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Classroom Management: Helping Introverts Thrive

Jordan Catapano

You worry about that quiet student. The one who prefers to sit in the back, keeps their thoughts to themselves, seems stressed in casual conversations, and tends to work alone when given the option. They complete all their work well and on time, but they also get extremely nervous about giving speeches or even just interacting with others in small, collaborative groups. You make it your mission to use classroom management get to the bottom of this student’s psyche, to figure out what’s wrong, and to help transform them into an exuberant, outgoing, confident young person they were meant to be.

This worrying teacher was me, early in my career. I grew up as a gregarious student who loved sharing my ideas in class, loved working with others, and grew uncomfortable if alone with my interior monologue for too long. And as a teacher I wanted to use classroom management to help those quieter students come out of their shells and, well, turn into little versions of my outgoing self.

Unfortunately, our culture increasingly places an overemphasis on these outgoing characteristics. Our shift in education towards a more collaborative, interactive environment places value on those students who navigate peer interactions like an experienced captain on a familiar trade route. But, as Susan Cain points out in her book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” our culture’s value of the “Extrovert ideal” puts introverts not only at a disadvantage, but also overlooks the types of qualities and contributions an introvert might possess.

Classroom Management: What Is An Introvert?

I had a highly self-aware introvert friend who used to joke about starting a club for introverts. “No one would show up for the meeting. It would be considered a success!” he’d muse. We’d laugh, but my extravert self still wondered what exactly his deal was. Why did he prefer to be alone?

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Psychologist Carl Jung is credited with contriving the initial distinctions between extroversion and introversion in his study of personalities in the 1920s. It’s important to think of introversion and extroversion on a spectrum; while most people operate with both aspects of introversion and extroversion in their day-to-day lives, one of these traits tends to dominate and express itself in the preponderance of a person’s habits. And I recently learned that someone who falls in the middle of the spectrum can be referred to as an ambivert.”

Myers and Myers, in their 1980 book “Gifts Differing,” explained the introvert’s main focus is in the internal world of ideas and concepts; the extrovert’s primary focus is on the external world of people and activities. Having an inclination towards one end of the spectrum or the other ends up impacting both of how an individual thinks and acts, and how others may perceive that individual.

Susan Cain, in her 2012 TED Talk, distinguishes between shyness and introversion. “Shyness,” she says, “Is about fear of social judgment … introverts feel at their most alive and their most switched on and their most capable when they are in quieter, more low-key environments.” So thinking of an introvert as shy is a mischaracterization. Shyness is not the point: The point is that while extroverts crave stimulation from other people and activities, introverts feel their “Most alive” when they are living in their own internal world. Dr. Marti Olsen Laney, in her 2002 book “The Introvert Advantage: How Quiet People Can Thrive in an Extrovert World,” even goes so far as to suggest that introverts are literally “Wired” that way mentally and physiologically. A 2013 study in the Frontiers of Human Neuroscience similarly found that extroverts and introverts processed rewards from their environmental interactions differently.

So your introverted students aren’t the ones who are jumping out of their seat to engage in the next activity or conversation. Their personalities make them more prone to some of the following characteristics:

  • They feel overwhelmed or overstimulated by crowds.
  • They prefer deep conversations to small talk.
  • They are drawn towards solitary tasks.
  • They need time to process and think before responding to peers.
  • Their best work results from time alone.

Sound like any students you know? Well, if you’re like me in my first years of teaching, I used to think these students had problems that needed to be overcome. After all, my job is to help students become outgoing, charming, amiable contributors to society, right?

Not so fast. Susan Cain (who, if you can’t tell already, is a leader in this topic) writes in a New York Times post about what she calls the “Rise of the New Groupthink.” This groupthink, she argues, is our cultural belief that, “Creativity and achievement comes from an oddly gregarious place” despite research strongly suggesting, “People are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption.” Our classes have shifted to collaboration-centric environments which promotes extroversion as the ideal, overlooking how our introverts – our thinkers, our lone geniuses, our detail-oriented craftsmen – have strengths outside of what is becoming more and more the preferred “Norm.”

Our society has shifted away from its industrial and agrarian roots. In such eras, our culture valued individuals who exhibited hard work, discipline, perseverance, and (gasp!) solitary focus on a single task. But today’s economy is different: Today’s economy values ideas, charisma, teamwork, and the people-person. The top skills employers look for include communication, teamwork, and the ability to “Sell and influence others.” Although more introvert-oriented skills also make the list, the message sent to students is that extroversion is in, and solitude is weird.

What Introverts Have to Offer

But let’s not fall into the trap that I did early in my career and believe it our mission to help introverts overcome their problem. As I’ve told so many of my students, I’m not here to change who they are, but I am here to help them turn into a better version of themselves. Instead of seeing introversion as a weakness, let’s begin seeing this as a strength and consider what introverts might be good at and how we can help them leverage their disposition.

