I once had a second grade student – let’s call her Amy – who was quiet and shy, even thoughtful, and not the kind to get noticed. She lived on a farm near the school, and when I came for a home visit, she asked me to bring my mountain bike so we could ride through her cow pastures and see the fish pond. She wasn’t any more animated that she usually was in class, though her quiet pride in her pets, her bike, and her family was evident in every blush and downcast glance.
Amy’s parents were worried because she was quiet and slow to respond in conversations. Her reading was progressing at a normal level, but she read still slowly and shyly, even in one-on-one conferences. To all outward appearances, she was simply someone who liked to think and take her time with it, and in today’s rushed world, she stood out.
I recently read a book that helped me better understand Amy, and myself, at the same time. Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking by Susan Cain describes the American admiration of gregarious, friendly, talkative people and its detrimental impact on the 1/3 to ½ of us who are introverts. Our Extrovert Ideal rewards quick action over careful thought and admires charismatic leadership over quiet strength. It explains why Amy’s parents and many others like them worry that something is wrong with their child if she only has a few close friends and prefers to read or play alone instead of attend parties and participate in team sports.
Cain’s book helped me realize that introversion is determined from birth (4-month old babies who were highly reactive to unusual stimuli later turned out to be introverts who preferred the solitude of their minds over the activity of crowds) and that it can be a gift rather than something to be embarrassed about. She describes a number of introverts who pretend to be extroverts for periods of time but who then find quiet times to decompress later. A surprising number of apparent extroverts are really introverts who are faking it for something they love (e.g. radio talk show hosts, beloved professors, presidents). As Cain says, “Sometimes it helps to be a pretend extrovert. There will always be time to be quiet later.” In the next breath, however, she says, “But in the long run, staying true to your temperament is key to finding work you love and work that matters.”
Until I read this book I had no idea how I, too, had subscribed to the Extrovert Ideal to the point of even feeling bad about myself for avoiding small talk and preferring to spend Saturday at home reading a book. I also realized that I’d set up my classroom to promote this ideal by encouraging group work without leaving room for individual projects, and rewarding the quickest and loudest responders in class discussions without leaving sufficient wait time for the more contemplative students.
One third to one half of our classrooms are filled with introverts like Amy. How can we make room for them to make the most of their natural temperaments?