Why I decided to become a teacher, despite my introversion

So, last month I left science after 10 years, and started as a substitute teacher at a high school. I currently plan to become a high school teacher in physics and maths, which means getting an extra degree. The main reason I decided to try out teaching is that I liked it during my PhD. Another reason is because I was fascinated by blog posts about teaching, like about puzzling e-mail exchange with a student, about respecting students’ decisions, about why teaching might be good profession for autistic people and about an impressive reaction to sexism in a student evaluation, and many more posts on these and other blogs.

Of course, I don’t know if teaching will be the right career path for me in the long run. I am quite introverted, and I notice teachers tend to be extroverted. I am also very good at detecting negative emotional responses, even if they are subtle. Therefore I notice every unhappy face very clearly, and currently it still follows me home after class.

On the other hand, maybe thanks to my introversion, I am good at interacting with student one-on-one and actually listening to them. I think I am good at encouraging students with low self-confidence in their abilities. I know fear very well, I know how it paralyzes the brain, and I know how to respond to it.

Another advantage that I have is that I have in the last years finally understood how fundamentally different people are, which I had not really known during my 20ies. I have a feeling that this realization might be a prerequisite to being a good teacher.

Unfortunately, I have to get an extra degree, which is a major undertaking, equivalent to 2 years of full-time study. This despite a lack of physics and maths teachers in my country. I am not sure how this will go, since, of course, I already got very annoyed about some of the lectures are built up and what they require. This is probably another reason that I think teaching is a good choice for me: I hate having to do what other people tell me. I need independence like air, otherwise I get very cranky and very bad at what I do. I have the impression teaching is a profession where you get to make the most important decisions yourself.

So my current theory is that being stubborn, introverted, and having a long history of fighting with my fears will somehow make me into a good teacher.  And also the fact that I apparently like teenagers. I like how raw they are, how vulnerable and how emotional.

I will find out in the next months if this theory holds. In any case, I will start writing about my experiences with teaching on this blog from now on.

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13 Responses to Why I decided to become a teacher, despite my introversion

  1. Best wishes with the new career! Educators are really into encouraging science majors nowadays to become teachers, so it will be interesting to see how you feel about this journey. Also, you might want to look into similar programs like the UTeach program in the US that has a post-baccalaureate certification option to cut down the amount of time required for the teaching degree component (if such programs exist in your country): https://uteach.utexas.edu

  2. Lindsay says:

    I’ve certainly been tempted to go into teaching (Teach for America, in particular, was something I considered doing while I was in college) even though my mom told me she didn’t think it was a good idea. For me it’s not just introversion, but also difficulty with spoken language. I’m just not sure I’d be good enough at engaging a classroom, or at explaining things to them so that they make sense. (I’ve had some success at one-on-one tutoring — I can think of two friends I’ve helped when they were in the same class as me: one of them I made the difference between him failing and him passing, albeit with a low grade, and the other I maybe made the difference between a B and an A. She was really smart herself, and I’m really not sure how much I helped and how much was just her needing time to familiarize herself with the concepts. I kept worrying that I wasn’t really helping her, but she thought I was a big help at the time. Maybe I just helped boost her confidence, because she did worry and stress out a lot. And I also felt like I should’ve been able to do more for the other guy, too — like get him to a C at least. So I definitely feel like my record at tutoring is mixed, even if both of the people I can remember tutoring had good results.)

    So I’ve decided, tentatively, that I probably don’t have what it takes to be a teacher, even though I know that we need more teachers with the kind of STEM education I have. (Even in my district, which is rich, suburban and crammed with award-winning schools and special programs for super-advanced students, we still could never find a substitute who knew calculus. So I feel some residual sense of needing to fill that hole, even though a sense has been building in me that I can’t.)

    • zinemin says:

      In my lectures for the teacher’s diploma, the profs say that it is a myth that teachers necessarily have to be “born” teachers. There are a lot of skills, they claim, that you can learn, and people who give very bad first lessons can become good.
      What is certainly true that you can learn, for example, about typical misconceptions in physics, and then explain things in a way taking account of these misconceptions. (I have no clue about these things yet so I think I am often not explaining things well either).
      So to me it seems some first problems with explaining stuff to people does not say much whether you can become a good teacher or not….

