For most of my life, I felt like something was wrong with me. I teetered between two worlds that I didn't even know existed. One part of me loved my "alone" time where I could get lost in my books, art, and music. Another part of me enjoyed being in public performing the plays that I'd written, dancing, and competing on sports teams. One part of me was very outgoing, silly, and energetic. The other part was more "reserved". Sometimes people frustrated me by pointing out my quietness and accused me of being mellow, shy, or sad. I wasn't sad or shy. Because shyness had a negative connotation, I didn't like being boxed into that category. In social situations, I listened, observed, and tried to process an abundance of stimuli. Then, without realizing that I wasn't talking very much, time would pass. I wasn't purposefully quiet. My mind wasn't quiet. I was always thinking! But, if a teacher called on me to give an answer in class, I'd get all tongue-tied, and my brain would freeze. Answers always flooded my head after the embarrassment of looking and feeling dumb in front of my peers.
A life of puzzling contradictions followed me into adulthood and my profession. I've walked a fine line between my natural introverted tendencies and the flipside of being extroverted. Teaching brings out the best of both worlds. I love the creative process of planning instruction! I'm in a constant state of asking, "What if?" That's my introverted voice. My extroverted voice comes out in the form of wearing goofy costumes and participating in a whole host of other "humiliating" acts to engage my students in laughter and learning. Risk taking and trying new things are second nature to me which is not characteristic of many introverts. The yin and yang of teaching and working with kids drive me.
To be fully transparent, this is the first time that I've identified myself as an introvert. Why? Because being an introvert has always meant something negative. Our society values all of the characteristics of the extrovert. So although I have a lot of extrovert tendencies, there have been many times when I faked being more extroverted than my usual. The truth is that I had many misconceptions about being an extrovert and even more about being an introvert. Introverted doesn't mean shy and extroverted doesn't mean outgoing. Those misconceptions, along with the fact that I completely ignored that everyone falls on a spectrum, led to denial and feelings of not being as valued as more extroverted teacher leaders. No one is purely introverted or extroverted. Most people have characteristics of and need both.
One is not better than the other. It's a matter of energy and how we recharge our brains. The neuroscience is fascinating and a topic for another post. Basically, introverts get their energy from inside and extroverts get their energy from outside. If you have no background about the misconceptions of being introverted, watch this powerful TED talk by Susan Cain. Whether or not you think that you're more introverted or not, someone that you know is and this will help you to better understand them.
So how do the introvert/extrovert preferences come into play with teacher leadership?
Often when we hear the word, "leadership," we think of someone that is outgoing, charismatic, energetic, in the public eye, and one who delivers passionate, motivational speeches. The nearest bookstore has whole sections of self-help and leadership books to teach people how to be more extroverted. To a certain degree, leaders do need to develop some of the extroverted characteristics. Leaders are in the spotlight. They do need communication skills. They do need to be a people person.
For most of my career, I've felt a sense of shame that I couldn't be more of a "leader" or at least my perception of what a leader entailed. I listened and observed in faculty meetings. Rarely have I jumped into a discussion in a large group setting. Sure, I had my opinions, but it was much more comfortable to have an extrovert express a similar view. And I've been mortified when someone has said, "Sandy, you're the creative one. What's your idea?" Because in that moment, not one original thought comes to me. I experience a complete brain freeze. Sometimes with so much emphasis on group work and collaboration, it's difficult to feel like a competent, contributing member of the staff. Now don't get me wrong, I know the power of collaboration. I teach it and preach it. But what happens more often than not with any faculty meeting is that there is no "down time" to plan and prepare for collaborative work. There is never enough time allotted to collaborate let alone to plan and prepare for the time to work together. How much richer would our conversations be without the constraints of time?
I've often been thrown into an uncomfortable spotlight. I haven't directed school musicals and other programs to have attention drawn to me. I've done it for the kids! The same is true when I've used my connections to bring opportunities to my colleagues and school. However, the more I lead out, the more attention is drawn to me. It's not always comfortable.
I think of famous introverts who changed the world not because of wanting attention, but because they felt compelled to make a change and did. I think of what I want my contribution to the world and legacy to be. Instead of thinking that something is wrong with me, I need to celebrate the strengths of my introverted side. People have always told me that I've been blessed with the ability to influence others. Only recently have I come to know that influence is really leadership. I do have strengths. They may not be as easily recognized as the more extroverted leader, but never underestimate the power of the quiet catalyst for change.
In Part 2, I'll discuss teacher leadership and how the quieter teacher can be an asset to any school or district.