Thursday, April 18, 2013

Some Notes On Personality

Back in the 80's, during my years working for The Man, the entire office had an afternoon off for a kind of personal development seminar at which we all took the well-known Meyers-Briggs personality test. Afterwards, we discussed the results in small groups. I was the only one in my group not surprised that I fell into the classification of introvert. I remember my assistant manager saying, "This test is crap. You're the most extroverted person I know." 

The pioneering psychologist Carl Jung was the first to popularize the concept of extroversion-introversion during the early 1900's, a notion that has become a centerpiece of just about every personality theory out there. The terms are commonly used as synonyms for "outgoing" and "shy," but that's a misunderstanding of the concept. The basic idea, as I've taught myself to understand it, is that those with the personality trait of extroversion tend to get energy from being with the other people, while introverts tend to get their energy from being alone or with only a few intimates. 

I live with a pair of women who are classic extroverts. They come home from parties, temple, work, and school with bright eyes, chattering, enthusiastic, and in general seeming "all filled up," ready to make phone calls or turn around a do something else. I come home from those same places, places where I talked and laughed and engaged at least as much as they did, but I'm all emptied out: I crave the quiet time to sort through what just happened, to muse, to fantasize, to veg out, to tank up. In other words, I love all of you, but you take it out of me. 

This blog has become one of the places I get filled up. I can't exactly say I enjoy the process of reflection, but I do crave it, nevertheless. I've always done it, of course, even before I became a teacher, going over my day, reveling in things that went well, trying to figure out what I could have done differently when they don't. My extrovert wife, who is quite often my sounding board, used to say, "Stop obsessing," and it would draw me up. Am I obsessive? I don't think so. I think of obsessiveness as a largely destructive trait, one I associate with perfectionism, or a mind that just won't shut off. It's never felt that way to me. I might not always like it, but I really need to mentally process my day. That's what gives me energy.

Some people think of extroversion-introversion as a continuum with the majority of people falling somewhere near the middle (ambiverts). Others, Jung among them, believe that we all possess both traits, with one being dominant, but that there are times when the less dominant side is expressed. 

I'm in the second camp, judging from my own experiences. It's become clear to me, that one of the reasons I am a teacher is that I'm a true extrovert when it comes to spending time with young children. They fill me with energy. I often drag through my early mornings, preparing for the advent of the kids, but once they start arriving it's like a switch is thrown and when our days together come to an end, I find myself wanting them to go on. I often stay too long afterwards, chatting with parents, horsing around with kids, not wanting it to end. And once they're all gone I pass through a period of loneliness which explains why I so often leave the classroom a mess until the following morning -- I just don't want to be there in the quiet building without the children, while in the rest of my life, alone does not equate at all to loneliness.

I've found a few other places in my life where my extrovert side expresses itself, but none so much as my time with the kids. 

We all live with these two sides of ourselves, as do our children. It's important, I think, as adults in the lives of children to make an honest study of them, to understand when and where their introversion and extroversion are expressed. And perhaps more importantly, to recognize that they are not us. The excitement you feel about the lights of the carnival may strike your child as a chore, one that requires summoning up the enthusiasm that comes naturally to you. The peaceful evening at home toward which you looked forward, may loom in your child's mind as grim loneliness, especially after a day of tanking up with the other people.

I often say that school is the place where we practice being together, which is why I don't particularly value having a lot of nooks and crannies where kids can be on their own, at least for extended periods of time. Whether we are gaining energy or spending energy in social circumstances, it's only through experience that we can come to better understand ourselves. While this time might be harder work for the introverted child, the aftermath is often harder work for the extrovert.

Of course, personality is far more involved than this, and although I've not seen any data, I suspect that our fundamental personality type can actual grow and change as we gain experience in life. I know I'm a far different person today than I was 30 years ago when I last took the Meyers-Briggs test and I've seen young children over the course of their 3 years at Woodland Park transform themselves, while others are just more sophisticated versions of who they were at 2. 

Personality is not a fixed thing. And all the tests that purport to measure it really are crap because each one of us defies categorization throughout our lives. There is always a danger that terms like "introvert" and "extrovert" become labels to conveniently and inappropriately slap on other people. Still, if we understand that the concepts describe nothing more than a point in time for an individual, they can give us a framework for thinking about personality, especially the personalities of the other people with whom we spend our time each day, including the children in our care. And every tool that helps us reflect on our relationships with others is a good one.

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Anonymous said...

Hi Teacher Tom!
I am an educator from Prince Edward Island, Canada. Your blog inspires my reflection time and education time! Thanks for your insight on this important role we all play in children's lives!

Emma said...

I appreciated this post! I have a similar experience to you - I am an 'introvert' in that I seriously need my solitude and quiet time to process and recharge, but I am an 'extrovert' when it comes to the kids I work with. Thanks for putting these thoughts into words.

Melissa Scott said...

This post resonated very strongly with me. I just got back from a large educational conference where I mingled with my fellow educators. I left painfully aware of my introverted tendencies. I wonder if work with young children tends to attract more introverts or extroverts, and how traits such as sensitivity and dominance fit into the equation as well.

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