Why We Need to Make Space for Quiet Teachers

As the ice-cold applesauce poured over my head, I kept telling myself that it was for the kids. My humiliation was their gain. I would be the cool, hip teacher who was willing to embarrass himself instead of the stodgy taskmaster with high standards.

But after the completion of the all-school rally, in which several teachers and I agreed to be slimed with applesauce by students who met specific academic goals, I just felt sticky, gross, and humiliated. This is how I was going to inspire and encourage the next generation?

I know now that attempt to be cool and hip was utterly useless. My teaching and interactions with students were none the better for participating in such sophomoric stunts. In fact, for the students in my class, it was more startling than supportive, particularly for the quiet, thoughtful ones who had bonded with me because they had finally found a teacher to whom they could relate. I was a safe space—a teacher who wouldn’t constantly nag them to “be more social” or pair them up with the struggling students to push them through their work when the quiet ones had finished their own. They were happy to do well, participate when needed, and carry on with being good students; they felt comfort in having found a quiet role model in me. My departure from my quiet self shocked them.

A larger push for collaboration

Sadly, such quiet students and teachers won’t be left alone much longer. There’s a growing movement in education to turn teachers into performers and students into non-stop collaborators. This is the effect of the Extrovert Ideal. Teachers are increasingly expected to be not just knowledgeable about content and good at the art and science of teaching but also outgoing and exciting on stage. It’s the Ron Clark method run amok: in meeting after meeting, I’d constantly hear the need to excite students with learning. Unfortunately, that meant entertaining them, which doesn’t always go hand in hand with appealing to their intellect.

Every couple of weeks a YouTube video goes viral of a teacher dancing with their class or performing a hip hop routine, which is supposed to show how well the students learned the content and bonded with their teacher. The problem is that sometimes learning isn’t that exciting. You may not have enjoyed grammar rules or algebraic problem solving, but for such disciplines, persistent focus is good for the mind. Deliberate practice and the road to mastery can be thrilling, but not for the entertainment value.

Oftentimes, the best teachers are exactly the opposite of those dancers above. Think of the patient but firm and knowledgeable sage who may have guided you to a breakthrough when you were interpreting the events of history, struggling to understand a challenging piece of literature, or trying to interpret data in the lab. And even if you’re an extrovert, you may have come to value that time alone to think through a problem. As has been noted, the best and most innovative thinking often comes to us when we are alone.

A tough road for quiet students

The outlook isn’t bleak just for quiet teachers. Introverted students are pushed more and more towards group work and collaboration throughout the school day. Movements like the flipped classroom and blended learning encourage students to constantly find a solution together. Group writing, problem solving, and presentations are the future. Yes, these play a part in the world of work. However, such demands will leave our quiet students exhausted by the end of the day. And quiet teachers will be forced to facilitate a nonstop parade where no one will learn the ability to take time to reflect.

This is unfortunate because introverts bring a lot of good to the teaching profession: we value deep and meaningful conversations and content. Tackling a complex math problem after patiently and silently assessing the problem yourself causes the learning to stick far more than chatting with a partner about what methods to employ. And everyone has been in that group where a couple of people struggle through the work while trying to wrangle the others to stay on task. Introvert teachers cherish taking and granting quiet time to think—something that students are being robbed of in the push for working with groups and partners. Worst of all, quiet students face little autonomy as more lessons are designed to elevate the Extrovert Experience. Parents of quiet children may have to watch out for social burnout or even consider a different placement if things become too overwhelming.

What are quiet teachers to do?

Whether teacher or student, an introvert finds it tough enough to be in today’s classroom. Even when you value your students, want the best for them, and have structured your classroom to include both quiet and group activities, there’s a small relief at sending them off at the end of the day. But if everything moves to a model that requires a teacher to be on stage and pushing conversation all the time, the job may be untenable for those with a quiet temperament.

Quiet teachers will have to find ways to carve out time for themselves when they can even if it means declining lunch invites or using that rare prep time to reflect on their practices. If it comes down to it, have a ready-made list of alternative obligations in your mind to ensure you get the quiet time you need: you may need to catch up on grading, plan for a parent conference, or finish up an independent study packet for a student about to go on vacation. In a profession where being social is a significant part of the day, you have to allow yourself moments to catch your breath. There’s also value in just being upfront with those with whom you work: people can be surprisingly understanding if you tell them that you just need a little time alone to recharge.

Yet, there’s also value in seeking out fellow introverted teachers as a way to build camaraderie and generate new ideas. Additionally, a tiny drop of rebellion is sometimes a good thing: bucking the extrovert trend by building in reflective time for students will not only benefit the introverts in class but provide some needed thinking time for everyone.

Extroverts certainly deserve the ability to interact with one another and engage in collaborative efforts during the school day. It’s not that this shouldn’t be a component of education. It’s just the scale is tipping profoundly in one direction. Forcing introverted kids and teachers to live as extroverts throughout the day would be the equivalent of asking all the extroverts to take a vow of silence. Finding the right balance and meeting everyone’s needs is the right approach, which is what education is supposed to be about.

