Dear Introverted Teacher, I See You
In this podcast episode, I wanted to share some of the things I learned as an introverted educator. I’m not sure if I’ve ever mentioned this on the show before, but I am, in fact, an introvert. Most of the time when I reveal this to folks or it just comes up, people are shocked. “But you’re so talkative!” or “You’re such a good storyteller!” or “Really?” are common responses. I always have to remind people that I do love storytelling and I do have the gift of gab, but when all is said and done, when the stories are told and the belly laughs quiet, I crave the cozy cocoon of quiet and solitude. It’s grounding and restorative for me and I need it if I’m going to be at my best
One night, I recall it was close to Halloween of 2019, I was on the drive home from a long day at school and I wasn’t feeling physically tired but I still just felt exhausted. Once I got home, I just plopped into the chair in the bedroom, and sobbed, much to my husband’s confusion.
As I sat there on the chair, in the midst of my sobbing, it clicked. The exhaustion wasn’t physical. It was more of emotional and mental fatigue. And that’s when it clicked.
I’m an introvert.
At the time, I spent every day in a constant relationship with 90 6th-graders…who didn’t (and couldn’t) have the capacity to reciprocate the investment. Unlike a friendship or a marriage, it was a one-sided partnership where the other parties would never be able to pour into me the way I poured into them. I gave and gave because I wanted to, but then I was depleted at the end of every day. It took me years, the majority of my teaching career actually, to recognize the tension that existed between who I am at my core and who I needed ( and wanted ) to be for my students. While I loved connecting with my students and investing in their success, I realized that my capacity to show up well was being negatively impacted and I knew I needed to make adjustments that would allow me to simultaneously protect my peace and be empathetic.
For the longest time, I thought my introvertedness only applied to relationships within my personal life. That’s probably because so many teachers at some point in their careers have heard that we have to check out personal lives at the door of our classrooms. I was no exception, and so for a long time I wasn’t showing up as my full authentic self and I was discounting the fact that there’s really no way to separate your very personhood from your job. I didn’t recognize that there was no way for me to divorce aspects of myself from the work. And so for years, I felt that the energy drain was “what I signed up for” until that night in 2019 when it struck me that every part of my being, right down to my introversion, doesn’t just impact my personal relationships, it permeates every relational interaction I have, including the ones with students.
Before I share my top tips for maintaining your peace as an introvert and educator, I think it’s important to make sure we’re being very clear about what it means to be an introvert or extrovert. The biggest myth about both of these personality types is that they either like or don’t like social settings. The truth is that it’s about whether social situations act as “deposits” or “withdrawals” from a person’s energy account. While it is likely that extroverts may enjoy social situations for the energy “deposits”, the satisfaction experienced by introverts and extroverts alike is not mutually exclusive. I, for example, enjoy being social but my “people meter” reaches a point where I long for home and for silence even when it comes to people I love and care about.
SO, it’s not about the joy an introvert or extrovert derives from social settings as much as it’s about the way it adds to or (takes from) your energy reserves. The tips I’m sharing in this episode are from my personal experience as an introvert and educator. I hope they empower you to think about how you can protect your energy so you can show up well in and out of your classroom
Ways to Protect Your Energy as an Introvert
Tip #1 -Learn to Detach with Love.
"Detach with love." This is an idea that’s prominent in therapeutic spaces that centers on the notion that you can still invest in a relationship without allowing it to drain you. Detaching with love is about accepting ownership for how you show up in a relationship by:
a.) releasing expectations
b.) setting clear boundaries that ultimately help you create and maintain healthier relationships.
In the context of classroom teaching, so many of us have unhealthy saviorism complexes that make us overly attached to our students and their outcomes. Now some of you may have one eyebrow raised but hear me out…
If you’ve been a teacher, then you’ve had that one student who tugged at your heartstrings. For me, it was always the student who was perceived as the underdog, he kid who made questionable decisions in other classes, but not mine, the kid who had the occasional flashes of brilliance that were overshadowed by circumstance and a system that wasn’t set up to serve him (or her) well in the first place.
In my first year teaching middle school, I had one such student in my 2nd Block class. He was hard-headed and abrasive, but also funny and angry. He had a reputation among the other teachers for off-the-wall behavior but my experience with him was very different. While he wasn’t always compliant and we didn’t always agree, we had a level of mutual respect---a kind of silent contract. I was determined to lean into that relationship to help make him better. I pushed. He pushed back. And sometimes he pushed harder. While I never had major issues with this student, we’d make so much progress only for him to take what seemed like 100 steps back. I lost sleep thinking about how I could reach this child. I constantly racked my brain for ideas of how I could inspire him to believe in himself and see beyond the anger. Hell, sometimes, I even became angry and frustrated because it seemed like my efforts went in vain. Though I realize that oftentimes a lot of the work we put in has delayed results, it was still so disheartening to feel like I was pouring so much of myself into this kid only to be betrayed. But once I could identify that the betrayal occurred, I recognized just how much I was pouring into this student and how much it was impacting my overall peace and my capacity to show up well for myself and for my other students. I decided then and there that it was time to detach with love.
