Don’t ask me.

Don’t ask me. How often these words have gone through my mind as I’ve sat in a classroom, or a meeting, trying at all costs to avoid eye contact with whoever was asking the question.

Afraid of being noticed and afraid of being overlooked. This is a contradiction I have battled with in my mind for as long as I can remember. I’m an introvert and a worrier, I have always been anxious about the opinions of others. As a child I was painfully shy, social events were excruciating, society expected me to talk, to participate, to want to be noticed. I just wanted to be invisible, but then felt left out if people ignored me. I loved learning, but at school I might be asked to contribute, to answer a question or share an opinion – what if I got it wrong? This was scary. Sometimes my mind was full of ideas but the panic induced by being asked to share left me tongue-tied and stumbling over the words. This was embarrassing. Why couldn’t I just be left alone to listen, and learn? There’s been a number of threads and tweets shared recently which have highlighted the need for us to be aware that some of our quieter students might feel like this. These have encouraged me to think about the way I interact with them and the language I use. This is so important and has made me realise that I have treated some of my students in exactly the way that I hated being treated as a child. However, this is not a post about teaching introverts, but leading them. Not the students, the teachers.

Pondering this subject, I’ve thought about my journey as a teacher. I was recently reminiscing with colleagues about what I was like as a trainee. Their comments were, “I used to worry that there was something really wrong, you didn’t talk at all” and, “You didn’t say very much, you smiled, and ended up blushing quite a lot!”. That was eight years ago and I can laugh about it now. These were two teachers who mentored me through that year and have had a huge influence on me as a teacher. I’m now their head of department. I was, and still am, very shy in situations with people that I don’t know well. I still struggle when I find myself out of my comfort zone and can be reluctant to put myself in unfamiliar situations. I still sometimes blush for no good reason, or stumble over my words, if I find myself having to speak up when I’d prefer to remain silent. I’m an introvert in a profession which feels to be dominated by extroverts.

This is not supposed to be a post about my personality, but I have shared this because I imagine it must be hard for an extrovert to understand people like me – the way we think and the sort of things we find difficult. I am certain that there are some of us in every school. I am very thankful that, at each stage in my career, I have had people in a leadership or mentoring role who have nurtured me, and enabled me to flourish in an environment which could have been very challenging. I like to get on with life without being noticed, all the while hoping that someone will notice and acknowledge the work I put in, but quietly, not in public. 

Most of what I read about leadership is written by leaders. I write from the perspective of someone who has been on the receiving end of exemplary leadership and my aim is to highlight some key lessons for leaders (and others) in understanding, working effectively with, and bringing the best out of their more introverted colleagues. In doing so, I draw on my experience of how I have been supported by those who have enabled me to flourish. I’m writing this as a way of saying thank you, and in the hope that it might be helpful and give some insight to others. I’ve picked out five key leadership practices which have made a real difference to me:

  • Build relationships – I find it hard to get to know new people, let alone to the extent of being able to trust them, take their praise as genuine and accept advice and criticism as supportive and constructive. Working with a new colleague, or having a new manager is an opportunity I welcome, but it also brings fear. Another person I need to get to know. Another person who might have expectations which I’m not confident that I’ll be able to live up to. I’m sure that getting to know an introvert can feel like hard work, but this has been the most important aspect of the positive leadership relationships I’ve worked in. We all want to feel valued and trusted, and to be able to trust those we work with. This only comes through really knowing a person and understanding their strengths and weaknesses, enabling you to harness their strengths and help them to develop in weaker areas. Take the time to talk, to ask for opinions and ideas, to discover their interests and their fears. But remember that the most important part of a conversation is listening and giving time for thought.
  • Take time to meet properly – As a quiet person, I will rarely volunteer an opinion publicly and it takes a lot of courage for me to speak up in a group discussion. This doesn’t mean that I don’t think about things carefully, or have opinions and ideas – in fact, really thinking things through is one of my strengths. One of the leadership practices I have found most helpful has been the opportunity to have meetings where I am able to discuss ideas and share opinions openly, without fear of judgement, but being sure of an honest response. Asking the opinions of those you work with shows that you value their thoughts and believe that they have something of worth to contribute. This can have a huge impact in building the confidence to speak out and share ideas in a more high-risk environment. Give your more reticent colleagues opportunities for their voice to be heard, but not initially in public (at least not without prior warning).
  • Affirm and encourage – When you notice that a colleague is doing a great job, tell them so, and thank them for it. There have been countless times over my career when I have been doubting myself or feeling that I wasn’t good enough, and a quiet word of thanks, acknowledgement and encouragement has been so reassuring. I also remember times when I had ideas of things I wanted to do, or was interested in investigating further, and I didn’t pursue them because I questioned whether it was a good idea, or was fearful of what others would think. I didn’t think anyone else would be interested. A word of support or encouragement might have made all the difference – I don’t blame anyone but myself for this (nobody can be expected to be a mind reader!) but if you’re leading others, seek to find out what drives them, what their passions and aspirations are and encourage them in these areas.
  • Point out opportunities – I’m so thankful for the times when people have pushed me or encouraged me to do things which I wasn’t comfortable with or certain that I was ready for – teaching out of my specialist subject area, applying for promotion, leading sessions for trainee teachers, presenting, blogging, to name a few. Stepping out of my comfort zone is risky, it might go wrong and leave me open to criticism. But when you take that step, do a good job, and succeed, the reward is huge! As a leader, look out for opportunities which match the strengths of those you lead, things you know they will make a success of. Point out the opportunities, encourage them to take those steps, support them in doing so, then step back and watch them fly. Sometimes we do need to be made to do things, but it needs to be the right thing at the right time. As I think is common among introverts, I rarely believe that I’m ready for a new thing so I need people to show me that I am, even if that means leading me to the edge and giving me a (little) push!
  • Avoid an extrovert culture – My most uncomfortable memories of life as a teacher are of sitting in staff meetings dreading being asked to contribute without warning or time to think. If you’re in a position of leadership, at school or department level, avoid developing an extrovert culture. Introvert teachers probably already feel quite overwhelmed from the hours interacting with people in their classroom every day. The last thing we need is a meeting or INSET session where we’re unexpectedly asked to speak out and share an idea or opinion. Thankfully, these occasions have been rare in my experience. Develop a culture of openness, discussion and sharing of ideas, but avoid situations where people might be put under the spotlight – this will go a long way to making your introvert colleagues feel safe and included.

None of this is earth shattering, I’m sure it’s all simply good leadership regardless of the personality of those you’re working with, but these things really have made a difference to me. Often, I know I’m capable of doing something or that I have a good idea, but it takes a lot of energy and courage to do it or to speak out. Having those with a bit more experience than me, who have cared enough to get to know and understand me, who I know I can trust to say, “yes, that’s a great idea” or, “no, don’t do that” has given me the confidence to get to where I am today. Eight years ago I was the trainee who hardly spoke. I’m now Head of Science, I’ve presented to local school leaders and at conferences, I’ve started blogging, and done many other things I would not have imagined. I’m even considering whether one day I might take the next step and move into school leadership – something I would never have dreamed of even a year or two ago. It is the leaders and others around me who have mentored and encouraged me that have made this possible. So, if you lead in a school, at any level, please notice the introverts, encourage and nurture them, give them a voice. 

Do ask me. I have lots of valuable things to say and ideas to share. But please do it quietly.

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5 thoughts on “Don’t ask me.

  1. Really liked this, Helen. And re: “I’m even considering whether one day I might take the next step and move into school leadership – something I would never have dreamed of even a year or two ago”, I would say have faith in your capacity to go a good job. The insights you show in this post suggest you have what it takes to make an impressive leader!

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