      But I worry about the personality part. Mainly, I think, you need good boundaries and be able not to take things personally, and you need to adapt your goals according to reality. For example, you cannot expect that just because you are a really good teacher, you will reach every student, or that every student will start liking maths. This will never happen. In the lecture they claim teachers only influence 30% of a student’s success, the rest is background, family, intrinsic motivation, class atmosphere etc.
      So I guess you should really see your tutoring results as a full success. 🙂

  3. That’s awesome that you’re exploring your options! So I want to add some options you may not have thought about. How about informal science education? Think science museums or outreach efforts? For example, many research institutes have outreach where they work with school groups etc to expose kids to science and research. It’s a great way to utilize your research and teaching background, and give back to the community. And when I say community, I mean scientific community. Many scientists don’t enjoy teaching or aren’t that good at it, so special people like yourself that are brave souls to be the bridge between are often really prized. I myself work for a science museum and I love the work I do there. What’s also great about working in informal education is your class sizes are smaller, the student to teacher ratio is smaller, it’s more innovative and creative, and you’re less likely to get burnt out. Also you will not need to get another degree if you want to work within informal education, your science, research and college teaching/mentoring experience is enough. And everyone loves having a PhD content expert on staff that is actually interested with working with youth!

    I don’t think teachers have to be extroverted, they just have to be brave! Actually introverts listen more and pay attention more, and youth never get heard so when they see someone really see them and hear them, you earn a level of respect some extroverted teachers never earn. However, that said, I am an extrovert especially in the classroom.

    And I don’t think teachers are born. All skills can be learned and mastered. Just like with science and math.

    Good luck! I can’t wait to read about this wonderful journey.

    PS: I have some life changes I’m considering making myself. As much as I love my work, there’s something missing. I’m trying to create a plan now, I’ll keep you posted.

    • zinemin says:

      Thank you so much! Yes, I would LOVE to do outreach in my own subfield. It won’t be easy to find a job, but to be honest I haven’t even tried, and I should. I am often frustrated when I think how all the work that I did in the last 10 years doesn’t help me in the least when teaching physics. With outreach, I could at least use some of it, and as you say I would not have to get another degree (the process of which is very frustrating too).

      Initially I actually wanted to go into science journalism. I got a quite long article published in a good newspaper last year. But then I got discouraged by the bad salaries and the big competition…

      I am curious to read about the life changes you are considering… good luck to you too! 🙂

  4. Oh yeah. I forgot. Boundaries are the only way you survive working with youth. Being a teenager is such a rough time in a person’s life, it’s hard to be the adult that really can’t do much for them (unlike a parent that has more input). These are the strategies I took to help me find balance when I taught in a classroom:
    1) never bring work home. Don’t lesson plan, call parents, grade, or even do research for a lesson at home. Stay late at work if you need to. But your home needs to be an emotional safe zone. When you work at home you can become despondent that your efforts don’t seem to be working.
    2) Do something between leaving work and arriving home. Read a book or listen to an audio book on the way home. Take a 10-15 min walk before you step foot in your house. Again your home has to be an emotional safe zone. Get into the habit of not entering your home until you’ve cleared your mind of the day.
    3) Get a hobby. I picked up dance. Every Saturday afternoon for 4 out of the 6 years I taught I took a 2hr dance class. (I didn’t figure this out until my second year teaching).
    4) Find time to meet up with friends regularly. What’s great about friends is they will lovingly listen to you bitch about your day as a teacher, but only for oh so long. Since they have things to share too, after a while they’ll stop you from going on and on so they can share important things going on in their lives. So they do a great job of pulling you out of your funk.

