First Person

Parent blog: Introverts at school

Boulder mom of three and psychologist Suzita Cochran reflects on why public schools seem to favor extroverted students and wonders what can be done to boost the confidence of  classroom introverts. 

Ashley is an 11-year-old who lives in our neighborhood. She’s soft-spoken and curious. Her big brown eyes constantly take in the world around her. A while back I bumped into Ashley’s mother and we got to talking. I asked how Ashley’s transition to middle school had gone this year, since our son Daniel had been through a harder transition than I’d expected.girlwithwings1

Ashley’s mom said in elementary school her daughter had always had difficulty speaking up and never liked group projects, but had managed to show her other strengths. Ashley soon discovered, however, that middle school had even more group work and seven teachers to get to know rather than one. She’d been a good student in the past, but at conferences in middle school a number of teachers said they’d like Ashley to be more active in group work and talk more in class.

Ashley said she would try to improve on these areas. Yet her mom had noticed that as the year progressed, Ashley seemed to be enjoying school less even though she had good friends.

Introverts in an extroverted world

Soon after this conversation with Ashley’s mom, I began reading Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain, and met many others like Ashley within its pages. Cain points out that we live in a country that reveres extroverts.  This stance has become more extreme in recent generations. As Ashley has found, and my kids will attest, group work is widespread in today’s public schools.

Cooperative learning favors extroverts who like to think through problems aloud rather than gathering their thoughts prior to offering them, as introverts do.  Yet today’s teachers are told they must prepare students for the working world where teamwork is the norm.

Cain lists additional research showing that working in groups is not always the best context for creativity.  Introverts do their best work alone, at least for a good portion of their working day. Studies have also shown that organizations that don’t allow employees to close the door to distractions are less productive than those which do – for both introverted and extroverted types.

Skills of introverts

Cain also highlights the strengths of introverts. They tend to have fewer interests, but pursue them more deeply over longer periods of time. This goes for friendships as well. Introverts notice their environment more accurately and are sensitive to changes around them, often catching problems in a project more quickly than others. Their sensitivity to people and environments, and lack of focus on wealth and fame, often makes them more effective leaders than extroverts. Introverts enjoy taking in large and varied amounts of information, and excel at synthesizing and strategizing.

When I spoke to Ashley’s mom, she told me that creative writing was Ashley’s favorite class and mentioned that her daughter brought a fairly mature understanding of the happenings around her into her writing. Her writing teacher noticed too.

Like many introverted children, however, Ashley was feeling that school wasn’t a place where she could regularly draw on her strengths.  Instead she often got the message that she needed to learn to be an extrovert. Granted, the skills of extroverts are important in life, but so are those of introverts. If we are teaching introverted kids to be more extroverted, why are we not helping extroverted kids learn the strengths of introverts in school?

Introverts and modern technology

Upon finishing Quiet, I picked up Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.  Turkle, an anthropologist and psychologist, has studied the effects of technology on today’s young people and our culture in general. She worries that teens who are constantly online or texting, are not “cultivating the ability to be alone and reflect on one’s emotions in private.” Young people who consistently look outward to their social networks, aren’t learning the skill that comes naturally to many introverts like Ashley, self-reflection.

Having interviewed numerous teens and adults throughout America about the role of technology in their lives, Turkle concludes:

A stream of messages makes it impossible to find moments of solitude, time when other people are showing us neither dependency nor affection.  In solitude we don’t reject the world but have the space to think our own thoughts.  But if your phone is always with you, seeking solitude can look suspiciously like hiding [to those contacting you].

I haven’t quite finished reading Alone Together, but after reading three-fourths of it, it occurred to me that perhaps Cain’s introverts have an extra layer of protection against the allures of modern technology – their natural comfort with solitude. And they have another leg up due to their tendency toward introspection.

I’ve always thought of myself as more of an extrovert, and two out of three of my kids are definitely extroverts. Yet reading Quiet reminded me that each of us has a unique mix of introverted and extroverted traits. Quiet helped me appreciate my introverted qualities, those of my neighbor Ashley, and my older son Stephen. The book even encouraged me to further develop some introversion characteristics that I don’t have in excess.

