This week on the Truth for Teachers podcast: Betsy Potash of Spark Creativity and I talk about how to make teaching more enjoyable for introverted teachers.
After almost a decade of teaching in the secondary ELA classroom in the United States and abroad in Bulgaria, Betsy started the Spark Creativity website and podcast. Now she spends her time creating and sharing innovative teaching strategies like escape rooms, book tastings, one-pagers, sketchnotes, hyperdocs, and more.
Betsy is such a lovely guest, she has such a gentle, easygoing way about her, and I think you’re going to love the things she shares. We’re talking about how to keep the spotlight off yourself in your instruction, avoiding the energy drain that can arise from drama with colleagues, finding quiet moments in your day for rejuvenation, and more.
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ANGELA: I want to start by defining what it means to be an introvert because I think a lot of people assume it has something to do with being shy or quiet or not liking people. So I’ll tell you my definition and what introversion feels like for me, and then I’d like to hear what your interpretation is.
I think of introversion and extroversion in terms of what energizes you and what drains you. So for an introvert, being alone provides the energy that’s needed to enjoy being with people. And for an extrovert, being with people provides the energy that’s needed to enjoy being alone. (An ambivert would find being around people and being alone equally re-energizing and de-energizing, so they’re sort of in the middle.)
Personally, I’m an introvert, but I think a lot of people wouldn’t guess that about me because I do like being around other people. I enjoy talking (clearly — I wouldn’t have a podcast if I didn’t like talking!) and I don’t consider myself shy. I can get up on a stage and give a keynote to 5,000 people with no problem. I just need a lot of alone time afterward. I really depend on that time alone to recharge after I’ve spent time with people. So I’m wondering, does that ring true or does introversion work differently for you?
BETSY: Yes, I think I would define it exactly the same way, although maybe getting up in front of 5,000 people for a keynote would give me a little bit of pause. I’m definitely not shy, but I enjoy having a lot of time alone. When I’m out at a party and with my friends, I love it. But I also am looking forward to getting home and curling up in bed and reading my book. A lot of English teachers can relate to that.
When I was growing up, I was always hauling home this huge bag of books from the library, so many that I couldn’t carry them in my arms, and I just looked forward to that time on my own to read. And I was a serious singles tennis player, which is kind of a solo operation, as well.
I had all this time growing up where I was kind of doing my thing, and then I got to college where I continued to do more of the same. I was an English major and I played on the tennis team at my school out in California, and they were both blessed for me. Just wonderful things to be doing. And as I looked ahead toward what I wanted to do, I could see I’d had so many meaningful connections with kids in my life as a tennis coach and as a youth leader. And I figured, “This has got to be the job for me. It’s going to be perfect. I’m going to get to keep reading all the time. I’m going to share my love of books and then get to keep playing tennis. I’m going to share my love of tennis and be a coach.” What could be more perfect?
So, I was really excited, and I got up in front of my very first class on my very first day. I had my dream job — a lot of creative freedom and I didn’t have a lot of oversight. Nobody really told me what to do on the first day. And I was like, okay, everybody goes over the syllabus. I’m going to go over the syllabus, go over the course expectations. My students will love it.
And if you’re a teacher, you’re probably chuckling to yourself — my students didn’t love it. So I was up there and I was talking and everybody was staring at me, and after about one minute I knew that I had already lost them — they couldn’t care less about the course expectations and they didn’t want to know the required materials and they were already glancing at the clock.
It was the first time in my life where I had an internal monologue that was completely different from what I was saying. It was almost like I was watching myself in a dream and I was talking exactly how I’d planned, but inside I was saying, “They hate this. This is a total disaster. You have to keep doing this for 30 more minutes and it’s going to get worse and worse, and then you have to do it three more times with three more sections of students.”
It was pretty much one of the worst days of my life, even though the kids were polite and didn’t do anything horrible to me … even though I was doing exactly what I had hoped to be doing in this teaching job. Having them all stare at me for 40 minutes straight was basically my worst nightmare and I hadn’t anticipated that.
At the end of the day, I still remember just lying on the carpet in my office and crying for two hours. I was like, “I’m going to have to quit. This isn’t going to work. I’m going to have to figure out a new profession, a new career.” But I couldn’t quit right away.
So I went in the next day and everybody was required to do an in-class essay in the English department. I did an in-class essay, which I was able to cope with, sitting at my desk and watching my students quietly write for 40 minutes was just fine. And then I took that home and I looked at their essays and I came up with this funny writing lesson where I came up with the writing commandments.