More focused on the task at hand. As introverts tend to prefer to work in solitude and isolation, this means they like to work in an environment free from distraction. Social interaction, though valuable in many ways, is also a hotbed for all kinds of not-so-focused-on-the-task activities.

Privacy is productive. I’ve told my students, “Silence is the sound of thinking” and have observed that students often get the most accomplished when working independently. When students are socially and even physically separated from others, it gives them a chance to buckle down and zero in on their work … and get it done. Extroverts might have their perks, but they are rarely more productive.

Deep thinking. Related to the previous two listed strengths, because introverts will focus and produce, they are more prone toward deep thinking. Thinking happens in slow, non-linear paths. The fewer interruptions, the more depth those thoughts can access. Artists, scientists, philosophers, inventors – innovators of every shape and size – are the ones who can block out all else and just think.

Strong values. Introverts are naturally self-reflective, which leads to the cultivation of strong convictions and principles. These students might lack the charisma of extroverts (though maybe not), but they aren’t as interested in people-pleasing or bending themselves to fit in better with the crowd.

Solitude leads to deep learning. Mastery comes from focus, dedication, and repetition. If individuals must acquiesce their needs to the needs of the group, then they may never gain full independent mastery of a subject or skill. Even though we like to offer group activities and even group assessments, we are ultimately responsible for the success of each individual. Students need to learn to study, practice, and problem-solve on their own, and introverts have the propensity to seek out the sort of solitude necessary to truly learn.

More ownership over tasks. Deeper learning is accompanied by more personal ownership. The harder an individual student works to attain their personal level of mastery, the more pride and ownership they feel over the outcome. Introverted students are more likely to possess an intrinsic motivation that drives their learning and fuels their input and their output.

They make great leaders. Surprisingly, introverts make great leaders. Just look at their list of characteristics again: Calm, deep thinker, productive, creative. They might not gravitate towards schmoozing a room of investors, but they do more instinctively let reason guide their decisions and prefer to process and internalize information in a way that can benefit a large group.

How We Can Help Them Thrive

So if we have introverts amongst our classes (and we do, since introverts are anywhere from one-third to one-half the population), and we want to help these introverts thrive, what can we do? Check out this list of suggestions, many of which overlap and complement one another.

Facilitate asynchronous communication. “Asynchronous” communication means communication that isn’t happening all at the same time. Small groups and one-on-one conversations are not asynchronous; discussion boards, shared documents, and self-paced learning are. In fact, research has shown that while synchronous group collaboration isn’t as powerful as we recently thought, asynchronous interactions across time and space actually produce more powerful thoughts. Take advantage of the growing wealth of ed-tech tools that can facilitate more thoughtful responses from all your students, giving them the time and space many introverts require to comfortably process and communicate.

Allow time to think and process. Sometimes we expect answers and production right away from our students. I used to value most the students who could produce a response immediately. Then I had a student who would sit and do nothing, nothing, nothing in class … only to come back the next day with marvelous results. Her secret: Time to think things through. When we ask our students to work, think, or produce, it’s important especially for our introverts to have the opportunity to genuinely think things through. Giving them the time to do so will empower them.

Provide space to exist away from others. Along with time to think and process, give students the physical space that allows them to comfortably remove themselves from others. It’s difficult to experience solitude when in close proximity to others, even when everyone is minding their own business. If possible, create a safe space in your classroom, such as a nook, study carrel, or chair away from the rest of the classroom furniture. And even though classroom models are shifting towards pods and tables, don’t hesitate to offer individual desks where students can work more independently.

Have reasonable expectations. Introverts are less inclined towards small talk, group interactions, and quick social responses. So don’t demand these from them – at least not all the time. Understand that each student is different, and the outgoing participation machines aren’t better or worse than the students whom you rarely here from in class discussions.

Build relationships. It might be engaging to interact with an enthusiastic extrovert, but remember that introverts are more likely to enjoy deep, rich conversations. You can’t necessarily have such a conversation in passing, but do get to know your introverted students enough to know what interests them and make time on occasion to engage them in a more sincere conversation.

Teach both collaboration and independence. Anyone will admit that being able to work and communicate with others is an essential task, and we can’t ignore it just because a student claims introversion. But we don’t want to cater toward the “Extrovert ideal” either. It’s important to keep all approaches in balance. Push students out of their comfort zones to explore new skills, approaches, or interactions, but also give students opportunity to learn and interact in the ways they see fit.

Steve Wozniak – the famous co-founder of Apple – noted in his memoir an unusual piece of advice: “I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone ... Not on a committee. Not on a team.” While this advice seems to fly in the face of much of what we strive to accomplish in our collaborative, student-centered classrooms, he has a point.

Introverts are at their best when they live in their heads. As teachers, we’re not in the business of telling students how to be their best – we’re just in the business of helping students to realize their own best versions of themselves.

What do you do for your introverted students? Share your advice and experiences with our community in the comments below!

Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website www.jordancatapano.us.