Flipping the Switch


[The following blog contains mentions of child abuse, bullying, and death.]

Even though my everyday behaviour definitely falls in line with what most people would probably refer to as introverted, I’ve never felt fully comfortable referring to myself as an introvert. When I think back to my earliest coherent memories, from when I was around four years old, I remember myself being kind of extroverted within the very small circle that my family kept, and as a very curious child, I was eager to go to school and meet other kids. As soon as I started at school, though, my bookishness made me an immediate target of all the nascent bullies I was around, and my father’s physical abuse of me and Mom got worse as the recession of the early 1980’s dragged on, which only normalized the idea of me being a target of violence even more. By the time that decade was over, I was quickly learning that keeping to myself, as unfair as it felt because the other kids around me were free to express themselves, was going to be a necessary component of me just surviving that part of my life.

Going off to college for the first time felt like a fresh start, but the fact that I basically hadn’t had the opportunity to develop any social knowledge for several years definitely put me at a disadvantage when it came to making new friends, and then I basically didn’t do any real-life socializing for years after my college opportunities were yanked out from under me. It wasn’t that I didn’t try to make friends when I finally got back to college, but that felt like I was being thrust into a game that I didn’t know most of the rules to; add in my compulsion to excel as much as possible once I got back into higher education, and I basically behaved like someone who was super-introverted, to the point where it’s hard for me to think of myself as anything but an introvert, even if I don’t think the label does an adequate job of describing me and my history.

This became a problem for me as I began my teaching career, because I quickly realized that if I wanted students to open up about what mattered to them — a crucial step in making sure that what I do meets my students’ needs as much as possible — then I had to lead by example, and avoid the hypocrisy of asking my students to do something that I wasn’t willing to do myself. Even though it’s very uncomfortable for me, there are times when I have to act like an extrovert in front of my students, to get discussions started and set the right tone for my classroom. I guess it’s something I’ve just had to learn to do over the years, and as much as the term “ambivert” has come into use in recent years, I still feel like an introvert who just needs to step far out of her comfort zone for the sake of being a more effective educator.

This has been a very difficult semester for me in terms of keeping my energy up; having to move to a new town the day before the start of a new semester, then deal with the death of one of my best friends, then get stricken with the worst illness I’ve had in decades, all in a twenty-day span, was not the best way to start this new chapter of my life in Platteville, and I still feel like I’m recovering from all those things. (Thanks to the weather this weekend messing with my sleep schedule, I’m chugging my second iced coffee of the day as I draft this, and I doubt it will be my last.) A lot has been written about how being social can be exhausting to introverts, but it’s something I’ve never given much thought to, simply because it’s been a constant for most of my life.

As I was talking with my students in the creativity workshop I run on Saturday mornings, though, one of them asked about this energy issue for introverts, and that got me thinking. That workshop is the only online teaching I’m doing right now; all my normal English classes are meeting in-person this semester, and I wanted to spend at least this academic year away from teaching those classes via Zoom. As much as I appreciated the opportunity to teach online at the start of the pandemic, and as eager as I am to continue working on how to solve the problems of teaching in online environments, I kind of need this year to get back to in-person teaching, just because I find it far more effective than running those classes online. Maybe I’ll start teaching more online classes again next autumn, but now is not the time for me to start pondering that decision.

The more I think about it, the more I have to wonder if teaching online for so long, even if I was doing most of the same things I do when I teach in-person, was helping me feel less exhausted after I finished a class. Even if I tell my students the same things in each environment, there’s probably a comfort in disconnecting from other people so easily on Zoom — literally just hitting the “End Call” button — that makes it easier for me to retreat to my personal comfort zone when a class is over. The fact that I’ve also just moved from a campus with a couple of hundred people, to a campus of several thousand, is probably playing a part in these difficulties as well. I still prefer in-person teaching, but I have to wonder if I get more benefits from teaching online than just the usual stuff about not needing to shower, and saving money by making my own coffee, and all that jazz.

It could be that I just need more time to adjust to life in Platteville, to get to know my colleagues and students better, and that will help make teaching less exhausting to me. It could be that I just need to spend more time in town here, since college towns are probably the most ideal place for me to live because of my spirit and attitude. Right now, though, there’s a part of me that wants to go back to teaching online, at least for a while, to see if that helps me keep my energy up. Maybe I’ll get that opportunity over the summer here, or maybe next autumn, but whenever it happens, I hope it helps me figure out how to be a better teacher for my students, regardless of how I’m teaching them.

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