Teaching is a performance; those of us who do it every day are well aware of this. We smile on cue like seasoned actors; we storm and rant when needed, making our audience cry or blush or stop in their tracks. We can make a room explode with laughter or render it silent.
But although some teachers draw energy and enthusiasm from this, there are a huge number who leave the classroom drained and exhausted – not from the physiological effects of the long hours, but the psychological effects of sustained human interaction.
We are the introverts. We are capable of brilliant classroom performances like any other teacher, but the wiring of our brains makes us more reactive than other people. Ask yourself this: do you notice when lights are too bright? Do you find the constant clamour of the classroom wearing, even at levels that others may find perfectly acceptable? Do you enjoy deep conversations and relationships, but struggle to make small talk? And, crucially, do you seek solitude and silence after a long day at work?
If so, you may be an introvert. This means that your brain can become overstimulated by some types of sensory input, but in particular by interacting with other people.
For me, some days are torturous. A brief chat at breaktime with a colleague leaves me resentful that my only quiet time has been wasted. An open classroom door during a free period makes me feel like I am under scrutiny. Wet breaks are a particular problem.
I work in a lovely, warm, small school where lunch is provided for all staff in the refectory. For most, this is a welcome chance to recharge with food, and chit-chat. For me, it requires an act of will to mix with people during my breaks – no matter how friendly they are.
Luckily, help is at hand. We may be a long way from being able to comfortably discuss these issues over the lunch table (I worry that my behaviour will be misinterpreted as being anti-social), but there are measures we introverts can take to improve our working lives.
First, acknowledge the advantages that you bring to the job. As an introvert, you are naturally suited to reflection, evaluation and thoughtfulness – all essential qualities for a teacher. You can easily become weighed down with worry about what others (parents, colleagues, students, bosses) may think of you, but this is the road to burnout, so try to avoid it. On the other hand, your desire for a quiet environment may make you adept at classroom management because you are skilled at reading the room.
The second thing you can do is find yourself what Susan Cain – the author of Quiet, an excellent book on introversion – calls a “restorative niche”, where you can recharge in relative peace throughout the day. Some will be lucky enough to have a private office or unused classroom – for others, me included, the toilets are the first port of call. Whether it’s a physical or a mental space that you need, claim it. For me, this sometimes involves being merely on time instead of five minutes early for a meeting; as an introvert, I know that those five minutes of small talk are harder on me than the rest of the meeting.
Finally, make sure the rest of your life (some teachers do have them) is geared as much as possible around rest and recuperation from socialising. Try to plan commitments around what you feel you are able to handle, knowing that you will have a full week of interacting with people at school. If you need to, save catching up with friends and family for the holidays.
Above all, be kind to yourself – you are not anti-social, or highly strung, but a sensitive personality who gives so much of yourself in the classroom that you need time and space in your own head to recuperate. You’re in good company.