For everyone Dropping the mask: an introvert’s guide to teaching

As tempting as it can be for introverts to wear a mask, it's healthier to be yourself (image: iStock)

The first time I stood at the front of a classroom all I could see were the faces staring at me, waiting for what would come next: a confronting moment for a self-conscious introvert. Somehow, I took hold of myself and got through the lesson, though the rest is a blur.

Fortunately, my terror has subsided over time, though the effort required by the performative side of teaching has not. Even if I enjoy the teaching moment, I still feel drained in the aftermath. It’s a common phenomenon for introverts, who prefer small groups of friends or quiet evenings to the high-stimulation environments beloved by extroverts.

In her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain argues that the world’s reverence for the outgoing and self-assured has led to behaviours and structures that favour extroverts over introverts, though they make up an estimated 25% to 40% of the population. Social interaction is an inevitable part of teaching – however uncomfortable it might be for some of us. To manage this, introverted teachers – as with introverts in other workplaces – sometimes emulate extroverts to gain approval and success. Problem is, the strain of wearing that mask can make them physically and mentally ill.

There is no getting away from the performative side of teaching, but that doesn’t mean that we have to resort to a false self. People, particularly students, are adept at spotting a ‘phoney’. Studies show that students prefer teachers with an ‘authentic teaching style’. Much of this is to do with responding to students as individuals: demonstrating care and compassion academically and personally, along with being human yourself: remaining approachable, prepared to admit mistakes, joke, or share a few personal stories (within appropriate limits). Being passionate and knowledgeable about your subject are also important.

It can be hard to separate our real identity, our actual selves, from the image we project to others. But pretending to be something you’re not risks people becoming all too aware of your mask, especially if it slips. The solution, as Henry David Thoreau said, is to “be yourself – not your idea of what you think somebody else’s idea of yourself should be”.

But what does ‘being yourself’ mean? As cultural critic Ruth Whippman points out: “Authenticity is, at heart, the idea that we should make the way we behave on the outside match what we feel on the inside. But, really, a functioning society depends on keeping a healthy distance between the two.”

Perhaps ‘remote learning’ might actually lead to more authentic working relationships.

When it comes to teaching, I always try to be warm, approachable and genuinely interested in my students, but this doesn’t mean that every part of my life and self needs to be available or on show as part of my professional identity. For example, my occasional disagreement with a student’s political views has no place in the classroom. I prefer to think not in terms of masks, but of presenting an edited version of myself.

There’s no doubt that the online working world we’ve been navigating during the coronavirus crisis has blurred the boundaries between public and private. We’ve all had to cut each other some slack, with dogs, children and messy loungerooms in the backgrounds of our computer screens. Perhaps remote learning might actually lead to more authentic working relationships.

Recently on social media I saw posts about two teachers. One is an extrovert doing a dance through an empty school ‘looking’ for his missing students. It is touching and funny, and reveals so much about this teacher as a human being.

In the other post, a teacher visits one of his students, who has been having trouble with a maths problem being taught online. He sets up a whiteboard in her garden, and teaches her through the window.

There are so many different ways for us to create connections. The thoughtful humanity of both of those responses is a wonderful thing. And it’s that humanity, rather than our masks, that will get us through this strange time.

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