An Introvert’s Guide to Teaching Kids
It wasn’t too long ago that I, like many others, trembled at the thought of standing in front of a crowd of strangers. Now I do it for a living. Not only that, but half the time, those strangers are kids.
I am an only child, I don’t have any younger cousins, and I never had to babysit. Before moving to Korea, I had zero experience with kids. Over the past few weeks, I have been on a very steep learning curve.
One of the greatest challenges to overcome in this new role has been my demeanor as a veritable introvert. Susan Cain, in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts, explains that the difference between introverts and extroverts is our source of energy.
Extroverts feed off the energy of social interaction and tend to thrive in classroom environments. We introverts, though, need low energy situations to recharge our batteries that quickly drain in those intense situations.
Teaching ESL to kids means constant exposure to that intensity. However, that doesn’t mean that we introverts are doomed.
If you are looking for a list of quick tips on how to handle a classroom, this is not your advice column. Here, I aim to outline a change of attitude that has helped me adapt to this new role into which I have been cast.
1. Embrace the Role
William Shakespeare wrote that we are all merely players on a stage. While this applies to our general lives, it is particularly important to remember when we are fulfilling a role that we may not be naturally predisposed to do.
I know that I was never meant for this role, but I have found myself expected to play it, and play it, I will. The first step for me was to recognize that I was going to have to wear a mask. We all bring our own style and influence to the classroom, but there are a few things that any teacher must be prepared to give their students.
For me, the most difficult of these was the sheer amount of energy needed. Kids have a lot of energy, and especially at our after-school programs, they can be teeming with excitement that needs an outlet. We need to match this energy if we are to hold their attention.
Scraps of paper, broken pencils, and other students can quickly become more interesting than the teacher if we start droning on about grammar rules. Even more difficult, are the one’s (who will probably remind you a bit of yourself) who are drained by the time they get to your class. For these pooped youngsters, it is up to us to engage them with the material.
Although I’m not big on teaching games, I have embraced the fact that sometimes we just need to play a few minutes of Simon Says or a do an absurd little dance. These things are certainly outside my comfort zone, but I didn’t launch myself to the other side of the globe to relax in my comfort zone; I came to burst out of it.
As I ease into the routine, my comfort zone expands, and those things that had caused me so much anxiety have become part of me.
2. When you’re not in class, don’t be in class!
As I write this, I am sitting on a park bench just down the street from my school. I only have a few hours off throughout the day, but over the past week, I have made it a point to get out of the school whenever possible.
Our minds feed off our surroundings, which can elicit emotions, trigger memories and affect our energy levels. When I am in class, I am running on adrenaline that keeps me focused and engaged with my students. That is perfectly fine and even necessary for playing my part, but like any athlete knows, pushing at full speed for every second of the game is not sustainable.
I find that when I stay in the school, my mind tries to maintain that energy and anxiety for hours at a time, so when I finally get to my class, I am already exhausted. Finding a quiet park or a cozy cafe gives me an opportunity to recharge.
This doesn’t mean I don’t prepare. This means I prepare somewhere else. On principle, I never take my books home with me, but going to a nearby cafe is sometimes necessary. I may still be working, but my environment keeps my energy levels down and my anxiety at bay.
When I’m finished prepping, I do something else. Though I often feel I can never prepare enough, I began to realize that I could never be fully prepared for any class. Once I have a basic lesson plan and activities, the rest is adapting to the ever-changing classroom environment.
Taking even half an hour to relax allows me to prepare for the impending improvisation.
3. Exploit your strengths
While injecting enthusiasm into a classroom may not be our specialty, we introverts do have specific skills to offer that can greatly improve our teaching. First of all, we tend to be much more focused than our extroverted colleagues on the judgmental looks and glassy stares of the students in the back.
We introverts understand what it’s like to be talked over in class. Pay attention to those kids and give them the space to participate. We are constantly judging our performance based not on the eager bundle of energy in the front row, but on the somber child in the corner, too afraid or lost to ask for attention.
Of course, many extroverted teachers know to look for these students as well, but we introverts can use our natural tendency to our advantage.
Secondly, as English teachers, our goal is to get our students speaking English. That means that usually we need to shut up and listen. For our loquacious colleagues, that can be a challenge. For us, it is a step back toward our comfort zone. We like 1-on-1 time, and many students do too.
By organizing our class time in ways that encourage small group and partner activities, we can interact with limited numbers of students at a time while the others are engaged in their own work.
Not only does the personal interaction give students the ultimate ability to practice with individual instruction, it gives us the opportunity to build the kind of close relationships essential to the mentorship teaching should be. Think about the teachers from whom you learned the most. The odds are that they were people with whom you had a close relationship or at least highly respected.
When we talk with our students in intimate small groups or 1-on-1, we show that they are more than just a body in a chair, that they are human beings and that we care about them.
Teaching kids is not easy, not even for most extroverts. However, with a little adjustment of attitude and some change of scenery, we can turn our proclivity for calm into highly effective bursts of energy.
Adapting to a new role is never easy, but I always find that I tend to underestimate my potential when I put forth my best effort in playing the role for which I have been cast. Just like an actor on a stage, though, when the scene ends, I must get off the stage. By finding a new environment that helps me ease into my comfort zone, my mind can rest and recharge for the next act.
When I take the stage again, I know that I am only a supporting role. The students are center stage, and I have learned to exploit my focus on the quiet ones and my need for intimate interaction to make sure that my students know that they are the focus of my attention.
I am in no way an expert in any field, but I am learning every day, and these small adjustments to my frame of mind have improved both my quality of life and ability to teach.
Are you an introvert? Did you find this article helpful? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.
 Cain, Susan. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. New York: Crown Publishers, 2012.
 “Studies Show How Surroundings Affect Mood, Health.” NPR. August 5, 2011. Accessed July 26, 2015.
 Bloom, Adi. “How Introverts Can Thrive as Teachers.” New Teachers. June 28, 2013. Accessed July 26, 2015.