Needs to Participate More: The Contradiction of the Introvert

“He was an introverted kid, so I didn’t send him to his room as punishment. No, I took him to a party.” ― Jarod Kintz, This Book is Not For Sale 

I am an introvert. I can stand in front of a theatre full of people and speak with ease, but I would prefer to go home and read a book than have a glass of wine with those people afterwards. My school report cards often said things like, “needs to participate more in class”. The fact is, I was participating fully in class, but I sometimes preferred to think rather than speak. I often wonder what it means for students in our schools today, this contradiction of the introvert? The more that our schools emphasise the importance of collaboration, the more pronounced the challenge facing the introvert must become, one imagines. So what are the implications for our schools?

Susan Cain, in her absorbing book, Quiet; The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, makes the following provocative observation: “Introversion—along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness—is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology.” I was often described as being shy as a child, and I would say that this is still somewhat true, but being shy and being an introvert are two different things. When people label a child “shy” it can seem like a weakness, an apology, but there is a growing respect for the introvert in today’s world. As an educator, I often encounter concerned parents who disclose, awkwardly, that “many of the teachers are concerned that Jack is too quiet in class.” I read it in report cards, too, on occasion, and I don’t like it much, because I understand that being quiet in class and not being engaged are two very different things.

There are days that concerned adults come to my office to advise me that “Carrie is sitting alone in the cafeteria again”. Many kids like to be alone, and as long as they are not the victims of social exclusion, being alone should not be a cause for concern. At a recent school dance, one of our students read a novel throughout the evening. I thought this was quite cool. I believe our more informed students thought she was rock star cool, though they may have been too shy to tell her. The fact is, there should be no set learning style or personality definition that defines any of us. We need to help young people to be self-aware and comfortable in their own skin. If they are reserved and shy, they do need to learn to speak in public and develop the confidence to be able to contribute to a team when necessary; if they are outgoing and exuberant, they need to learn to be reflective and to listen.

I think we really have to go back to the societal conception of what it means to be an introvert and what it takes to be successful in the 21st Century. For those of us who are introverts, having a rich inner life is actually something we appreciate, something we crave. It is not a regret to prefer an evening with a book to a crowded pub, a reflective walk to being the life and soul of the party. It is when society characterizes introversion as a weakness, denoting a lack of assertiveness and sociability that there is a problem. I don’t think anyone would describe me as being shy in my assertiveness. I also enjoy a good social event on occasion. It’s a bit like what a new student at our school said to me a few weeks ago when I checked in on his collaboration group” “I would rather work on my own, but I am fine with this. I get the need to work with the group, I’ll just need my own time, too.”

What we need then in our schools, I would suggest, is to ensure we provide structured time both for group collaboration and for individual contemplation. Introverts may often be quiet: this is called thinking. Introverts may be restrained in conversation: this is called listening. Quiet people are often very strong people. Our schools need to be cautious not to promote what Cain refers to as the “Extrovert Ideal – the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight.” At our school, we have consciously tried to reverse the trend of the 20th Century, the focus shifting from character to personality during that period. Character education lies at the heart of our curriculum. We not only seek to teach “Learning Relationships”, we also assess the ability of students to participate in groups, to lead, to listen, to demonstrate empathy, perspective and self-knowledge.

But we should not underestimate the challenge that confronts the introvert either. As Cain puts it, “Introverts living under the Extroversion Ideal are like women in a man’s world, discounted because of a trait that goes to the core of who they are.” Society has a lot to answer for and there is work to be done to recalibrate how we have evolved. As Anaïs Nin notes: “Our culture made a virtue of living only as extroverts. We discouraged the inner journey, the quest for a center. So we lost our center and have to find it again.” But introversion is not something that needs to be re-considered. Society is.

The reality is that we all reside somewhere on a scale between being introverted and extroverted. We hear that Steve Jobs was a notable introvert, but his greatest achievements at Apple involved complex teamwork. I am not alone in a leadership position as someone who had to be almost dragged to that position. I don’t like the limelight and I think this is also true of many of my colleagues in school leadership. I think many people would be surprised to learn that I am an introvert. I like being an introvert. I dislike how much I hate small talk, but I am perfectly comfortable speaking to large groups and I love working with extroverts.

Just like all extroverts are not loud-mouth, brash, thoughtless spotlight chasers, not all introverts are pained, socially reticent loners. In a world in which there are ways for people to communicate via global networks and we are being warned of a pandemic of social anxiety disorders, the challenge to our schools is to nurture and respect the introvert and extrovert in all of us.