, I loved learning in my own way. I spoke animatedly, as I still do, when it’s a topic I am passionate about. The darker the music festival, the better it felt; the more anonymity I had, the louder I sang.
But I decided to become a teacher – even though it is difficult for me to work an entire room of people, especially when they are such extraordinary and vastly different individuals. I used to think this was a weakness. But I realize, now, my strengths lie in creating deep bonds in small groups. A teacher’s job is to sensitively address emotional outbursts, to connect with her students and share herself deeply. That is what the teachers who left lasting impressions on me did. And so, I have sought to teach my students about introversion and extroversion, about how one is not worse than the other.
It is a message my students don’t hear enough. In a culture where we encourage always answering in class, always tracking the teacher, always participating in groups, we are doing gross injustice to our introverted children. We often confuse being an extrovert with public performance. An introvert can often perform just as well, but usually best with smaller groups of people in more relaxed settings. We confuse this with a lack of confidence, and that message can be a self-fulfilling prophecy for kids. We tell them they lack confidence, when we’re ignoring where and how they already shine, and they believe us.
Unfortunately, confidence is critical in overcoming an introvert’s natural tendencies. At 16, I apologized to a room full of people and left the stage, because I forgot my words in a debate. Now, after building confidence through practice, I volunteer to speak in front of audiences because I know I can, even if my heart still beats loudly and my palms grow cold. I do it because I enjoy the highs and deal better with the lows. But it’s taken a lifetime to get here.
I spoke to my class recently about introverted and extroverted personalities. So many of them were happy to identify themselves as introverts, saying they did not enjoy talking to new people or being in the spotlight. These students smiled in relief, knowing their teacher understood. Then, we changed everybody’s places in class. The quieter children now sit with people like them. This means they talk more (not the most ideal arrangement for me), while the most excited children now sit with children who would stimulate them. It has made me question the purpose of the traditional classroom – is it to reward the appearance of confidence, or to allow children to interact in a way that actually builds confidence?
It has led me to question other things, too. School admissions and interview processes are heavily skewed against the introvert, in favour of the child who performs on cue, the extrovert who loves interaction. One of my students’ siblings was passed over for admission in my school because he couldn’t count in an interview. But later, when I talked to the same child in a more relaxed setting, he counted for me cheerfully. What is the value in taking only one type of child? School – like society – is strongest when we recognize and value each other’s strengths and respect our differences. When we idealize extroverts, this lesson is lost.
Because they tend to excel at only one or two subjects that really interest them, introverted kids tend to delve deeply into these topics. Extroverted children may charm you with their immediate wit and charisma, but introverted children can often tell you great tales or teach you things only they know, from the observations they are uniquely positioned to make. Humera, one of my introverted students, communicates with me almost exclusively in writing, but she communicates richly. Rehan, another introvert, finishes first in Math every time. I learn from them in so many ways, as do their classmates: The other day, I asked Zaid to answer a question. Zaid hesitated. Normally, no one would have said anything, and normally, I would have encouraged him to speak up. But today, Shoyeb’s head appeared behind Zaid’s. “Didi, sharmaraha hai,” Shoyeb said supportively, deflecting the attention.
But Zaid loves poetry recitation. He is always memorizing and practicing, sometimes even in math class. For this alone, he will venture in front of an audience. Last week, he performed impromptu in front of the entire school.
Amid a sea of applause, his introverted teacher clapped loudest.