Groucho was Right.

“I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as one of its members.” (Groucho Marx)

The ripples of implication from reading Susan Cain’s book on introversion are still resonating through my mind. Rather to my wife’s incredulity, this was the first time that I had considered the issue in any systematic way, and it’s certainly not something that receives a lot of coverage in the professional arena.

The matter of introverted pupils came relatively easily to mind, having come across my share over the years, and a lot of what Cain has to say about both the difficulties faced by such people – as well as their often-unsung strengths – made a lot of sense. What was more challenging were the implications for being a teacher.

If Cain’s assertion is correct, between a third and a half of humans are at the introverted end of the scale, and this implies that there are a lot of introverts in teaching. It is possible, however, that they are under-represented due to the misconception that one needs to be outgoing in order to stand in front of a class of children. In my case, it came as no surprise, having read the early part of the book, to find myself at the introverted end of the scale.

This is not to suggest that I am some kind of timid mouse (after all, I’m reasonably comfortable not only in front of a class or taking an assembly,  but also playing music in front of a crowd), but it was nonetheless instructive with regard to some of the challenges that I have faced during my time as a teacher. What was most interesting was the realisation that issues which I have largely tended to attribute to my own individual shortcomings may not in fact be that, nor indeed failings at all, but simply the poor interface between a certain kind of temperament and a system that is not configured for it. This is not a way of offloading responsibility for such matters, more a helpful way of attributing a fairer causality between the parties.

So this post may seem somewhat self-indulgent (heck, my blog’s called Teaching Personally!) but it’s offered in the hope that others of a similar inclination may find it instructive for their own development.

I initially read Cain’s book with growing alarm; apart from the rather uncanny experience of having your own personal foibles identified and analysed in a book, it initially seemed as though her analysis was pointing towards that part of me that has always doubted whether I have the ‘right’ temperament to be a teacher. The shared wisdom of recent decades seems to be that teachers need to be outgoing, extrovert, reaching out to their pupils – and simultaneously prepared to be permanently on their backs, overtly running every aspect of their school lives in order to get the best out of them. This was reinforced by the sight of such ‘dynamic’ people gaining the promotions and the approbation of the school leadership. My own understanding that if you are any good, you will be recognised and rewarded without the need for self-promotion has proved hopelessly and sometimes painfully wrong. That said, it did help me understand why I have never felt any great desire to manage my colleagues – or have them manage me.

The minutiae of Cain’s observations, such as the fact that introverts need quiet space to recharge their batteries after social interaction neatly explained why I intuitively seek the quiet of my classroom for ten or fifteen minutes each lunchtime, why I feel the need to head fairly quickly for home at the end of the day and do my work there, and why I have always found training sessions that required group work and stranger-interaction particularly painful. And it explains why I hover uncomfortably round the edges of large gatherings of colleagues.

It may even show why I have had such difficulty accepting the more batty diktats from On High, that ranged from the merely daft through the surreal to the (occasionally) downright unethical. It explained why Doing what the Boss Tells Me is not enough, as it seems to be for the majority – and why they (as extroverts?) have on occasions perhaps failed to understand that I wasn’t simply being bloody-minded. While I have had some modest management responsibility, my own style – of largely leaving people to do their own thing unless help was sought or intervention clearly needed, maybe didn’t meet official approval.

But all this rather seemed to be increasingly pointing to the fact that temperamentally I’m simply not cut out for this job…

Perhaps more helpfully, Cain explains why intrinsic motivation is so important to me. Especially when it comes to donning the extrovert’s mask and bearing a degree of mental discomfort, it is absolutely essential that one fundamentally believes in the reason for doing so. I find this with my music too – for me, performing is not about showing off or merely entertaining, but the expression of what I believe to be a valuable but lesser-known form of culture. Take that away, for example by changing the music, and the effort simply wouldn’t be worth it. This also suggested the reason why I need time to recharge with my other interests – the more overbearing the professional workload becomes, the more I need a break from it – unlike some others who seem to have an infinite capacity to grind through it, no matter what the cost to their wider lives or sanity.