  5. PhunPhysicsProf says:

    I am an introvert and a high school physics and astronomy teacher (a second career for me too!) You can do it – sharing your passion is very satisfying and the students respond positively to that. Do build in some down time for yourself into your school day. It is easy to get overwhelmed by spending the entire day in a high energy classroom environment. Teaching your own classes is much better than substitute teaching because you get enough time to build a relationship with your students.
    As to the extra degree, check with the school system and local universities. I know there are a couple of programs here designed for career changers with advanced degrees to minimize the time required to get certified while maximizing the time spent on critical teacher skills.
    Good luck and drop me a line if you want to talk.

  6. CPO says:

    I’m an introvert and have been doing teaching (software training) on a fairly regular basis for the past 10 or so years. In the software training world, the certification process can be more straightforward (measured in months instead of years) depending on the areas you are teaching in. The same might also apply for other types of corporate training, including project management or business skills.

    I believe that introverts can make excellent teachers, for the reasons already discussed in the comments here, but also because we have an ability to concentrate intensely on a concept and “break it down”, so to speak, into smaller parts. This of course is all being done in “real time”, while also understanding that each learner thinks about and sees concepts differently, so the delivery of a concept can vary a lot between classes with different people in the room.

    As an introvert standing at the front of the classroom, I’m totally aware that my best strengths are the ability to listen to my students, “see” the in my mind the concept I need to deliver to them, then transfer the knowledge to them in an uninterrupted sequence that makes sense to them, so they will shed any doubts or uncertainties about how to understand a new concept. I think that this is possibly one of the keys for introverts and teaching: it provides an environment where you can truly express your thoughts and ideas without fear of the topic of conversation changing, because ultimately you are in control of the conversation! Cool eh? 🙂

    Best wishes in the career change!

    • zinemin says:

      Thank you! 🙂

      I love the description of your strengths in teaching. I am starting to see something similar in my teaching, at least I hope so… I think I am good at identifying the core of a topic, and when I really see through a concept I can explain it in a way that makes sense to students. Also the students seem to appreciate that I listen to them. Of course, I am never going to be this very entertaining charismatic talkshow host kind of teacher, and I am not very good yet at enforcing discipline when the students are not in the mood to listen. Although making a serious face, being very quiet and standing close to them works surprisingly well. Then they get embarrassed and shut up. Maybe having an impressive serious/quiet face is another secret power of introverts. 🙂

      • Phillip says:

        About the only time I can remember having issues with my introversion was when I taught a class directly beside a loud, super-extroverted motivational speaker. That made for a long day, especially when the students stopped listening to me and started laughing at his jokes instead 🙂

        If you’re interested in more experiences about introversion and work, I recently started my own blog, which includes an article about my own journey with teaching.

        Thanks again for the post!

      • zinemin says:

        Yes, I am very interested, thanks! Nice blog posts, I am looking forward to read more about your experiences.

  7. ShonMe says:

    I really would like to hear back from you. How do you deal with extroverts who criticized your teaching style as not being “outgoing enough”. I’ve worked with people who said “you are too quiet” or “what is wrong with you” when I was just doing my work and minding my own business. I want to teach special education because I feel I work well with kids who have special needs. I don’t want criticism from co-workers, because it could harm my career in the long run. I can talk to people but don’t have the required bubbly personality that seems to be the standard these days for a teacher of young kids.

    • zinemin says:

      It is annoying that some people seem to believe that a bubbly personality is necessary for a teacher. I always preferred quiet teachers. But for sure special needs can be a good option for introverts, I have an introverted friend who does this. But in the end I think you have to be deeply convinced that your style of teaching is good for the children. For me it is has helped to see my own lessons on video for distinguishing which kind of criticism is actually justified and which just does not fit my personality and my style and I therefore decide to ignore. It also helps me to watch lessons of other teachers who are perhaps more bubbly than me, but do other things wrong — extroverts often talk too much, and give too many details, and do not explain as well (in my experience) and can be very tiring to introvert students. I’m somebody who seems serious and quiet, and that is not something I will ever be able to change, even if it bothers some people, and so criticism along those lines does not really touch me very much…

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