I think I’ll make a cup of tea, sit down in a quiet spot, and finish reading Alone Together.

How do your introverted kids handle school?  Please share your thoughts.

First Person

I spoke with our governor during his TNReady listening tour. Here’s what I hope he heard.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tara Baker raises her hand to talk during Gov. Bill Haslam's Sept. 4 roundtable discussion about state testing challenges. An assistant principal at Nashville's McGavock High School, Baker was among about 150 educators invited to participate in Haslam's six-stop "listening tour," which began Aug. 31 in Knoxville and ends Sept. 18 in Gibson County.

As the testing coordinator for a large high school in Nashville, I was in the eye of the proverbial storm this spring as tens of thousands of Tennessee students slogged through technical snafus and breakdowns in the state’s return to online testing.

It was ugly.

The daily stops and starts sucked the joy of learning right out of our school community. And the testing platform was not the only thing that broke down. Students were frustrated to the point of tears after their hard work disappeared behind a spinning blue cursor.

Students and their teachers should never feel that level of exasperation and futility.

That’s why I was thrilled to be invited — along with about 150 other educators from across Tennessee — to troubleshoot testing problems with Gov. Bill Haslam this month during his six-stop “listening tour” on TNReady, the assessment that’s now entering its fourth year.

I wanted the governor and his education commissioner, Candice McQueen, to know just how bad testing went at my school, and to hear observations and ideas from ground zero for moving forward.

I talked about our school’s disappointment and tears as we persevered through a rocky start, with already overtested students exasperated by what felt like unending technical difficulties. “They were defeated,” I told the governor. “It crippled us before we really ever got started.”

I shared how only 36 out of 500 students in our English III classes were able to successfully submit their essays for one part of their online exam. Imagine working for over an hour to read and examine an article and construct an in-depth response, only to have your computer freeze or shut down before you could finish. Our sophomores had more success, but we still had almost 150 incomplete submissions in that class after multiple attempts. The stories were similar for students in Integrated Math, Chemistry, and U.S. History. While I can’t know for sure, I believe the intensity of the problems contributed significantly to our school being rated recently at the state’s lowest possible level for academic growth — a devastating blow to me and my colleagues.  

The governor’s 90-minute roundtable discussion, held in a middle school media room in the town of Franklin, was cathartic for many of us present at the fourth listening tour stop. We realized that we were not alone in our frustrations and concerns.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Educators in Middle Tennessee participate in the governor’s fourth roundtable discussion at Freedom Middle School in Franklin.

Gov. Haslam and Commissioner McQueen listened intently, and I was grateful for the opportunity to share my school’s experience. But a lot of ideas and emotions were compressed into a relatively short amount of time. At the end of the day, here’s what I hope they heard:

We spend too much time on testing and not enough on educating students. Teachers talked about using class time to take practice tests in the fall, the long three-week testing window in the spring, and the sheer number of tests that students are required to take.

We should still test; we just have to do it better. Teachers want valid data. We want useful and meaningful feedback. But we need to know that the information provided is a true representation of what our students know. And we should be able to accomplish that with shorter, more thoughtful tests that cut down on subparts, testing times, and the number of questions. The current testing regimen isn’t working. It stresses out our students, teachers, and families.

We are not ready for online assessments in Tennessee. Computer-based testing generates faster results, but it introduces many factors that currently are beyond school or district control. Dead batteries, network updates, lack of internet connectivity and bandwidth — these are not things that schools can regulate with certainty, and they directly impact testing. Most importantly, until we have enough computers so that every student has one-to-one access to a device, we should have other options and school-level contingency plans in place. This could mean having paper backups on hand or quickly available.

Teachers and test administrators need to know the plan! As the link with our stakeholders, we need training to make sure the information that we provide students and parents is correct. It’s our job to promote the assessments to the community but, to do that, we should completely understand the process and be appropriately trained, including what to do when things go wrong.  