I think the same is true in the classroom; I am perfectly able to manage a class successfully, and indeed larger groups as when leading an assembly – but all the time my instinct is to shy away from such large gatherings and seek either my own company or that presence of a smaller group of individuals. It explains why I best like teaching smaller, sixth form groups, and tutoring individuals. It is certainly where I feel I excel, and the fact that students seek out my help in such settings may bear testament to this. With larger groups, I have found my own esoteric style – certainly not found in any teaching textbook – that involves a rather oblique humour and (probably not coincidentally) a degree of self-deprecation. I am definitely a horse-whisperer rather than a lion-tamer.

It may also explain why I instinctively prefer the quiet, more self-contained, more ‘individual’ pupils who to my surprise are sometimes dismissed as recluses or ‘anoraks’ by more outgoing colleagues. I find it easier to understand them on an emotional level, and I find the brash, outgoing types particularly wearing. In the past I had much work to do to inure myself to the more hurtful comments and behaviours that pupils can sometimes display; it took time and effort to realise that it wasn’t personal and that the correct response involved H₂O and a duck’s back…

Finally, it also explains why I have been most comfortable at a remove from the establishment – I need that space to function. Schools, and this profession, are interaction-intensive places but I have always felt the educational establishment to be The Other, nothing to do with me. I don’t like subsuming my own self into the larger Team, be that the school workforce or the more abstract sense of the Profession. It matters greatly that they often don’t represent my views and values; I know my own mind, what makes me tick, what drives my work – and in some cases, I feel I have insights not achieved by others who have nonetheless had more conventional success. Not that this is to say that I am contrary for the sake of it – where congruence is achieved, it is no difficulty to go along with it – but too often group-think seems to involve the sacrifice of things that are too important or too precious.


All in all, the balance-sheet didn’t look too positive: lots of explanations for things that I took as my own weaknesses, but a seemingly lengthy list of problems. But with my brain in overdrive, it didn’t take me until the latter stages of the book to realise there was another side to it.

The most obvious counter-argument is that introverted children need their own champions – perhaps more than most, and trying to drive their introversion out of them, as extroverts are likely to do, is not helpful; indeed it may even be cruel.

Then there came the realisation, as Cain outlined, that introverts actually possess many of the skills required for deep learning. This is not to say there is nothing to learn from collaboration, but at one level it is a truism that we are alone on this Earth – and that is perhaps most of all the case inside our own heads. Deep learning is ultimately something everyone has to do for themselves, and the distractions of frenzied social situations may only make it more difficult. Teachers who realise this, model such behaviours, and promote such skills and insights are arguably all the more essential in an extrovert-dominated world. I think I can say without undue immodesty that this is something my pupils do, in time, come to value in me.

My instinct to draw back from pupils, to allow them their own space may have its uses too. The excesses of helicopter parenthood and teacher-hood seem to be creating a generation who have never had the need to be self-reliant, let alone the space to discover their inner selves. We seem to be developing Learned Helplessness to an alarming extent, and the in-your-face extroversion required from the conventional teacher-model really isn’t going to help. Being ready in the background with the safety net if needed, is no bad thing in itself; being less inclined to jump in where you’re not needed may be more helpful to young people than it first appears.

What’s more, if one considers teaching still to be a vocation, introverts are more likely to possess those intrinsic motivations that energise them to do the selfless thing. They are more likely to be in possession of a clear professional ethic than less self-aware people, and as such may be more self-regulating in both their professional behaviour and personal conduct. What they don’t need is overt micro-management that takes them away from this.

