To the Introvert, on the First Day of Teaching

I have been teaching in various educational settings since 1997–that’s 21 years of face-to-face classroom experience–and one thing that never ceases to amaze me is how hard it still is for me, as an introvert, to get up in front of classes. Maybe other introverts have gotten better at it with age and experience, but for me the first day of classes, especially, is still equal parts anxiety, excitement, consternation, anticipation, discomposure, desire, dread,  cautious optimism…. well, you get the idea. It’s just plain HARD.

This is not because I don’t love teaching, but because I do. I love teaching enough to haul my introverted butt up in front of a room of people knowing that by the end of the day I will need a nap, a glass of wine, chocolate, a binky, my blankie (okay, okay, I’m exaggerating, but not by much….) I am passionate about my subject matter and about helping students access the skills and knowledge I can help them acquire. And, I am deeply passionate and enthusiastic about discussing medieval literature and culture. Once I am engaging with substantial matters that are interesting and meaningful to me and I know I am doing so with others who share at least part of that interest, it’s hard to get me to stop, and so once we actually get into the substance of a course and I get to know my students a little, I’m generally good, if in danger of burning myself out. But–that first week or so….. even now, 21 years into this gig, it’s still just plain HARD.

The general public may understandably assume that anyone going into the teaching profession must enjoy interacting with other people and, generally speaking, that’s true. But enjoying being around other people does not automatically equate to extroversion and, in fact, academia tends to attract introverts at least in equal measure to, if not far more so, than extroverts–they do call it “the life of the mind,” after all. However, and especially in today’s academic world, the price of that life spent reading and thinking and writing about a particular subject is teaching it. And even if you are a very, very good teacher, and even if you are a very, very experienced teacher, doing that job well means you’re going to be tired, and doubly-so if you’re an introvert. There are, however, a few tricks and tips I’ve picked up through my own experiences that might help those newer to the profession who also identify as introverts to get through that first week with somewhat less a struggle:

First, visit your classroom(s) by yourself prior to the start of the term, especially if it is a room you have not taught in before. Not only is this good pedagogical practice, allowing you to make sure you will have the space and technology you need to conduct your planned lessons, but it also gives you a chance to examine the room and how you might interact with in and the students in it–is there a technology station? Is there a podium or lectern to stand behind? Is there a table or desk near the front for you to sit at? Where might you be able to walk/pace during class? How close will you be in proximity to your students? Advance awareness of the room you’ll be teaching in gives you a chance to rehearse mentally how you will use that space for your class, which can help ease the first-day jitters.

Don’t wear a suit or new, unfamiliar clothing on the first day, unless you are super comfortable in it. Your first day of class clothing choice needs to be something that makes you feel awesome and at-ease in your skin, since as a first-time teacher and an introvert, perhaps with some Imposter Syndrome thrown into the mix, you are likely to feel a little uneasy. If that’s only ever ripped jeans and a t-shirt you’ll have to make some accommodations–you do need to look professional (ish). But if you have only ever worn a suit to your job interview, this is soooooo not the time to bust out the suit again, especially if you are already feeling nervous and anxious. Wear something you are comfortable in, maybe that gives the students a hint at your personality. (Of course, if you feel like you really need the suit to convey authority, you should go ahead and wear it. The point is, don’t wear anything you don’t actually want to wear out of some idea of “what a professor should look like.”)

On the first day of the term, get to campus at least an hour, preferably more, before your first class. If you are feeling nervous or anxious to begin with, getting to campus fifteen minutes before class starts is going to leave you feeling more rushed and panicked which, in turn, is going to have an effect on your demeanor in the classroom. Give yourself the chance to go to your office, have a cup of coffee or a tea or some other refreshment, and be alone with your materials to charge up for the class, so you feel prepared and as relaxed as possible.

Along those same lines, get to your classroom ten minutes or so before class begins. It’s far less intimidating to be there welcoming the students, than for them to be sitting there waiting for you. You don’t have to stand at the door and greet each of them as they come in–although, if you can swing it, that’s a really good practice to engage in. But at least being in the room when they come in gives you the chance to look around and see them before you have to interact with them, and it also makes you seem prepared, which instills confidence in your students.

