25 years as an introverted teacher – finding my niche

22 08 2015

I am an introvert. Most definitely an introvert. Content to walk through life on the beach or in the park, alone with my thoughts.
So, on some levels, it seems odd to me that I became a teacher – odd that I have always looked forward to meeting a big new crowd of students each term.
This year I mark my 25th year of teaching. I’ve taught college, I’ve taught high school, I even made it a point one year to sub at least one day in each grade pre-K through 12. One semester I taught second year med students. Standing up in front of a classroom doesn’t faze me – a hundred adults, a room full of four year olds. No problem. But yes, I am most definitely an introvert.

When I taught in the classroom – I loved it, but it exhausted me. After every session, I was completely drained. When I held full time positions, I was beyond drained – I ran at a deficit. In those years, I would stay up far into the night just to get some peace and quiet – some alone time. Turns out, sleep deprivation doesn’t really help with the recharging process.  

Fifteen years ago, I started teaching occasional online courses. Three years ago I left the face to face classroom and went entirely online. The timing happened to coincide with my youngest son moving away to college (his brother was already there). The nest was empty. The classroom was virtual.

Online teaching, contrary to popular perception, does involve a large degree of student contact. The difference is the quality of the contact. Instead of addressing a sea of faces from the front of a room, you put yourself out into the ether in words, images, and videos. Students pull those resources as they need them. Then, they email. They text. They call. Sometimes, they Skype. The contact is (or can be, if you let it be) 24/7. New online instructors can quickly become overwhelmed. For an online teacher, the interactions shift from addressing large groups to one-to-one conversations. Requests for clarification and assistance arrive at all hours. There is no longer a natural “class time” versus “not class time” boundary.  

As an introvert, adapting to this boundary dissolution was a challenge. To adapt successfully, I adopted technology that allowed me a combination of flexibility and access that kept both my students and I happy. I tried set office hours for two years, but found them to be restrictive both for me and my students. I learned to be comfortable with the “do not disturb” feature of my phone and I learned that it’s okay to let a call go to voicemail if I’m in the shower or chasing the dog down the street because someone left the back gate open. I learned to be comfortable with spontaneous phone calls (not always a strength for introverts). And, I learned that sometimes the best thing I can do for a student is just listen.

I am still an introvert. A strong introvert. I still need to close the door and to turn off the phone once in a while. But, being an online instructor has also given me the freedom, as an introvert, to escape the mental drain I had after days, weeks, months, years in the face to face classroom. I can now be more present for my students when they need some one on one time with me. I can be a better teacher – better able to meet the needs of a new generation of students.

As a full time online teacher, I have the great benefit of working for an amazing employer. Through them, for two weeks in August, I can extrovert to my heart’s content, knowing that I will be able to introvert for the other fifty weeks of the year. During those two weeks, I find myself striking up conversations with strangers and joining ongoing conversations – things I would have never done in the past. Having the time to process and evaluate (and introvert) gives me the energy and the motivation to jump into those professional development weeks with both feet. As those weeks draw to a close, I am sated with contact and content, and looking forward to the time to ponder and program what I have learned to make my courses a better experience for my students.

It also allows me to recharge, and to look forward to those one on one phone calls so I can meet my students where they need me to be, regardless of my status as an introvert.

Bring on the new school year!!

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