So here is an attempt to summarise the balance-sheet for introverts:

Introverts  are: Introverts aren’t:
Self contained –they have most of what they need already on board. Their energy comes from within, and groups tend to drain them. Antisocial – they make deep friendships, but normally fewer in number. They need wider society only sparingly.
Self critical – they know their own faults all too well. Team players – they prefer their own ideas
Self regulated – the self-reflection makes them more self-conscious and more likely to check false moves. Competitive (except against self)
Reflective – they tend to think and be affected deeply by what they do or experience. Self-promoters. They don’t need external recognition, and feel uncomfortable blowing their own trumpets.
Deep thinkers – they often seek theoretical understandings and patterns. Inclined to do what they’re told if it doesn’t align with their inner motivations.
Self motivated – they are fully driven by intrinsic reasons. Impressed or motivated by status. Inner success is more important.
Better dealing with individuals and small groups. Multi-taskers – they prefer focussing on one thing at a time – deeply. This can give problems with the scale of modern workloads.
Often able to develop stage personae to hide their more retiring instincts – but only if the cause is just Comfortable with small-talk. They prefer to discuss weighty matters, which others may find too intense.
Empathetic, emotionally aware, even vulnerable.
Focused hard workers – when allowed to be self-directed
Quietly inspirational thanks to their determination and profound beliefs.

So where does all this leave us? The System seems increasingly to ape the transatlantic corporate model, where to be a good teacher-employee is to conform and do what the organisation says, and not ask too many questions. In this case, it seems to think it wants lots of extroverts – that is what ‘common sense’ now suggests a teacher needs to be, the more so now that education is supposedly all about the skills that will get you advancement in the workplace. Of all of these, the ability to talk yourself up seems paramount. Society in general, at least in the U.K., does indeed seem increasingly to value style over substance, and this does not sit well with introversion. What’s more, as young people increasingly demonstrate such behaviours, it may be more and more difficult for introverts to connect with them.

On the other hand, this is precisely why a balancing model is all the more necessary. There are still plenty of quiet kids out there, and they may be getting an increasingly raw deal; someone needs to be there for them. Someone also needs to stand up for those quieter, more empathic behaviours that are, in the final reckoning more socially constructive than me-first extroversion. There is a case that the classical model of teacher as an impartial conduit for knowledge, one who has the ability and modesty to take his own persona out of the equation, may still have value.

This is not to say that extroverts aren’t needed; Cain is at pains to point out that the relationship is symbiotic: what is needed is a good balance of the two. But at present that may imply a rebalancing in favour of the quiet people.

However, it is important to realise that the system doesn’t really function in favour of introverts, and this isn’t likely to change. As teachers, introverts have many very strong qualities, which in former times were probably more recognised than they are today. But they also have a long list of things that may in the current climate be considered handicaps. As I found myself, these require a lot of work to reconcile, and the introvert may find it harder to make progress developing their professional practice than an extrovert. Above all, it is necessary to cultivate the ‘front’ that allows you to override the instinct to avoid large social groups. It is perfectly possible to do this, and to sustain it long term – but it is also true that this will probably exact a price in terms of both stress levels and perhaps perception by colleagues; this I can also vouch for. Cain goes so far as to suggest that long-term denial of self can result in more serious health problems. In the end, developing the confidence to do it your own way – provided it works – is more important than mere self-indulgence.

It could be argued that more could be done to ease the way for introverts – this remains very much an unknown minority – but I can’t say I’ve witnessed any overt discrimination. Quiet people are still appointed, even though first impressions at interview may not always be the best. Anthony Seldon may be right in appointing people who his gut instinct says can become great teacher – given sufficient time, and some may take longer than others. Maybe we simply don’t see all those who never make it… But  I certainly think the issue of introversion needs wider exposure, so that individuals can recognise both themselves and their peers in this respect, and so that institutions identify diverse strengths wherever they lie. It may mean a greater tolerance to allow people to find their own level, without being too judgmental. For that reason, Cain’s book does a great service and is heartily recommended.

My final thought is this: Cain suggests that many great leaders have been drawn from the ranks of introverts; despite their lack of overt leadership skills, their quiet determination and greater diplomacy can shine through in the end; Ghandi comes to mind. Introverts by no means need to be pushovers; once, a quarter-century ago, I was fortunate to be briefly in the fairly close presence of Nelson Mandela. Despite his reputation for a fiery temper, my overwhelming impression was of an innately Quiet Man.

8 thoughts on “Groucho was Right.

    • Thanks! Maybe we introverts need to deny our true selves just one more time and together stand up to be counted for what we are. Then the world might listen…

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