Make sure you have a clear plan of action for the first day, and it should not just be going over the syllabus. A lot of experienced, senior scholars will just hold an abbreviated class, during which they introduce themselves, say a bit about the class, have the students introduce themselves, briefly go over a few points in the syllabus, and then dismiss, even if it’s only ten or twenty minutes into the scheduled class session. This is not a good practice for any teacher (in my opinion) but it is definitely not a good practice for first-time teachers or introverts. The first day is going to set the tone for the term. This is your chance to show the students what they can expect from you as an instructor, from the class, and from themselves as students in it, so don’t squander it. I typically start by introducing myself, talking a little about the class and my objectives in developing it, and taking attendance (required at my institution). Then, I go over the syllabus. I follow that by having the students complete a 6-question writing activity: Why are you taking this class? What do you expect to get out of taking the class? After going over the syllabus, what are you most excited about? What are you least excited about? What are you concerned about? What question(s) do you have about the course? I give them about ten to fifteen minutes or so to answer these questions. While they are writing, I look over the attendance sheet and match names to faces, observing their approach to the assignment, and just familiarizing myself with them visually, which makes me feel more comfortable talking with them later. Then, I complete the class by having them ask their questions out loud and answering them, and collecting their papers, which I read later to learn a little about each of them before the second class, and if there is time left over, we begin the first reading or I offer an initial, brief lecture on the first reading. This makes for a low-key, low-stakes, but effective first-day introduction to the course for them, and introduction to them for me.

INTROVERT FIRST-DAY PRO-TIP: Many professors will disagree with me, but I find it helpful to save the icebreaker and introduction activities for later in the first week. Every interaction you have is a little of your energy used, and superficial interactions are draining, especially when you are already a little anxious. In the past, I have taken most of the first day of class doing introductions and trying to get to know my students right away, found myself investing a lot of extra energy into some students who seemed reluctant or not really interested in the course, and then they dropped the class anyway–so, I was anxious, tired from expending the energy,  and my efforts at engaging them were not appreciated or reciprocated, which is a triple-whammy for introverts. PLUS, then there were new students who needed to be folded into the mix because they added after the first day, and doing initial introductions several times can be construed by students as a waste of class time (and is also hard on those of your students who share your introversion). Because of those experiences, I do NOT ask my students to introduce themselves and give one interesting fact, etc. on the first day. On the first day, they want to know about the professor and the class, and typically the first week or so of a new term is a revolving door of students dropping and adding classes for a variety of reasons that may or may not have anything to do with you or your class. I wait until the last class session of the first week, when enrollment has more or less stabilized,  to have students introduce themselves to me and to each other, because that’s more likely to be the group I’ll be investing in for the term, and therefore, that’s time well-spent. (As you become more established and start having repeat students in your courses, this all gets a bit easier, because you can count on a familiar and/or friendly face in the crowd to turn to if needs be.)

Finally, just understand and make peace with the fact that you are going to be exhausted during the first week no matter how well it goes. You know yourself well enough to know how you respond when you are tired and stressed out, and you should rally all of your forces to support yourself during the first week of classes. At a bare minimum, do not schedule any outside appointments, meetings, or events beyond your teaching and office hours schedule and committee requirements, make sure you eat (some) healthy foods, and get enough sleep. My routine for the first week of classes is to work out at least 40 minutes each day BEFORE teaching (because it is soooo not happening after) because working-out makes me feel less stressed, to give myself the luxury of a face mask and a glass of wine each night, and to schedule something low-key as a reward that I can look forward to at the end of the week, like a movie night with my family, or shopping for a new pair of shoes, or stopping by a bakery for something particularly delicious. I also do not schedule ANYTHING for that first weekend, unless it is absolutely unavoidable.

I would love to hear from other introverts (and even extroverts!) about how they handle the first-day-of-class jitters. Join the discussion in the comments below!

 

About Melissa Ridley Elmes

Professor and writer; Unrepentant nerd; chaotic good. Author of Arthurian Things: A Collection of Poems. PhD, MFA. She/hers. Views my own.
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2 Responses to To the Introvert, on the First Day of Teaching

  1. You wrote this post at a good time. For some reason, I didn’t think or question much about the connection that I’m an introvert, yet, for some reason want to teach. Now that I’m getting close to graduating, I was wondering if I might have chosen the wrong profession. It’s relieving to hear there are other introverts that are also teachers/professors! Thank you!

    • Melissa Ridley Elmes says:

      I’m glad it was helpful to you! There are many, many introverts who are highly effective and successful teachers and professors–you just have to learn what works for you in terms of balancing your need to be in the classroom engaging with your students, and your need for down time / recharging.

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