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Beyond First-Day Jitters: Teaching While Introverted, Shy, or Both

Erika Vause, March 2016

I’d guess that many academic historians consider themselves introverts. Deciphering the past can be a solitary pursuit, rewarding those who enjoy the long, lonely hours that poring over archival documents demands. Many of us were attracted to this profession in part because of the freedom to work alone that it allows. Yet teaching, which is a critical part of being a historian, requires sustained interaction with students in large and small groups and one on one. At many institutions, teaching is valued as much as research, and teaching loads can be steep. Even at research-oriented institutions, high-quality teaching is increasingly viewed as a vital factor in attracting and retaining majors and in demonstrating the importance of the humanities to the general public. Although some historians enjoy teaching the minute they step into a classroom, others are intimidated or easily exhausted by its performative aspect. So how can introverts and shy people—­especially those just starting their teaching careers—learn to love the people-oriented parts of our profession?

A young Danny Kaye could play shyness for laughs, but what’s a professor to do? Credit: Em McQuillan/The Danny Kaye and Silvia Fine Collection, Library of Congress

When I was a doctoral student at the University of Chicago, I never would have expected that I would find teaching the most immediately rewarding part of my job. Deeply attached to research, as many graduate students are, I dreaded the prospect of standing in front of a class and talking, which is how I first imagined teaching. Subject to inexplicable bouts of stage fright at inconvenient times, I visualized myself stuttering and withering under the scornful eyes of my undergraduates. I prepared for hours prior to my first class, which I taught as a graduate instructor. It went well, yet I doubted that I could repeat the performance on a regular basis. After an hour in front of a class, I promptly returned home to recuperate with a six-hour nap. Although the anticipated breakdown never occurred, it took my first year of a full-time job, teaching a 4-4 load with three classes back-to-back, before I could say that I felt reasonably confident in front of a classroom. It was at this time that I also realized how much I enjoyed teaching. The slight bout of nerves I still feel every time I start class for the day no longer intimidates me. Rather, it energizes me. Today, working at a small, teaching-oriented institution, the idea of not spending those hours in front of a class every day seems unimaginable. But how can one go from anxiety to excitement, from dread to joy?

Many people, myself included, are both shy and introverted. Throw in an unhealthy dose of impostor syndrome—fear of being exposed as a fraud, which is rife among young academics—and a recipe for paralyzing anxiety might emerge. Realizing one’s potential as a teacher in these cases requires working with rather than against one’s natural tendencies. Introverts should not expect to comfortably interact with people all day with no time to themselves. Shy people need to pay attention to their deep sense of vulnerability in social situations. Yet for both the introverted and the shy, a passion for creating and disseminating knowledge can help guide us out of a “default” position to avoid potentially disturbing encounters with people. It pays to think deeply about the roots of these anxieties. While frequently confused, introversion and shyness pose different challenges in the classroom. Introversion means deriving energy from being alone rather than with others. Shyness refers to reticence often inspired by anxiety. So get to know yourself a bit. Do you have stage fright at the thought of lecturing to 40 eager (or, worse, unengaged) undergraduates? Do you have an easier time interacting with students one-on-one or in small groups than as a whole class? Are you rarely anxious about teaching but become so worn out that you need to retreat to your office pronto to recharge? Introverts may have no trouble in front of an audience, but can become fatigued, overwhelmed, or irritable if they cannot get time alone. Shy people, on the other hand, might crave interaction with their students but suffer intense anxiety about how they will be judged. Knowing exactly what elements of teaching seem most against the grain for you can help you plan a strategy to manage them. For introverts, this might entail making certain that you schedule parts of your day—whether inside or outside the office—that are off-limits to colleagues, students, and others. For the shy, this might mean finding activities outside work that encourage participants to come out of their shells. For example, those who feel nervous about speaking might join rotary clubs or acting groups, or really any association where members are encouraged to express themselves in a supportive environment.

Many people are both shy and introverted. Throw in a dose of impostor syndrome, and a recipe for paralyzing anxiety might emerge.

The key lies in rethinking what we imagine ourselves to be doing in relation to our students. For example, the shy and the introverted alike can embrace newer pedagogical philosophies that move away from the lecture and reconsider what it means to teach. We don’t have to equate teaching with standing in front of people and talking. Our profession, fortunately, allows us a great deal of flexibility in choosing the best approaches to managing our own needs while playing to our strengths. Through practice, we can find those classroom activities that bring out our most effective and passionate sides while minimizing strategies that are less effective for us and consequently for our students. A re-envisioned lecture can be much less stressful. Instead of conceptualizing oneself as a teacher, one can instead concentrate on the two other parts of the equation: the subject matter and the students. For some academics, focusing on a subject, particularly one that excites them, can defray the exhaustion or anxiety that can accompany anticipation of such a stimulating social environment. For other academics, concentrating on student learning as an individual activity—perhaps by picking a single student in every class and imagining what he or she may be getting from the teaching—might take away from the overwhelming sense of being followed by dozens of eyes.

Indeed, the greatest advantage for introverts and shy academics in an era when we are increasingly told to focus on teaching is that teaching itself is changing in ways that can play to the strengths of the quiet and the reserved. Replacing the “sage on the stage” with the “guide on the side,” as the injunction goes, can come naturally to teachers who aren’t comfortable in the limelight. Indeed, listening, planning group and individual activities, and guiding discussion are replacing the traditional emphasis on the professor as the font of classroom knowledge. Reserved and introverted professors often find these skills easier to hone. Surprisingly, our anxieties can also come in handy. One of the unexpected benefits of my initial apprehension about teaching has been learning to empathize with and help students who are reluctant to participate in class discussion or who struggle with presentations. Using my own struggles with the social aspects of my job, I help students devise plans for tackling whatever prevents them from expressing themselves openly in class.

Ultimately, perhaps the biggest obstacle for introverts and shy people in embracing and enjoying teaching is the perception that they cannot enjoy or be good at teaching. Rather, for introverts as well as extroverts, the shy as well as the confident, good teaching requires deep knowledge of one’s own strengths and weaknesses as well as a thorough understanding of one’s goals for student learning. By balancing personal strengths with the demands of the classroom and ensuring that time is left for adequate self-care, shy and introverted scholars can develop a teaching voice just as they develop a writing voice. Even if this is a voice that would generally prefer silence.

Erika Vause is assistant professor of European history at Florida Southern College in Lakeland, Florida. A historian of 19th-century France, over the years she has come to enjoy teaching a broad array of historical eras and topics.


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