Teacher’s Corner: Introverts, extroverts, shmextroverts

This Teacher’s Corner is going to be a bit different from the usual ones as it will breach out to a broader topic, but it all starts with teaching.

Actually it starts with Twitter and an annoyed paediatrician  tweeting that since it was half term he would get lots of primary school kids’ parents who’d been told to get their kid tested for ADHD and such*. I replied something along the lines that if teachers could diagnose ADHD they’d be psychiatrists and not teachers, which is why we’d like parents to get a professional opinion on the matter. After all, the only thing we see is that a child has obvious problems paying attention and following the classroom rules.

While this is an interesting topic in and on itself, it was only the starter for a conversation with another user about introverted kids. Her complaint was that the German school system punishes introverted kids via the “participation” grade. In Germany almost all term reports have two separate grades that are “participation” and “behaviour”. All teachers teaching in a class submit their grade, the mean gets calculated and then there may be adjustments. To be honest, till the end of the conversation I couldn’t quite get what she actually wanted, because she kept contradicting herself, but I got that she was fundamentally unhappy, either from her own experiences or because of somebody else, and wanted CHANGE, even though she was not quite clear as to what should actually change. I’ll try to talk about why “just leave the quiet kids alone” isn’t a good idea from a teaching point of view and then move to what bugged me about the whole discussion.

First, I evaluate behaviour, not personality. All teaching can be described as “changing behaviour”. I can never actually look into the head of anybody else, I can only see what they do. I can then form a hypothesis as to why they behave in a certain way and what could be done to change that behaviour if needed. If a kid doesn’t participate in class there can be several reasons. Maybe they’re not paying attention. Maybe they have problems understanding the material. Maybe they actually suffer from anxiety or are autistic. Maybe they’re suffering from a personal crisis. And maybe they don’t participate because they don’t want to because they’re introverted. Since the last one is a personality trait and not a disability, the behaviour is a choice. It is therefore subject to evaluation. I’m neither judging the personality nor do I diagnose it. Again, I’m not a psychologist.

Second, I know back in the days all children listened quietly to the teacher who told them what to do, but this isn’t what we’re doing nowadays. I don’t pray at the church of induction, but that’s what we’re often aiming for. For some background knowledge, there are two ways of teaching something. The one most people will remember from their schooldays is deduction: The teacher tells you how it’s done and now you look for examples and do exercises. Let’s say I wanted to teach the regular form of the simple past. In a deductive setting I’d simply tell you that you add “ed” to the infinitive, give you a text and tell you to find all the verbs ending in “ed”. In an inductive setting, I start maybe with the text. Signal words like “yesterday” or “last year” tell the kids that this is about the past. I try to ask the right questions (believe me, that is hard as fuck) and the kids themselves discover that all they have to do is to add “ed”. Or you start with a problem the kid can relate to (like how many weeks do I have to save my pocket money before I can go to the movies). While some people would like to claim it, this isn’t the solution for everything, but in the cases where it work it has been proven to facilitate greater understanding (everybody who has ever tried to teach somebody something knows that in order to explain it, you need to understand it much deeper than just to do it). There’s two issues here. The first is that every teacher worth their salt will absolutely also call those who don’t show up. We probably all remember that one teacher who’d only ask the smartest kid in class and then move on. I need to check if those who did not participate actually followed. According to that lady, this is punitive. Second the kids who do participate actually do more work. They risk making mistakes and losing face, but they also advance the whole class. It would be highly unfair if that wasn’t rewarded.

Third, answering questions and formulating coherent points is a skill learned, not a gift bestowed. I would fail my quiet students if I did not challenge them to participate. We all know that something that sounded good in your head may come out as muddled ramblings. Every time a kid participates in class they can relatively safely practise that skill. They get feedback, they can improve. And as with all skills, some people learn more quickly and others have to practise more. This isn’t fair, but school subjects never are. I don’t think that a kid would thank me if I just let them be quiet for 9, 10 or 12 years and then they go for their first job interview and have to answer questions.

Fourth, and this is basically #1 again, I can only judge what I see. Quiet kids often have really good ideas for the very reason that they don’t say the first thing that comes to their mind but think it through. I want to hear those points and ideas. And I want to teach the more outgoing kids to listen to others. Again, this is a skill they both need in life. What good is the brilliant idea inside your head if it only ever stays there?

Fifth, my demands on the outgoing kids may be different, but it’s not like they don’t get evaluated. Apparently for some kids listening is as hard as speaking is for others. I still insist that they do it and learn that skill. I don’t care if their “personality” is to shout the answer without being asked. What’s more, on top of getting a bad grade in “behaviour” they might additionally get detention or extra work, so it can be hardly said that they’re being favoured.

Sixth, not every personal issue is a social justice issue. Another point in the conversation, and this will be the link to the more general discussion, was that “introverted” kids tend to get bullied more often. I sadly have to agree, because those quiet kids often have fewer friends who can protect them, but the lady insisted that kids not actively including the introverted kid in all their activities is bullying as well. Sorry, but I cannot force anybody to like a kid and be friends with them. I can insist that nobody is excluded from class activities. I can try to set tasks that build teams and social skills (though apparently that again is me forcing an introverted kid to do something against their personality. Did I mention that I’m not quite sure as to what this lady wanted?) But I cannot force anybody to invite somebody to their birthday party. Or to come to the other kid’s. This is sad, and as a mum of a neurodiverse kid I know how much this can hurt and I certainly use every ounce of privilege that I have to make guests happen, but in the end it’s still the others’ personal freedom to not associate with a kid.

