The Extroverted Teacher's Guide To Introverted Students

By Tony Kline, Ph.D. 

simple truth:

We all have personal biases, which can have a real impact on our students.

"She just needs to talk more in class."

Those were the words a frustrated mother shared with me during one of my first parent-teacher conferences.  The mother's goal was for her child to speak up more in class.  That was it.  In her mother's opinion, that's all the daughter needed to be more successful in school; she just needed to break out of her shell.  I thought to myself, "Well, that seems easy enough."

Oh, my naivety.

As an unexperienced teacher (and strong extrovert myself), it seemed logical to not question the validity of this parent's request.  At that time, I equated students who actively spoke in class as the bright and engaged learners.  If I'm honest, and if you follow the logic of that belief system, then I probably considered those students who spoke up less in class as shy and less engaged.  

I cringe as I type that.

I think both my student's mom and I were well-intentioned, though our actions were ill-informed.  The mother was a strong extrovert and played a prominent role in our school's parent association.  She was outgoing, popular, and bounced around the school with a joyful enthusiasm that seemed to be contagious to everyone around her.

Yet it wasn't.

Her extroversion was not contagious, nor did it rub off on her daughter.  And if anything, feeling her mother's expectations to match her extroverted personality was carrying a burden of weight on this 10-year old's shoulders.  

How can you be someone you're not?  

In reflection, I recognize that the daughter was a careful listener, who was artistic both musically and in drawing.  While the daughter had one or two good friends, which may have been a disappointment to her mother, those friendships were as strong as any in my class.  These admirable qualities needed to be lifted up instead of buried in an attempt to 'make' this student more extroverted.

As an extrovert, my journey to better understand the dynamic minds of introverts continues to this day.  Since my wonderful wife is an introvert, this learning is occurring not just in my classrooms, but now in my home on a daily basis.

And here is what am I learning...

research tells us:

Accurate Descriptions of Introverts.  There is no universal definition for introverts and extroverts.  However, Susan Cain, the best-selling author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, shares some descriptors common among introverts including:

  • Introverted individuals prefer time alone to recharge after engaging in social settings.
  • Introverts feel 'just right' with less stimulation.
  • They often work slowly and deliberately.  Introverted folks like to focus on one task at a time and can have mighty powers of concentration.
  • They listen more than they talk, and think before they speak.
  • Introverts often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation.
  • They can value and feel more equipped for deep conversations than small talk.

Common Misconceptions of Introverts.  There is a variety of misconceptions about introverts, including:

  • Introverts don't like people.  This is simply untrue, they just tend to value smaller groups of friends.
  • Introverts don't like social settings.  Again this is unfounded, as introverts value deep conversations with people, though need time afterward to recharge.
  • Introverts are shy.  Being shy relates to the fear of social rejection.  Instead, introverts are just selective in their friendship circles.
  • It's easy to identify introverts.  You may be surprised by people who identify as introverted, as they may be very active in social settings.  Again, the key to introversion is understanding that all folks can be successful in social settings, it may just take more energy for introverts.

Cain notes that between one-third to half of the population are introverts.  Think about that.  Up to one-half of our students may identify as being introverted.  

The question is, do our classrooms and practice support the unique needs of these students?

try this:

  • Reflect upon our own bias regarding introverts.  When we think of these students, do we associate them as shy, timid, or even weak?  If so, we need to educate ourselves to interrupt these negative stereotypes.

  • Tally our daily feedback to introverts.  Do we spend more time building upon their strengths or more time subconsciously trying to transform them into being more extroverted?

  • Design our lessons to support the needs of all learners, introverts included.

    • Do we include deliberate quiet time to think and reflect?

    • Instead of emphasizing constant group work, do we also include independent and pair work?

    • Do we encourage introverts' voices to be heard through writing, blogging, creating podcasts, and video reflections?

    • Do we provide introverted students with some advance notice regarding questions they will answer out loud in class?

  • Do we value "more" as better?  Do we assume that it's better to share out loud more (regardless of the quality of ideas), have more friends, and provide students with more classroom stimulus and options?  If so, we are subconsciously reinforcing society's message that values extroverted characteristics over the preferences of introverts.

  • Do we use language that assumes being an introvert is something students need to fix?  The following are examples of common teacher language with a negative introvert bias:

    • She's just so quiet, I wish she would speak up more!

    • She just needs to come out of her box!

    • I'm concerned that he doesn't have a bigger group of friends!

    • If he was just more outgoing, he would be a great leader!

  • Do we strive to stretch extroverts outside of their comfort zones as often as we do with introverted students?  Yes, introverts need to learn skills that may come more natural to extroverted students (success in collaborative settings and verbally communicating their ideas).  By the same token, extroverted students need to be challenged in areas that may come more naturally to introverts (think carefully before sharing and listen deliberately before speaking).

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What's your thoughts and experiences when working with students who are introverts?  Leave your comments below.

For additional reading and referenced research, click here.