I just read an article about a teacher’s struggle with how to handle introverted students in her classroom (Introverted Kids Need to Learn to Speak up in School, the Atlantic). She was, along with a majority of teachers, an extrovert. She stated she married an introvert and has an introverted child of her own, so says she understands the issue and knows the struggle is real. She was faced with a powerful pedagogical dilemma. Should she continue to grade participation – participation defined as speaking out in class? In the end, she decided that, while she ‘understood’ the dilemma her introverted students find themselves, she would continue to include in her summative assessment points for verbal participation in class discussion.
Ouch! Without providing any insight on how she planned to structure a learning environment that would support this assessment, she is not showing sensitivity to her introverted students, and choosing, out of ignorance, to disadvantage those students in her class with introverted tendencies.
I am an teacher, with a staunchly embedded introverted personality type. I hated my K-12 schooling experience with a deep passion. I believe this was largely due to being introverted in a learning environment designed for extroverts. I know I had teachers that were kind, but I don’t remember any teachers that took me aside and helped me with a plan for success. I did OK, in fact I have earned a PhD in education, but I woke up each morning in those painful years with a gut filled with despair about spending the day in a hostile environment. I believe one of the reasons I chose teaching as a career was to make a difference for children like me. In so doing, I think I also set about revisiting my own childhood trying to heel my childhood wounds.
To an extent, I agree with the teacher in the article. We do have a commitment to all our students – to not let them side-step expectations because of personality. The world is an extroverted world, and these introverted students need to learn to operate within the predominant culture. But we are also called to differentiate learning for all our students for a wide variety of reasons, including introversion. What does participation mean? I tell my university teaching methods students they are expected to actively participate. We follow by discussing the multiple ways that participation might look, only one of which is speaking up during class discussions. I consciously make respectful room for all students on the introvert/extrovert continuum.
As an elementary teacher, I worked hard to develop a classroom learning environment that was safe – physically and emotionally. Only with the support of this deep sense of safety can a deeply shy student begin to venture out into class dialog. Note the reference to shy. Shy and introversion are often correlated, but are two different constructs.
I remember one 5th grade girl in my class that was painfully shy (I’ll call her Sue). Sue never spoke up in class. It took concentration on my part to hear her even if the room was quietly working and I was right next to her. My goal was to help Sue find the space and courage to speak up in class. I talked privately with her (included her parents) and agreed to a plan. I told her I would call on her the next day. I told her what the topic was and what the question would be. In this way, she had the time to prepare. I would make it a natural event without any knowledge by other students that this was in any way staged. The next day came. I called on Sue and she quietly offered a response. It was short and still quiet, but it was a response! We later debriefed the experience. She felt good about it and was willing to continue working on this. We similarly “staged” a number of experiences like this, but then moved on to more natural discussion. By the end of the year, she frequently had her hand up and offered thoughts during class. She remained quiet, she was still an introvert, still shy, but on her way to developing the skills necessary to ‘participate’ in class discussions.
In a similar way to Sue, I remain an introvert. It is part of my makeup, always has been and always will be. Facing a large gathering, I still have to work myself up to the task of being socially engaged for an extended period of time and am thoroughly drained when it is over. But I have learned ways to successfully cope with my shy nature. It remains part of me, but I have learned to set it aside.
The typical classroom is designed for extroverts – it is our call as educators to differentiate, to be on the lookout for the introverted and shy students in our classrooms. We need to intentionally create a safe environment and scaffold support for them to fully participate. We need to exercise extensive amounts of protected wait time. We need to seek them out, because they will not seek us out. It is not part of our nature.
Thank you for looking out for kids like Sue and like me.