Tests need to reflect the diversity of our students. Reading selections should be varied to address students’ abilities, experiences, and lifestyles. For example, Jane Eyre is not relatable to any of my urban high school students. Could we pull from some high-interest contemporary novels, such as Jason Reynolds’ “Long Way Down,” about a black teenager whose brother dies in a shooting?

PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Haslam listens during his Sept. 4 roundtable discussion. An advisory team is using the feedback to develop principles and recommendations for consideration by his and the next administration.

This school year, the stakes are higher than ever to get testing right. No one has confidence in last year’s scores or results. How could they when we learned on the third day of testing that the scores wouldn’t count? And this wasn’t our first rodeo with TNReady problems, either. For the new school year, we must get it right to rebuild confidence in the assessment. To the state’s credit, the Department of Education already has made some good moves — for instance, bringing aboard ETS, a reputable testing company, and planning stress tests for online assessments in the fall and spring. I welcome the on-the-ground input of 37 educators serving as our state’s new TNReady ambassadors, as well as steps to improve customer service before and during the next round of testing.

But will it be enough? The above list of concerns represents what I heard at this month’s roundtable discussion and from other educators, too.

Thanks for listening, Gov. Haslam. I hope that yours and the next administration consider this a call to action.

A former English teacher, Tara Baker is an assistant principal at McGavock High School, a 2,400-student learning community in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

First Person

We’ve come a long way in addressing student stress and trauma. I could use help, too.

PHOTO: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

There’s an old adage, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” But as a paraprofessional in Chicago, my cup is almost drained.

Each day, I provide academic, emotional, and behavioral support for over 200 students. The amount of mental and emotional energy it takes to calm a single student down, redirect or remove them from the class, and provide appropriate consequences is overwhelming — even with experience — when there are 11 other six-year-olds in a classroom that need my help.

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I look forward to coming to work in the morning, but by the time I get home, I barely have the energy to make my own dinner or plan activities for the next day. I tune out almost everything and everyone. While I love what I do, it is hard.

This heavy responsibility affects my mental health and the health of all educators, and it certainly impacts our ability to properly teach and support students. In the wake of Chicago’s teacher assistant layoffs this summer, my colleagues and I have dealt with the added stress of job uncertainty, too.

But we haven’t acknowledged the effects of that stress on educators, and we aren’t equipped with support to manage it.

The good news is that we are having a conversation about the effects of stress and trauma on our students. I’ve watched advocates successfully push for change: Educators for Excellence-Chicago, an educator-led organization I am involved with, brought some of these issues to light last June. Since then, we have held citywide problem-solving forums in partnership with the district’s Office of Social Emotional Learning and successfully advocated for the passage of two school state resolutions to ensure that student trauma is appropriately recognized throughout Illinois.

The recent focus on social-emotional learning — also known as “soft skills” — in our classrooms is also helping schools better prepare students for challenges that no child should face, but many do.

Those challenges are real: In my classroom, one student is a caregiver for his parent, another has lost multiple siblings to gun violence, and many others have parents that work long hours and are rarely around. These experiences have a considerable impact on their learning; often, students don’t have the tools to cope with this stress, and so they express their frustration by acting out in disruptive ways.

And yet, amid all this advocacy for our students’ mental health, we neglect our own. I worry that without a healthy state of mind, educators can’t offer their best teaching and attention to students, perhaps causing additional harm to kids already dealing with heavy burdens outside of school.

I don’t think it has to be this way. If more funding was allocated to our schools for student counseling, it would allow educators more time to focus on teaching. Our schools could provide social and emotional support to our students and staff to help them learn coping mechanisms. We would be able to hold self-care activities for the entire school. Support staff could give students and parents tools to support them outside of school.

To ensure students’ well-being, we need our own help.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” Student and educator mental wellness are deeply interconnected, and we all must make sure we help educators be the best they can be for their students.

Shakita Smith is a teacher’s assistant at Pablo Casals School of Excellence in Humboldt Park. She is also a member of the Chicago Teachers Union and Educators for Excellence, a national teacher policy and advocacy organization.