I turned it into this station activity where I put posters up all over my room with the writing commandments and had them sort of compare their essays with the commandments and see what they were doing well and what they weren’t.
None of them were looking at me. They were all looking at my posters walking around the room and I was able to sidle up to them, sort of help them with the comparison of their papers and the commandment posters. And I was like, “Hey, this is actually pretty fun, I’m enjoying myself. I like this way of teaching.” And for me the rest was history. I have essentially never lectured in almost 10 years in the classroom. I can always think of another way to present my material.
And as long as I’m presenting it in some way other than standing at the front and having everybody stare at me, I’m super happy. I love teaching, and I find that if I don’t feel I have to perform and if I don’t feel tense, then I don’t need as much recovery time as an introvert tends to need after class.
I don’t feel like my teaching day has destroyed me and I have nothing left at the end of the day. I still probably am going to want some time alone — I’m going to want to go out for a roller blade or just relax a little bit. I think teachers who are introverted can almost feel ill after being sort of watched and feel like they’re being judged after a whole day of teaching. I feel so happy and lucky that I stumbled into an alternative path right away, and I’ve been able to use my whole career to develop that alternative path.
I really like the word that you used there about performing and how draining it is to perform. Because I feel there’s a big trend right now in teaching where there’s a lot of emphasis on being an entertainer, a performer, putting on an act, putting on a show, being engaging. All of those things can be great and they really work well for certain personality types.
But when I hear that as an introvert, the idea of having to stand on a table and dance or sing or just perform in any way, that would drain me so much. I wouldn’t be able to do anything else afterward. The performance aspect, I think, is really intense for an introvert.
Yeah, I agree. I really moved away from that and there are times, every once in a while, where I’m really charged up and I’m able to create a little show for two minutes. But basically, that’s not what I’m going for. I don’t have a classroom microphone. I don’t have a podium because I just wouldn’t use them. And I find that I can introduce something just fine without a lot of strain.
I can say, “I’m really excited. We’re going to be starting writing portfolios today. I found a partner classroom for us in another state and we’re going to be sharing our writing with them. Here’s the project assignment, let’s start.” That’s okay and doesn’t really stress me out.
But basically, I do that kind of introduction and then we move into writing portfolios or designing blogs or rehearsing “Death of a Salesman” in small groups or working on poetry jam performances or writing children’s books. There are just so many ways that I’ve found that I can present the material, then dive into the material that really makes the classroom more like a workshop space and allow the students to be creating these products that they’re really interested in and I’m interested in and we’re just having conversations about those.
They have more choice and creativity, and so do I. And so that way, as an introverted teacher, I feel safe, comfortable, and feel I’m really being myself. So I’m the best teacher I can be. I’ve really found that there are almost no units that require direct instruction in the ELA. This may be so different in different fields, but I can create a movie for the students to watch. I could find a TED Talk, I can find or create my own podcast. I can create learning stations, or make a HyperDoc or a WebQuest.
There’s this one time when I was trying to figure out how to convey information about Emily Dickinson to my students. And I couldn’t think of anything just at the moment. So I made this multiple choice pre-test for them and I put all the information about Emily Dickinson that I wanted them to know as the right answers. Then I made the wrong answers totally absurd so that they would automatically know the information that I wanted them to know. In these sort of funny ways and creative ways, I’m able to maintain the kind of classroom atmosphere where I feel safe and comfortable.
The other thing that I’ve done is really move away from discussions that rely on me. I think some teachers can do this so effectively — they can just keep asking fascinating questions and keep engaging the students who answer over and over again. But I can’t do that sort of ping pong ball where it comes back and forth to me over and over.
So I’ve learned that Harkness discussions, which are totally student-centered and very similar to Socratic seminar, or fishbowl discussions in literature circles, all allow me to teach students how to be good in discussion, how to be good group members, and how to pay attention to dynamics. But, they are safe and comfortable for me, and I feel my students come out with every bit as effective discussion skills after going through the process of practicing those and learning through those as they would if I could lead those really fascinating, really exciting teacher to student discussions.
It’s really exciting when you can find an alignment between what’s good for your students and what’s good for you. And I think that’s what’s so awesome here is you’re really describing that sweet spot, where you’re identifying these different teaching strategies that work for you. There are so many ways to convey information to students and to get them to master key skills, almost a limitless number of ways to do it.
