My Presence is Not Like Yours

In defence of the Quiet Teacher

I’ve written about being introverted before (I am not ideal) and about supporting introverted and shy pupils (Empowering the Quiet Ones.) It shouldn’t feel like such a niche topic to write about: according to introvert guru Susan Cain, 30 to 50% of people show introverted traits and would likely identify as ‘quiet’. This means that roughly a third to a half of people don’t, and will never, fit the ‘extrovert ideal’ that is rife in all facets of society. While the number of introverts in the teaching profession might be a little lower, owing to it being such a people-oriented job that plenty of introverts would avoid like the plague, introverted teachers are everywhere. While that sounds a little bit creepy and subliminal, it’s not wrong! In every school, there will be introverted teachers. We are real, we matter, and we should be taken into account.

Lately, I was unsuccessful in a job application after making it all the way to interview (I don’t know how it is in other areas of the country, but it’s borderline impossible to even get that far, where I am!) My feedback stated classroom presence and confidence as a major contributor to my not getting the job. Everything that was outlined to me made perfect sense, except that it was a little like driving in the wrong gear, or having your eyes tested and trying to see through the wrong lenses. 

My manner and classroom presence was mistaken for low confidence, because it hadn’t been taken into account that I was not a loud person. My own reflections on the lesson were quite different – though please don’t think I’m trying to launch a bitter attack on the headteacher who undoubtedly made the right choice for their school! 

I walked out of the observed lesson feeling that I had done the best I could, and left the interview feeling like I had performed well. I am not good at interviews, so to feel collected in front of that (socially distant) panel was a massive achievement in itself. I wasn’t what the school were looking for, and there was a candidate who performed better. Such is life.

I mentioned an extrovert ideal earlier, and I wonder what damage this might be doing to the teaching profession. If we expect all teachers to be all-singing, all-dancing, all the time, then what will become of pupils who are introverted themselves, who never see themselves reflected in a teacher. As I see it, a child might go through primary school and have seven extroverted teachers – and that’s great if the child themselves is extroverted and can bounce off that energy. But imagine the child is quiet. Maybe a little shy, unsure of how to handle their quietness in social settings. What a difference it could make, to have even one quieter teacher! 

Before you think I’m trying to sell myself as a not-very-good teacher, let me outline my classroom manner, so you can make your own reasoned decision on that. I’m not a shouty person, nor do I intend to become one. I’m not a fan of raising my voice (because I remember being little myself and hating it when adults in school shouted!) preferring to bring the class down to my level instead of raising myself up to theirs. I aim to bring a calm atmosphere into my classroom, something I’ve been successful in doing in the past – we can be noisy too, of course, but there’s always that return to a reasonable level. I want to create an environment that’s supportive to every child, something that I think has become even more important in the present climate. It’s undeniable that some children need and want a ‘loud’ teacher (‘loud’ in the sense of voice and personality) and I can throw myself into that state of mind for a while when the time comes. But my classroom is ultimately a haven for the quiet – hopefully it’s the classroom I needed myself, and a third to a half of any class might need too. I like to think that my classroom could be the place where introverted children can shed their shyness and simply be ‘quiet’. I have a child in mind when I write that, who certainly became a lot more comfortable in her own skin while in my class, not being pushed to be something she wasn’t.

For trainees or NQTs who might have had the not-so-helpful feedback of ‘you need to be louder’, here are a few tips that I try to follow, that your extroverted observer might be looking for.

  1. Body language – Look like you’re going to be loud. Stand square with shoulders back when you’re addressing the whole class. Don’t fidget while you’re speaking, as your body language shows how much you value and believe what you’re saying.
  2. Consider where in your body your voice is coming from, where you’re putting it, and the effect this will have on the room.
  3. Wait for silence – You are the most important voice in that room, at that moment. Don’t settle for anything less than silence.
  4. Don’t look to your mentor for approval or clarification – This one’s specific to trainees, but it’s something I was guilty of frequently! If you look to the usual class teacher to check you’re doing it right, you undermine everything you’ve said to the class. It’s your lesson and you need to own it, and own any mistakes you might have made in the process!
  5. Own your space. It’s a tricky one, especially in a job interview when it’s not your room!But move around the room, use all of the space effectively (easier in non-covid times, I will admit.) In my NQT classroom, I had two different chairs, one by the computer and one by the whiteboard. My movement between these areas signalled parts of the lesson non-verbally to the children, which unconsciously puts you in control of the classroom and what happens within it.

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