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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

About a year ago, I read Susan Cain's Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking. I wanted to tell everyone about this book right away, but I also wanted to let what I'd learned sink in. I wanted to sit alone with my new self-awareness, process my experience, and absorb the revelations I'd had -- all in true introverted fashion. See, as I'd read Cain's book, my predominant thoughts were, "She's describing me! I'm an introvert! And there's nothing wrong with that!" The margins of my copy are littered with stars, exclamation points, and scribbles that, as I look back, reflect my profound relief and gained understandings.

Reading this book was a healing experience that has given me a tremendous confidence boost. It has also yielded insights into myself as a teacher, educator, and mother. If you suspect you're an introvert, strongly consider buying this book. If you love an introvert, definitely buy this book. And if you work in schools, you will also want to get this book right away.

Introverts Defined

Susan Cain writes, "At least one third of the people we know are introverts. They are the ones who prefer listening to speaking, reading to partying; who innovate and create but dislike self-promotion; who favor working on their own over brainstorming in teams." At the core of the definition of introversion and extroversion is how we get our energy. Introverts are energized when they're alone or in small groups; extroverts are the opposite. Contrary to popular belief, introverts are not necessarily shy.

Cain suggests that those who answer yes to the following questions are most likely introverts:

  • Do you have a horror of small talk?
  • Do you do your best work on your own?
  • Do you feel energized by being alone or with one or two other close friends?
  • Do you express yourself well in writing?
  • Do you like to focus on one task at a time and tend to work slowly and deliberately?
  • Would you prefer a vacation reading on the beach to partying on a cruise ship?

In Quiet (and on on her website) there's a quick self-assessment to help you determine where you fall on the introvert-extrovert spectrum.

There are such things as ambiverts or those who are an introvert in some situations and an extrovert in others. Introversion and extroversion also intersect with other personality traits and personal histories. Some introverts are shy while others are charismatic public speakers; and some introverts are also "highly sensitive" -- a description I found to be such a relief that I burst into tears. Yes, I'm a highly sensitive introvert who'd never heard such a description.

For most of my life, I thought that my introversion was something I needed to change and something that made others uncomfortable. Just about every report card from my childhood included a comment like, "Elena needs to talk more in class." Cain's book helped me see how my introversion has contributed to my successes and helped me redefine effective leadership (Rosa Parks and Gandhi were introverts). An expanded definition of introversion is necessary.

Advice for Teachers

Last week I attended my son's fall parent-teacher conference. His kind, extroverted teacher, Bob, mentioned that my fourth grader doesn't participate a lot in whole class discussions. "Other kids raise their hands immediately, and he listens but doesn't volunteer to speak. So I let him know that I want to hear from him and then I'll ask him a question and he responds thoughtfully. Do you have to draw him out at home?" No, I said. In fact, usually on Saturday mornings my son and I take a long walk together and he talks non-stop for an hour and a half. "I think he might just be a bit of an introvert," I said. Bob nodded, "That's good to know." We talked a bit about strategies for teaching introverted children, which Bob was familiar with.

Here's a nugget of Cain's advice for teachers: "If you're a teacher, enjoy your gregarious and participatory students. But don't forget to cultivate the shy, the gentle, the autonomous -- the ones with single-minded enthusiasm for chemistry sets or parrot taxonomy or nineteenth-century art. They are the artists, engineers, and thinkers of tomorrow." She also writes a lot about how teachers can work with introverted students.

Considerations for Introverted Teachers

Quiet made me reflect on something I'd never considered when I decided to leave the classroom: that my introversion simply wasn't compatible with teaching 70 kids each day. Teaching always exhausted me -- by the end of each day, I felt like I'd been run over by a truck, and by Friday evening, I'd crawl into bed at 7:30 and be unable to form a sentence for at least 18 hours. That was what I wanted to do, but with a husband and young child, I couldn't. So I left full-time teaching for a job as an instructional coach.

I really wanted to coach and soon realized that it suited my personality. Sitting with one person or working with a small team of three or four teachers didn't exhaust me -- in fact, it energized me. Coaching is cognitively and emotionally demanding, but I now see how my introverted tendency makes coaching a much more compatible role for me.

In Quiet, Susan Cain asks: Does your job suit your temperament? If not, what could you do to change things? I've seen a number of deeply committed but struggling teachers (who I suspect are introverts) for whom I believe classroom teaching might not be the best fit. I've encouraged some to think about teaching in smaller settings, for example in a special education context, or tutoring or counseling. There are many ways we can participate in the education world without being with 130 kids every day.

For those of us who often need to show up as extroverts, Cain suggests we create "restorative niches" for ourselves. I've definitely found ways to create time and places where I can recharge my batteries after, for example, a long meeting with dozens of people. Many people I meet never guess that I'm an introvert -- I can confidently and charismatically speak to an audience of hundreds or facilitate a three-day workshop alone -- but afterwards every single cell in my body feels like it's been ironed flat. I've discovered ways to release that exhaustion and refuel my energy and I can temporarily transform into an extrovert.

And when it's over, I'm so happy to return to my introverted, quiet, writer-self. I'm so grateful to finally feel fine with who I am -- and profoundly grateful to Susan Cain for her research, writing, and introversion.

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