In some situations, you may be forced to do things that you know aren’t really your preferred way, but often the delivery of the lesson is not mandated as much by the district as the content of the lesson. So it’s really up to you to pick something that works for you.
There are so many strategies that will work for your personality that there’s no reason to keep doing things that you don’t like just because everyone else does it or just because the kids like it. The kids will like something that you also like. I feel very confident about that. And the more that you’re enthusiastic about it and your heart’s in it, when you feel comfortable, when you’re in your flow … that’s going to really improve the experience for them, too.
Yes, and I also think that students really respond to such different things. And so if teachers, if we’re all trying to do the same thing and we’re trying to create the same persona, then the students who don’t respond to that get left out. And so by creating an array of different forms of engagement, in different classes, it really benefits the students.
Well said. What about the energy drain that can come from interacting with colleagues and other adults in the building?
I’m thinking about end-of-day meetings, in particular, because for me, after being with students for six or more hours, all I wanted was to just sit alone in my nice, quiet, dark classroom. Having to be sociable, friendly, and warm or asking good questions and encouraging to my colleagues at 3:00 PM was really hard for me. I felt like I just didn’t show up as my best self because I was too drained to really take an interest in the conversations and participate.
So I’m wondering how you handled this sort of thing and how you developed a relational style with other teachers that felt true to who you are?
I hear you on this one. I think what I’m going to say is perhaps a little bit counterintuitive, but I didn’t have trouble with things like faculty meetings as much as this sort of drama that sometimes comes up at school that would really poison the workplace for me.
If I felt things were uncomfortable with a coworker for some reason, and I couldn’t control it, or if the administration was sort of aligned against the teachers for a little while, that would just make me feel ill at school. I just couldn’t enjoy working with my students the way I wanted to. And I found over the years that the only way I can make the adult spaces feel safer and happier for myself in by being really proactive in making good friends with my colleagues.
Early on in my career, after my first year of teaching, I went to this conference and it was all about student-centered discussion. It was about the Harkness Method. After the first day, there was somebody who came late. This guy walked into the room and the conference leader introduced him and said, “Oh, Potash is here late. He’s just arrived from Mount Kilimanjaro where he’s been for a few weeks volunteering and climbing the mountain.” And I thought he looked sort of shell-shocked by his reentry to the US and jet lagged. So I went over to talk to him because I felt worried about him.
It turned out that we got along very well. A year later he moved to California to teach with me and proposed marriage to me. He had this idea, right away when he moved out there, that we should start hosting a get-together for teachers every single Friday night. And I was like, “What? We couldn’t possibly do that.” And he was like, “Oh, yeah, we could, it would be so fun.” And I was like, “Every Friday night? Everybody?” And he was like, “Yeah.” And I said, “No, we should just invite the people we know. I mean, people aren’t going to come over who don’t even know us. That’s going to be weird.” And he was like, “No, we should make it open so we can just get to know everybody and everybody feels welcome. It’ll be so good for the teaching community and for us to make friends.” And I was like, “Yeah, okay.”
So we sent out this email to the whole faculty to say, “Come over to our house. We’re going to make popcorn. We’re going to play games like Euchre and Hearts and Spoons, and just talk.” And a bunch of people came, and the next week, a bunch of people came. And for the next four years … a bunch of people came. It was just this wonderful thing and this wonderful way to meet colleagues. And, of course, it became sort of a regular group. But by the end, so many teachers that we worked with had at least stopped by. Our head of school had come and our assistant head of school had come. And it was just this way that we got to know everybody in a much closer way than we ever could have just from bumping into them in the hallway.
Because of those connections, even when weird stuff came up, I knew that I had allies. I knew I had friends and people that I could trust. And it helped us to bridge difficult times. So I think, for introverts, it’s not always easy to be proactive and invite somebody to do something or picking up coffee for the whole English Department or dipping your head into a new teacher’s room to say, “Hey, how’s it going? Is there anything I can help with?”
But being proactive in those kinds of social connections, as well as in more professional ways — like inviting somebody to go to a conference with you or passing along a book that you really like and seeing if a couple of teacher friends want to discuss it with you — just anything like that is so helpful in feeling more secure and comfortable and feeling like at the end of the day, there are people that you’re really happy to see at a faculty meeting and that takes the strain off of it.