This gets me to the larger point and this post is long already. Sorry, apparently this was bothering me more than it should.

Think of psychology in general and Jung in particular what you want, but they don’t claim that introverted-extroverted is a binary, but a continuum or even two different traits that we all have. Few people lie at the extremes, most people are somewhere in the middle. While teaching is most likely populated by people who enjoy interacting with others a lot, this doesn’t mean we’re all “extroverts”. Yours truly will happily do her job all day and enjoy that, but I also really need to be alone sometimes. With a book. Or in the woods. Today on my way back I met a neighbour who joined me and I was slightly annoyed. As this reviewer pointed out when discussing the book “Quiet” that kind of sparked the “Introverts revolution”, most people like one thing or the other depending on the situation. Nobody wants to always work in a team and who thought that open plan offices are a good idea except for the people who don’t have to work in them?

What probably bothers me the most is that this whole conversation often uses the language of disability where introverts are the poor, downtrodden victims of a world where children are punished for things beyond their control, while also sporting a smug sense of superiority. Sorry, but you can’t have your cake and eat it. You cannot be those superior people with rich inner lives who are independent while extroverts are both following the leader and also horribly manipulative, and at the same time people who deserve special consideration. Actually, if the world were as described by the lady on Twitter and expressed by many who write on the issue like in the link above, then it would be absolutely unreasonable to demand anything, because the extroverts are just like that as well, right? Yet I don’t see anybody seriously demanding that I give “extroverted” kids a pass in the classroom for their personality.

I’m not alone in that last point. Apparently some people who describe themselves as introverted are having similar suspicions. Relationships of all kinds need all people involved to invest into them. I get that it can be liberating to say “I’m an introvert, I don’t have to go to your party” or to use it as a way to escape that school function (believe me, even people who generally enjoy the society of others are not very enthusiastic about it. Personally I seem to have a badge that is only visible to certain people that says “talk to me and tell me your life story, down to the haemorrhoids”). But apparently it’s also easy to forget that the people you avoid are, you know, people. It’s a good thing to recognise your own needs and make sure that they’re met, but it’s also important to recognise other people’s needs as well. It’s like the kids in the school yard: you cannot only make demands, you also have to invest. If your new colleagues don’t invite you for after work drinks the first time, they’re rude. If they no longer bother after the third “no”, it’s on you. If that is what you wanted, that’s a win-win, but if it makes you unhappy, it’s not the other’s fault. It’s ok to prefer quiet coffee over a loud party, but if you’re only willing to spend time with a friend on your terms, then you’re not being a friend but somebody who uses others to meet their own needs while not giving a fuck about the other person’s needs.

The last point that seems to be missing from the whole conversation is gender. Yes, sorry, I have to bring it up, but “being quiet” and “being outgoing” aren’t the neutral terms I tried to make them look like. Domesticity is not a trait associated with men and women alike. Who gets listened to and who gets to listen, who is reinforced in those traits starting with their childhood, these are gendered aspects. There is probably no divide as much discussed in feminist writing as that between the private and the public. It seems to me like the majority of those “I’m an introvert” articles, whether they’re positive or critical, are written by women. There’s no analysis as to why these women would rather stay at home. Maybe they’re just too damn exhausted from working a job and running the household. It all simply gets explained with an “immutable trait”: introversion.



*The whole thing was in German so I’m not posting the conversation but will paraphrase.


  1. says

    …they don’t claim that introverted-extroverted is a binary, but a continuum or even two different traits that we all have…
    …most people like one thing or the other depending on the situation.

    That bit about the situation is important. E.g. I’m fairly introverted in casual conversations, but I’m a very good public speaker. Once I know the framework of the interaction and have a clear idea of what I’m going to say, I can do it easily and confidently, but give me an unstructured conversation with someone I don’t know and I clam up.

    Whether you’re “introverted” or “extroverted” may vary, depending on the specifics of where you are, what you’re doing, and who you’re with. I think it makes sense to consider it a behavioral habit, rather than a character trait.

  2. voyager says

    Sorry to be so late with my comment, but I wanted time to think before I spoke. ;D
    I am an introvert and when I was young it was a handicap. I was actually asked to leave The Brownies because I was too afraid to participate in group activities. I was also an only child and had no idea how to relate to other kids.
    Then, in high school I had a wonderful teacher suggest I try acting and public speaking and I loved both. I finally learned a few skills that made it easier to be with people and to work as part of a team. I also learned that being with other people can sometimes be fun.
    In this sense, I see introversion as a continuum. I experienced a shift that placed me closer to the center of the introversion/extroversion scale. I disagree with LykeX that it’s a behavioural choice rather than a character trait, though. I might sit closer to the center, but I am still essentially an introvert. It is my nature to recharge with quiet alone time. It’s the only way I can recharge. I push myself to do social things and even if I’m having fun I’m always ready to go home. I have a skill set that allows me to live in an extrovert’s world. That skill set has allowed me to get an education, find work, travel and make friends.
    I think your approach to teaching is spot on. Teach the introverts social skills that build self-confidence and teach the extroverts to think for themselves and build self-confidence.

Leave a Reply