I have always been an introvert. Don’t get me wrong, I love people, but like most introverts, I inevitably reach a point when the lights go off. You can see it in my glazed-over eyes, half-laugh and glances toward the classroom door, longing for the school day to end. I need stillness, time to recharge and process and I often do my best thinking when I am alone. You would think someone like me would have ruled out teaching as a career a long time ago, but a part of me could never let the dream go.
When I decided to enter the classroom, I hoped to have time to adjust to the daily lifestyle of being a teacher in constant contact with students, parents and colleagues. Instead, I became overwhelmed and overstimulated almost immediately, feeling like I was hit by a speeding freight train for seven hours a day, five days a week. I was in a constant state of fight or flight, which triggered a lot of anxiety in my body. I could feel my heart racing from the time I got in bed on a school night to the next morning when I walked into the school building, knowing the uninterrupted chaos and pure human contact I was about to subject myself to that day.
In light of these reflections, I am curious how we can create classrooms that support the unique mental and emotional landscapes of students and teachers. Granted, I am aware my teaching needs may be unique to my circumstances; despite that, I can’t imagine I’m alone in my call for a moment of silence.
The Archetype of a “Good Teacher”
There’s no denying that there is a prevailing archetype of what a good teacher looks like in the U.S. Ms. Frizzle, the fearless teacher and conductor of “The Magic School Bus”, has been a prominent example of this archetype since the 1990s. She had all the essential features of what most: the enigmatic, inexhaustible extravert that is always excited to teach students, no matter where the journey leads them.
The internet makes it easy to see this type of teacher in all their glory: enthusiastic lesson delivery, over-the-top call and responses and beautiful classroom decor. For a time, I imagined myself as that teacher, too. As a science teacher and a former PBS kid, I wanted to be Ms. Frizzle so badly. But after grading, family communication, handling behaviors, planning, data response and simply straightening my room up after the daily tornado of 140 eleven-year-olds, I don’t think even Ms. Frizzle would have an ounce of energy left. Teaching was a career I pursued because I knew the impact I wanted to have; I just didn’t know the personality shift I would be asked to undergo to be considered successful. When I couldn’t sustain such a high energy level throughout the seven-hour day, I felt like I’d failed.
Recently, I told my academic coach that I just needed more stillness in my day. For nearly any other profession, that would be easily attainable. For teachers, it’s a near impossibility. I enjoy the planning that goes into being a teacher: the summer PD sessions, nerding out with my content team, planning engaging lessons and being thoughtful about ELL and EE accommodations. However, once the school year kicked in, the energy I built preparing for the school year left me. The part of me that loves interacting with students, hearing about their lives and enjoying their quirky personalities was burnt out by my third class. The part of me that loves planning felt rushed and chaotic during my 47-minute planning period. I find it hard to continue to say that I love teaching when I don’t love what it becomes – a demand to burn the candle at both ends.
One day, after feeling acutely overstimulated, overwhelmed and under-prepared, I headed for the door after a long school day. As I glided out of the building with the tide of students, all excitedly chatting with their friends about after-school plans, I heard my name being yelled over the hallway commotion. I turned around, fried as I’d ever been, and yelled, “WHAT?!” Once the exclamation of my voice came down, I found myself face to face with two of my ELL students, Kerolos and Michelle, holding up a giant homemade card with my name on it signed by their entire class. I nearly broke into tears as I thanked them profusely and apologized for yelling.
In those moments, I wondered what kind of teacher I could be if I had more time to self-regulate. What if I’d been able to enjoy my lunch break outside, instead of enforcing a silent lunch? What if my school employed a co-teaching model to reduce the mental load of being the only adult in the room? What if my students got recess every day so that I could spend those 30 minutes building relationships with them in a joyful, unstructured environment? These are the tiny adjustments that fall to the lowest priority of a school, but at that moment, I felt like they could have been my saving grace.
A Moment of Silence (for Everybody)
My strength is that I see those kids – Alex, my under-the-desk reader who reminds me of myself in sixth grade, getting busted for reading inside my desk during math. Sumaya, the silent scientist who will never volunteer to share but has a brilliant mind and exceptional ability to model scientific concepts. Mauricio, an enthusiastic learner who is hesitant to speak up in class but cheers loudly during the Hispanic Heritage Month morning announcements when Guatemalan Independence Day gets a shoutout. Middle school is notorious for being the domain for teacher and student extroverts. Among the melee of people, it is usually those with louder voices who rise above the crowd.
Though I debate leaving the profession altogether, I can’t help but wonder what could be different. We know that teachers are leaving the classroom in droves. If this has been my experience, what does that mean for neurodiverse teachers? For teachers who are easily overstimulated? For teachers who don’t fit the mold of the type-A extrovert? I want to believe that there are inherent strengths to being an introvert in the classroom, but they can only be accessed in a school environment that embraces stillness for teachers and students, alike. The teaching environment can be much more sustainable for all with just a little bit of quiet time.