Yeah, and you know what else I feel like that does? When you get to know your colleagues better, it removes the pressure to make small talk. Because for me, as an introvert, one of the most draining things is small talk. It’s that uncomfortable silence with people you don’t know very well, and you’re talking about things you don’t care about and it’s like, “Oh, my gosh, can’t we just sit here in silence?”
But if I’m with a friend, or if I’m with someone that I know well and we’ve talked about more personal things or what’s going on in our lives, now we’ve moved past the small talk part. So when we’re in the lunchroom or passing each other in the hallway, I can have a more meaningful connection, and those meaningful connections are really energizing for me. It’s the shallow stuff as an introvert that just does nothing for me.
Yes, I couldn’t agree more.
One of the things that I always advise teachers is to look for moments throughout the day for rejuvenating and finding ways to re-energize. So the idea is that you’re not just running yourself ragged and never sitting down from the moment you arrive at school until you leave in the afternoon.
I tried alternating high energy and low energy activities with kids. So if we did something that was really intense, then we would maybe turn the lights off and have some silent reading, or some quiet writing, or some sort of downtime or reflection time for them right afterward. That really helped me a lot, and I know it helped the introverted kids in my class who were also feeling very overstimulated after some of those more rambunctious, collaborative type of activities.
So I would have that built-in moment — little breaks built into the day — where I could sit for a few moments and compose myself while the kids were doing something independently. And I’d have breaks during as well as non-instructional time.
It might be eating alone in my room, or I sometimes sat with just one other friend so I knew I could just relax and be myself. Sometimes we wouldn’t even really talk. We could sit in silence together and that felt comfortable.
So those were some of the ways that I built in alone time, downtime, or quiet time for myself throughout the day, and it really made a big difference. I’m wondering if that’s something that you did, not just in your instruction, but just throughout your teaching day to decompress or to reenergize.
Yes, you and I are definitely on the same page with this. I’ve been known to lock my classroom door and do online yoga for 20 minutes in the middle of the day. I was mid-downward dog in the classroom when a janitor unlocked the door to come in and clean something. And I was like, “Hi.” And I agree with you on the eating lunch in my classroom thing. I actually can’t think of a single time in my career when I have eaten lunch in the cafeteria or the dining hall or the teacher’s room, depending on what school I was at.
I would always eat at my desk. That time for me was probably the most important in the whole day. I don’t know that the rest of the day would have worked if I didn’t have that time. And I would just listen to a podcast or I’d watch the Gilmore Girls or the Great British Baking Show, or read a book.
That was so important to me. I looked forward to that and it would recharge my batteries and I relied on that kind of quiet time to think about what was coming up in the afternoon as well. And while I would sometimes have to dash out and make copies or fit in a meeting or something, there was almost always at least a 20-minute block where I could be on my own. And that was key.
That’s so good to recognize that in yourself. Just notice what your needs are, and it may be different from day to day. Some days you may need more quiet time or downtime than others, but to really pay attention to that and prioritize it is important.
You should give yourself that time (even if everyone else isn’t doing it that way or if there’s something else that you feel like you should be doing) if that’s what you need to really be your best self for your students in the afternoon. That’s what you need and there’s nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed about or to feel like you’re compensating for something. I think just really being in tune with your needs is so important.
Yeah. My husband would always go and eat with all the other teachers and then come chat with me for two minutes at the end of lunch. “I miss you, hi,” and then go off and do his own teaching.
Obviously, you married an extrovert.
I did, too. My husband loves being around other people. He can talk to anyone about anything. It’s just so energizing for him, and it’s so interesting to watch opposites attract in that way.
What’s something that you wish that all introverted teachers knew about how to make teaching more enjoyable and less draining for their personality type?
I think the biggest thing I would suggest, based on my own life and experience as a teacher, is just to honor what actually works for you. There is no formula. There are a million and one ways to be a good teacher, and I’ve always been my happiest as a teacher when I was using my gifts what I truly enjoy in a way that made me feel safe and comfortable. I shouldn’t have to recover after teaching and neither should anybody. It should be something that can give you joy and something that can make you feel good and safe.
Of course, they’re going to be tough days. Everybody has to recover after tough days, but in the day-to-day, I feel like there is a way, at least there has been for me, where I could feel really excited to go into work and happy to greet my students. And I didn’t feel judged — I just felt like I was able to be who I really was. And I think everybody should have that.
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