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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Introversion and the Invisible Adolescent

A few years ago, one of my teacher interns at San Francisco State University wrote a paper that was like the voice of a trickster, waking me up and reminding me of what I occasionally missed as a teacher. The assignment was to recall what it was like for them when they were in high school and to write a letter to their high school teachers advising them about how they might have better served them as students.

My student, Rich DeNagel, wrote:

"Ninth grade was probably the worst year of my life. My home life was in shambles, and I was totally checked out of school. I was the quiet kid who showed up and never said a word. I had no ability to focus. Midway through the school year, my sister died. After that I spun into outer space. I felt so alone. I just wanted to talk to someone, anyone. I still showed up to school but nothing happened.

My home life deteriorated further the next years, and the feeling of isolation increased. School was a refuge from home, yet I felt alone at school. I was again the quiet kid who sat in class, doing and saying nothing. No one noticed.

I could have killed myself and I don't think the teachers would have known which kid it was. I didn't make contact with any of them . . . I don't remember any of them trying to talk to me.

I wanted so badly to talk to someone, anyone. I felt so alone. If anyone had tried to talk to me, I would have talked. No one ever did. I went through the world of school unnoticed.

As teachers, you need to be aware and attentive of all your students. Students are giving you messages all the time . . . The quiet ones may be just as troubled as the difficult ones. Try to touch base with each student. Get to know each one. Learn about them. Find out about what is going on at home. If you try to get to know them, they may respond to you and in turn respond to your class and maybe even school."

The Silent Type

Rich's message is clear and powerful. Every teacher should read it and reread it regularly. Fortunately there are also other recent voices that amplify the challenge and the ways to address it.

Susan Cain's brilliant new book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, not only does a superb job of discussing the limitations created by an extrovert-centric value system, but specifically describes how teachers and parents can meet the challenge of nurturing "quiet kids in a world that can't hear them." It's also interesting that both Cain and Jonah Lehrer, in his best-selling book Imagine: How Creativity Works, caution us about the limitations of group decision making, a context in which extroverts dominate and the creative thinking of introverts most often gets lost. This is a powerful reminder to teachers to balance the time provided for group processes with time for individual exploration and contributions.

I tend to shy away from books that focus on helping a child to "overcome" being an introvert. Although I think it's important to help introverted children learn to effectively navigate our extrovert-dominated world, I don't see introversion as a characteristic that needs to be "overcome," and neither do psychologists. They see it as an enduring trait, not a "state." I think teachers and parents need to place a higher value on introversion, a corrective especially well provided by Cain. But I think that Laurie Helgoe's Introvert Power does a good job of both embracing introversion and helping introverts learn to effectively use their strengths. A particularly valuable book in terms of helping kids learn the limits of self-containment while valuing and using their introversion, it is also a useful resource for teachers.

Listening Through the Noise

Having grown up as an introverted kid myself, I've always been aware that rewards for classroom engagement should not be measured only by oral contributions. Many of my best students were ones who rarely spoke in the large group, were active in smaller groups (and the smaller the better) and had a great deal to share with me privately in papers. I especially went out of my way to spend time responding to papers with comments, sometimes appropriately personal, thus encouraging a dialogue. I also took every opportunity I had to reach out to these kids, often just with a quick comment after the bell rang.

It's easier to recognize the challenge Rich describes than it is to meet it. Faced with four or five classes of more than 25 students, it's difficult for teachers to be aware of each student. It's also natural for the most difficult and the most talented to stand out. Yet it is obviously critical that we remain on the lookout for those who behave well and say little, for the invisible student in back of the room who we might recognize as withdrawn or even depressed if we looked just a little more carefully. And then it's important to reach out to that student, establish contact, and provide him or her with the opportunity to be and feel known.

Our classrooms contain too many forgotten introverted students who may need help but are not getting it and/or have gifts that aren't being either elicited or supported. It's important to remember that while Rich survived his high school experience and learned from it, some quiet students may not. Which is why -- amid all the noise and excitement of our extroverted society -- we must tap into the hidden gifts of our invisible adolescents as well.

Comments (8)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Kelley Hazen's picture
Kelley Hazen
Teacher/Lecturer/Citizen www.manadoob.com

so much rich soil here! The introverted person has already tapped into that fertile intuitive place that for others can be so hard to reach.
I have used the idea of 'a letter to self' at the beginning of each year to encourage students to consider their time ahead. They write, seal & read at the end of the year, providing an opportunity for a private look at the world in which they live & participate.
Anonymous letters to teachers by students throughout the year in the guise of writing exercises shed light, give a voice.
One of the most valuable opportunities a teacher gave me was teaching me to journal giving my introverted voice a destination & an organization allowing greater understanding of myself and a vital tool for the release of home and social frustrations. Writing can be such a gift, such a release particularly in the journal state w/o boundaries or rules.
Different environments for learning - the desk-less classroom can be supportive of this - an idea suggested by The Orion School in Atlanta. A fresh face & configuration for small groups, teams of 2 & individual work.
Likewise, different learning methods. Right & wrong is not always the key. Asking thoughtful questions that explore personal opinion, experience & response where there is no right and wrong, levels the playing field - all students have equal access.
I love that in another blog today Larry Ferlazzo (7 Tips Building Positive Relationships for ELL) suggests taking a walk around campus w students as an opportunity to 'check in'. I can't speak enough about the power of Nature & going outside the classroom to free up exchange and make discoveries.
Every student has gifts. We have the opportunity & the pleasure of discovering new ways to discover Them.