In this case, “detaching with love” meant I needed to define clear boundaries within myself as well as with the student. It also meant accepting the reality that doing everything you can doesn’t mean that wholesale change will occur. I wasn’t giving up, but I needed to understand that this student had other forces working in his life that didn’t necessarily support or align with my hopes for him. Finally, detaching with love required me to look inward and really address my role as his teacher and identify the saviorism that existed within my own ideology.
Detaching with love turned out to be the best decision I could have made for my relationship with that student. At first, it was hard, it felt like I was quitting on him because I had been conditioned to believe that being a good teacher means giving everything you have. But over time, it became easier and I found that I became less attached to the outcome, more focused on the small wins of the present moments, and I was less disappointed when he made a poor choice.
I want to be clear that detachment is not the same as withdrawal. We don’t have to create physical or emotional walls that are impermeable. The goal of detachment is so we can nurture a more healthy version of the relationship and show up as our best selves so we can do our part to sustain the relationship too.
Tip #2-Understand & Implement Boundaries
Once I was clear about my introversion, I became mindful. I started to notice how I felt after a night out with friends or an hours-long phone conversation. When I felt ill or exhausted, I could feel that I needed time alone and as I paid attention, I was able to name and then act.
Several years ago, my husband, Aaron, used to call me every day on his way home from work. We would talk about the day and while I enjoyed the fact he wanted to debrief, I found myself longing for space to be silent. I had spent all day at school managing and nurturing relationships with students and families and colleagues. By the time I got into my car each day, what I craved most was silence and solitude. Eventually, I shared this with Aaron and I told him that I loved him and wanted to hear about his day, but that I needed time to decompress after work so that I could be more present once he got home. This is an important boundary that we still maintain even now and we both understand that I’m not pushing him away but rather, I’m making sure I hold space for him so that I can be the kind of present, compassionate partner he deserves.
These kinds of boundaries we need extend to friends and work colleagues ,especially work colleagues. Your “work family” is a myth. Don’t allow folks at your job to overstep or ignore your boundaries in the name of family. While you care about what you do, always remember, it’s a job and you and your family matter most.
In the last 4 years of my teaching career, I developed “office hours” during the school day that I communicated with my students and their families. I let them know that from the hours of 8 am to 4:30 pm, I’d be available to read and reply to emails or answer phone calls. After 4:30 pm though, no calls or emails would be responded to until at least 8 am the following day. Now, every school’s policy is different, but at every school, I worked at eachers were expected to respond to emails within 24-48 hours. Even with my self-imposed office hours, I was still able to adhere to district guidelines because I was still responding within the given time frame. What I found is that people respected my hours because I was transparent and communicated them upfront. And then once I communicated them, I held firm. For me, the office hours helped me transition from work to home. They also ended up making me more productive at work. Because I knew that 4:30 was a boundary for me, it helped me prioritize parent communication in a way that made it easy for me to step away at 4:30 every day. I also experienced less stress because I wasn’t reading parent emails or emails from administrators which would almost always cause stress.
Take a moment to think about what drains your energy and consider strategies you can implement to manage the “drain” so that you are creating space for things that nourish you and fill your cup.
Tip #3- Make A Plan
Right now, most of y’all have something in your car “just in case.” Maybe it’s one of those battery chargers or a pack of cheese peanut butter crackers in your glove box. If you’re a parent, you have an entire bag filled with “just in case.” This reminds me of a comedy sketch Chris Rock did years back where he talked about how insurance should be called “in-case shit.” I mean if you think about it, we are all paying monthly premiums in the event that catastrophe strikes and insurance can pitch in. Catastrophes are rare though and in most cases, the money we shell out each month to protect our cars and our homes, and our assets is to cover a hypothetical event that may never happen. And here’s the thing...we are okay with it! Why? Because there’s comfort and confidence that comes from knowing that we are good if that hypothetical disaster strikes.
The same way we prepare for all these other moments in our lives is the same way you should be prepared as an introvert. You can’t always predict exactly when or how social situations may deplete you so you need a go-to plan that you can deploy in case shit happens (see what I did there?).
Maybe, you keep your favorite book in the glove box of your car so you can go chill out and get a quick recharge that way, or maybe you have a favorite meditation app, or you’re like me and you just enjoy silence. Maybe you and your friend or partner can designate a code word that, when you say it, your person automatically understands what’s happening and how to pivot. No matter what you decide, make it something simple so you can remove yourself from the situation quickly and smoothly.
Ultimately, it’s about being mindful---it’s about paying attention on purpose so that you can protect your energy and show up well in any space you occupy. Whether you’re introvert, extrovert, or ambivert it’s about having the self-awareness to understand what fills you up and creating boundaries that hold space for those experiences and interactions where you can show up as the most confident, conscious, energetic, authentic version of yourself yet.
Resources Mentioned in this Episode
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