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  • Allyssa

    I’m in year 3 of teaching full-time, and I’m always having to intentionally find a balance between collaborative and independent work. Quite often I leave it up to the students and give an option to work in pairs or alone. The look on some of my students’ faces when I tell them they may work alone is one of pure relief. Personally, I’m a blended personality now, but in school, I would have been one of the independent workers. I do think that independent work requires more depth of thought and forces every student to be accountable for their own work. Unfortunately, that trend is not currently “in”, and the students minds are not trained to think deeply due to the overuse and stimulation of technology. It’s painful to witness.

  • Luke Chase

    I am an introverted student, and this article really articulated what I’d been thinking of for years. I’m not the most introverted of people, but without any time for thinking or just quiet time, I wouldn’t make it through a week. But in class, there’s rarely a moment of time set aside for doing activities independently or completing practice problems alone. It’s just not built in. And to a student like me, who disdains the idea of group work, having to do every question and analysis in a group is difficult. It’s draining and it is most certainly favorable towards extroverted people. And so, an introverted student either has to remove themselves from the group to be able to think and create well-planned answers, or suffer through the off-task discussion.I love this article so much because Derek Walter really does reveal all that from a whole separate perspective.

  • Zizi

    Thank you for this great article. I am planning for the year right now. And I am going to allow for more not less thoughtful quiet time in my classroom.

  • Leighton Dewes

    I loved this article. I’m an ESL teacher who has worked in many countries all over the world. In my last job in Thailand, my introverted nature was fully accepted. I currently work in Korea and here I am told I need to be more of that circus performer discussed in the article. Parents expect me to be more active, louder, friendlier and smile more. It’s funny because adults in this culture really display none of these extroverted characteristics. It’s articles like this that help me feel ok with being who I am as an introverted teacher.

  • Central Cal Girl

    A few here mentioned the group projects their students have been required to participate in and wondered if it is the number of students (my classes had 37 most years) that push teachers to assign group work. In my experience it was not. It was the application of the Common Core standards that lead to this increase. I am not a Common Core hater, I think the standards needed updating and many (especially the math) have been improved. Taken to the extreme is the collaborative experience. It takes so much time just to teach kids how to properly collaborate that it reduces the amount of time left to actually teach the content. And it is suggested by many administrators that EVERY lesson needs a collaborative piece. Many kids quietly groaned everytime I mentioned we were going to work with our knee partners or our pre-set groupings to learn a particular concept. Even some highly distractable kids (the ones you might think would relish having a more focused partner) would be tired of being told what to do by a peer. Teachers have less control over what they teach and now how they teach than one might think. One of several reasons I am now a newly retired teacher. I’ll miss the kids but not the system.

  • Irene Rubio

    This article came to me in the right moment, as these late days I am struggling with the idea of becoming a teacher. On one side I think I am a very capable person, filled with passion and will to learn and teach, but on the other side, I am a very quiet type of person too. I find myself overwhelmed with the idea of not only being a teacher, but an entertainer, constantly making jokes and being exposed to big groups of people. I am realizing that this is not absolutely necessary (just a media projection of what teachers should be) and I am trying to love and valuate myself as the introvert I am, and thinking how positive this teaching experience would be for me (encouraging my shy side to go over the fear of exposing myself and finally being able of sharing my passion) and for the introverted students, as I will be able to offer them a comfortable environment. So thank you for this kind of articles, they are just what I need in this period of my life, to help me becoming what I always desired to be but denied to myself just because I am intoxicated with all the bullshit about how we should be in order to fit in the system.

  • Jeff Pickering

    As someone who has worked in an office environment for almost 40 years (sob), I know the importance of being able to work alone. Yes, there are meetings, but the majority of work time is spent working on your work, alone. Are we preparing students for this?

  • Jim strohmeyer

    I have taught over 30 years. This article is on point. As time passes, I have needed more time to recharge after another noisey day. In my district, the children are of both extremes-either extremely extroverted or the polar opposite. I have comforted the quiet students who are in tears due to the over stimulation. They ask to lunch with me because of the chaos in the cafeteria. It is a shame. I wish our system had dedicated quiet schools, that offered a curriculum for introverted students and teachers.

  • Richard Lay

    After 28 years of teaching I am retiring. I have just reached the end of my emotional reserve. One of the reasons for my retirement is the never ending meetings. Another reason is that all planning is supposed to be done in a collaborative setting. There is no time for individual reflection.