Mark Phillips's picture
Mark Phillips
Teacher and Educational Journalist
Blogger 2014

I enjoyed your comments and, of course, also appreciate what you're doing.

Just back from two weeks on the trails in Zion, Bryce and other Southwest marvels, I plan to write one of my next ones about kids, schools, and the wilderness.

D.F.'s picture

The problem discussed here is real, but the solution offered is no solution at all. "Be more aware" isn't a set of actions; it's a call to change one's state of being--and if we're not going to ask students to do it (rightly) then we should be cautious about telling teachers to do it. It seems to suggest that the teachers should develop magical telepathic powers.

What we should actually do is examine the problems of introverted students, some of whom will have troubled home lives and some of whom will be healthy kids who prefer a quieter demeanor, and then we should supply our teachers with specific actions that they can perform. And if we can't think of any, then we shouldn't be shocked that these students' teachers can't either.

Aubrey's picture

I taught in school here in the Philippines for only three years. I am glad I did. I meet a lot of families with different struggles from financial, family relationship problems to being a single parent. I attended many professional development workshops and some trainings. One of our administrators encouraged us teachers to find time to visit our students at home to know them better. I enjoyed doing it. Until I moved to other 2 schools. I learned a lot in doing so. I realized that in a group of students, each is unique and has different interest and potentials which the teachers must dig to know and help individual develop the skills and become a person he is destined to be which helped me develop more my passion in teaching. Lately, when I met them or the parents somewhere else, I was surprised to hear them say ' Thank you' you did something great to my child. I dont want to brag myself but I am glad that as early as that, I already see the need of the students not only teaching them in school but also reaching their inner selves. Its a different level of happiness felt in the heart.

Emily's picture
Emily
parent of 1 high schooler and former elementary teacher

Thanks, Mark, for your discussion on this issue. Similar to Rich, my step-daughter has also suffered many losses in her young life--her older sister, then her mother. But, even through these trials, her faith in the Lord has kept her strong and full of grace. Her father and I are so proud of the young woman she is becoming.
Because of all of the things she has experienced, our daughter is mature above her years. Her peaceful spirit and positive outlook on life are lessons that would be so helpful to her peers and other people...if they would only take the time to listen and observe. Like Rich, she is also an introvert. In an extrovert-driven society, she gets lost in the loudness. My heart breaks because of this. Just the other evening, we were talking about the dynamics in her peer circle. She referred to another young lady as a "leader". However, the qualities in this girl's life do not define what a good leader should be. My husband and I explained to her that just because she has a loud voice, talks a lot, and is the "queen bee", does not make her a leader. We always encourage her that she (our daughter) can be a leader--a quiet leader. Introverted people offer so much to our loud culture--a sense of peace, unique wisdom, and a thoughtful perspective.
I, myself, am an extrovert. But, after observing and listening to my husband and daughter (both introverts), I have been challenged to model some of their attributes--the art of listening, the beauty of silence, and the joy of reflection. I have so much to learn from them! They enjoy my craziness and outgoing personality, but I think I treasure their uniqueness even more.
In summary, I wish our world would be still...be quiet...and listen to the introverts. We would be better because of it.

Emily's picture
Emily
parent of 1 high schooler and former elementary teacher

Again, thank you, Mark, for addressing this issue. Thank you for reaching out to the students that are introverts. As a mother, I say "thank you!"

Mark Phillips's picture
Mark Phillips
Teacher and Educational Journalist
Blogger 2014

Thanks so much for your thoughtful, and poignant, comments. Your step-daughter is so lucky to have you. And clearly you can learn from each other. As an introverted kid, I'm glad I also learned from my extroverted dad how to more easily connect with people. I am a better teacher for establishing that balance. And it's great that you're also learning to integrate some of your step-daughter and your husband's introverted qualities.

I do think that the failure of our society to value introversion reflects some deeper spiritual malaise. I don't mean that in a religious sense, but I think you know what I mean.

Perhaps we're beginning to redress the imbalance. I sure hope so.

Thanks again for taking the time to share your thoughts here.

My best,

Mark

Jennifer VanBuren's picture

"Faced with four or five classes of more than 25 students, it's difficult for teachers to be aware of each student."

In our district, most teachers have 6 classes with 30 kids. No exaggeration. There is no way to make any kind of real human relation building with 180 kids. This is the main reason I sent my introvert adolescent boy to a charter school.

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