  • Karen Thomas

    I am not a teacher, I am a parent (and an introvert). But I feel like I can really understand and appreciate this situation, especially from my child’s perspective. My daughter (age 12) is not an introvert, however I continually see the detrimental affect that the constant group projects she is required to do at school (and outside of school as homework) have on her even with her extroverted personality. All of her classes (except for math so far) require ongoing group projects, even group writing assignments, which causes endless frustration. The emphasis is repeatedly on compromising and getting along, rather than on being able to do deep work. Yes, kids need to learn good social skills and how to get along with others, but surely they have more than enough opportunities to do that throughout their school day (and in sports and other things they do), and yes, when we become adults we often have to work with others on projects, but, I see this forced group collaboration watering down the learning so much, taking huge amounts of time (the logistics of getting a bunch of kids who live all over town together outside of school to do their required group work can be next to impossible) and just leading to frustration for the kids and the parents. I have often wondered lately if one of the main reasons teachers are requiring so many group projects is so that they will have fewer projects to grade (since in our public schools they have 32 kids in their classes). Quiet reflection time appears to be non-existent, for the students and I would imagine also for the teachers. There must be a better way!

    • amylynn1022

      We didn’t have an overwhelming number of group projects when I was in school but I don’t remember many that went well. There seemed to be an assumption that if you throw a group of students together that they would automatically know how to work together. And group writing assignments were the worst! Usually one person ended up writing most of it.

      We were almost never expected to get together on our own, at least not until high school and even then not frequently. Expecting 12 year-olds to get together after school for incessant group work is unreasonable. Maybe if a group of parents got together and complained?

  • Lily Argus

    I am in my final year of my teaching degree and seriously considering doing something else. I love teaching and I love the students but it takes a big toll on me emotionally, physically and mentally. I struggle to adjust back to studying/working life after three weeks of heavy socialising and late nights. I have been questioned by many people including my lecturers at uni as to why I am studying to be a teacher when I’m so quiet. At my best moments I think I need to do this to create balance, to offer a different perspective. During my darkest moments I wonder what is the point in martyring myself? I can’t be effective teacher and a good role model to my students if I’m exhausted and crabby all the time. I remember many quiet teachers as a student who were frustrated or eaten alive by the students. All of them let the profession. I wonder if I will do the same.

    • Jim strohmeyer

      I hope you have a strong and marketable minor. Try teaching for a year in a suburban district that has low pupil/teacher ratios. If you find it to be detrimental to your health and sanity, dust off your minor and don’t look back.

    • Pax

      Please don’t give up. The ‘system’ needs you!- and although I can’t speak from experience I hope that as you progress through the ranks you may acquire enough agency to make changes, first to increase your own comfort levels and then those of others, and perhaps even, through policy eventually, thousands or millions of them. Very best of luck Lily.

    • Susan Vincent

      Lily, I’m wondering what field in education you are entering. I was a first grade teacher who became a reading specialist. This was a great niche for me, as I only taught small groups of children or 1-1. After 25 years, I’m now leaving my district for college-level teaching, which I think I will absolutely love. Another great niche!

      I had a rewarding career in public education for two reasons: I found a niche that let me use my strengths, AND I found a field (literacy) that I am so passionate about that I’m willing to give presentations, present at conferences, lead professional development, and speak up in groups about my opinion.

      Maybe there are niches for you to explore as well!

      (And BTW, for 25 years I did NOT eat in the teachers’ lounge!!!)

      • Valerie Midkiff

        I will second that. I got my ESOL endorsement so I could work with small groups of students and really focus on their needs. Unfortunately, the collaboration bug has hit that subset of teaching, too. We are constantly encouraged to co-plan ESL lessons with classroom teachers and co-teach when possible. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, but when there is only of me and 14 of them, that isn’t truly possible. Most teachers, too, aren’t up for planning lessons when they have all the other subjects to teach. I’m hoping to continue using the pull-out model, but use the familiar topics from social studies and science where it is appropriate. I’ve noticed that reading specialists and sped specialists are facing those same pressures. It makes for a loud classroom.

  • I really love this article and I think the question of how we educate quiet kids (and create environments suitable for quiet teachers) is so important. In some ways I was really lucky with my education and I loved learning and going to school. I was also socially awkward and often isolated and struggled to make friends — in part because classrooms and recesses didn’t foster the kinds of social interaction I was comfortable with (I get overwhelmed easily and prefer quiet conversation). It’s a shame because school is such a natural fit for quiet kids who love learning, but the joy is so easily lost if the classroom is focused on group work, “entertainment”, or other activities that make quiet kids feel overwhelmed and isolated…

  • Alexis Bucknam

    Unfortunately my school left no space for quiet reflection, as each classroom was shared and the “teacher’s lounge” was connected to the front office. After two years, I left the profession too burnt out to stay, no matter how much I loved my students.

    • Domingo Mespolet

      Some of the kindest and most compassionate teachers I’ve met end up leaving the profession disillusioned by the system. Same thing happened to me after 5 years, then again after 4 years in a different setting. I burned out too, couldn’t be part of such a coercive system. Good for you for making the right decision for your own health.