Accentuate the Positive, Accept the Negative:  An Introvert’s Guide to Language Teaching

by John Rucynski

“Just a moment. Could you try that again…. but with a bit more enthusiasm?” 

It was September of 1994 and I was in my first interview in hopes of landing a job at an Eikaiwa (English conversation school) in Tokyo. In my mind, but perhaps only in my mind, the sample lesson I was asked to teach on the spot was going smoothly. I was speaking slowly and politely. I was being creative and caring. I was showcasing all the knowledge I had acquired about being an effective English conversation teacher in Japan (as in whatever I had picked up from the book entitled Teaching English in Japan, Korea, and Taiwan that I had devoured on the long flight over from the States). But then, that voice again. 

“Just maybe a bit louder? With a bit more energy?” 

The voice came from the teacher trainer who up until a few minutes ago I had considered my ally. At a time when my Japanese still only consisted of a few basic phrases and I had spent a grand total of about 100 hours of my life outside of my home country, having a fellow American in the room put me at ease. Surely, he could recognize my natural teaching ability and would give me a chance at his school. But then came the kiss of death that almost had me hailing a taxi for Narita Airport (thus blowing my meager life savings) and just giving up on this crazy adventure to teach English in Japan. 

“Sorry, but again, just with a bit more enthusiasm. You see, Japanese people’s image of foreigners is like a cool person from California, so that’s who they hope to talk with when they take English lessons.” 

Was this really happening? I had grand visions of Japan being an introvert’s paradise. All those serene pictures of Buddhist monks deep in silent meditation looked right up my alley (of course my mind conveniently overlooked those contrasting pictures of Shibuya Crossing). When friends warned me that “teaching in Japan can be challenging because Japanese people are so shy,” I quickly replied with, “That’s perfect!” 

And yet, here I was trying to make the transition from my native “The greasy wheel gets the grease” culture to “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down” culture and, cruelly, an American gatekeeper was telling me that I wasn’t California enough to be an English teacher in Japan. Unfortunately, he wasn’t alone. In the end, it took me several weeks to get a job offer. While this may sound like a success story, keep in mind that these were still the golden days of English conversation schools, when pretty much any native English speaker could land at Narita Airport and sign a contract before they got over their jetlag. 

The only catch was that my only job offer was from what seemed like Japan’s version of Siberia at the time–Sapporo, on the northernmost main island of Hokkaido, affectionately (by some people) referred to as “Japan’s frontier.” So, I packed my bags again and took off for the great white north. Despite my severe lack of California traits, I was instantly embraced by the English students of Sapporo and became an overnight success as a teacher. End of story. Nah. There’s obviously much more to this story. 

***

One More Time, With More Genki

Initial teaching struggles aside (but we’ll get to that), it was love at first sight with Sapporo. It is ironic that even when we search for far-flung adventures on the other side of the globe we can still be comforted by some degree of familiarity. As an upstate New Yorker, the climate and open spaces of Hokkaido immediately felt more livable than trying to navigate Tokyo and its maze of seemingly dozens of subway and train lines. And Sapporo’s convenient grid system, where you could actually tell someone an address (“See you at South-7, West-2”) that was mutually understood was the cherry on top. 

However, the road to becoming a confident and effective English teacher was unfortunately not on the grid system but would involve many more twists and turns. And it would still be weeks until I would have the chance to teach actual students. 

I went to work for a large English conversation school (that will not be named here) that was infamous for its “genki training” (genki being the Japanese word for “fine” or “energetic”). So, what exactly is “genki training”? It is basically the system that no matter how much energy and enthusiasm a teacher in training brings to the classroom, it is not sufficient. My practice “teaching” was a daily ritual of something like the following scenario, mostly focused on practicing the fine art of introducing myself to my students. 

“Hello. My name is John.” 

“Please be more genki.”

“Hello! My name is John!”

“It’s getting better, but a little more genki.” 

“HELLO!!! NY NAME IS JOHN!!!”

“That’s a bit better, but please turn your genki up to 11.” 

Well, my teacher “trainer” didn’t really say the last comment (young readers, please search “Spinal Tap 11” on YouTube), but you get the picture. In other words, it was an introvert’s nightmare. (Or maybe it was just what I needed, but I’ll save that discussion for another time.)

And just like “California,” the word “genki” would also haunt me further in my never-ending training. When I finally got to do some practice teaching with actual students (Did I forget to mention that until now the training had consisted of practicing with the school staff pretending to be elementary school students and cardboard face cutouts taped to chairs?), I still wasn’t exactly a natural. One day, three of us fresh arrivals in Japan had our turn teaching a short sample lesson to a small group of Japanese university students. After the lessons, the trainer privately met with the students to get their impressions. The three of us amateur teachers waited with bated breath for the trainer to return and provide constructive and detailed feedback on our teaching performances. The feedback consisted of the following: 

“Jason and Stephen, they said you were genki. John, they said you were genki nai.” 

If you don’t speak Japanese, I don’t think you need to check Google Translate to figure out that nai means “do not have.” And just to add a little salt to the wound of my shrinking confidence as a teacher, I am not making it up when I tell you that both of these teachers were from…. California. Trust me, the only made-up part of this whole tale is when I claim that my students picked me up and triumphantly carried me on their shoulders like John Keating in Dead Poets Society.  

It should come as no surprise that at this point I was having some serious doubts about whether I had chosen the right career path. And I am sure I am far from alone among introverts who have questioned whether their temperament fits the requirements for being an effective teacher. Consider the following common traits of introverts, courtesy of Jean Granneman’s The Secret Lives of Introverts:

“You enjoy spending time alone (and do your best thinking when you’re alone).”

“You’re better at writing your thoughts than speaking them.” 

“You avoid small talk whenever possible.”

“You shut down after too much socializing.”

These are obviously serious weaknesses for someone trying to make a living as an English as a foreign language teacher. Being an EFL teacher involves spending hours in the classroom every day, energetically leading activities and showing a genuine interest in your learners’ lives and ideas. And if you look at Hollywood examples (and we learn most of our major life lessons from Hollywood, right?), what does the ideal super teacher look like? It’s all about filling the classroom with infectious enthusiasm, be it the aforementioned John Keating (Robin Williams) boyishly encouraging his students to jump on top of their desks or Dewey Flinn (Jack Black) maniacally teaching music in School of Rock. Such portrayals of popular teachers are enough to make introverted teachers break out into a cold sweat. I realized early on in my career that these are not suitable role models for introverted educators, even if I do agree with Dewey Flinn that all students should be informed of the brilliance of Rush’s 2112

As I am writing this piece in March of 2024, my biggest work task this month is preparing my courses for what will be my 20th year of English teaching at the university level in Japan. So, I obviously didn’t throw in the towel despite how intimidating the act of teaching can seem to us introverts. Sticking with my dream of becoming a teacher (and hopefully a darn good one) came down to some simple self-awareness. 

I knew I had a creative side. 

I knew I genuinely cared about my students (the real ones, not the cardboard ones). 

I knew that combining those two traits was a formula for becoming a good teacher. 

What I didn’t yet know was how to show my enthusiasm to my students in a more subtle yet effective way. 

***

Turning Points

Here it is my fellow introverts, the part of the story where I share my simple magic formula for instantly becoming a brilliant teacher despite being born with a severely introverted nature. Nope, sorry. It isn’t really that easy. This isn’t an infomercial and I’m not Tony Robbins. This is real life. 

But the good news is it also isn’t that hard. It just can’t be boiled down to one “Eureka!” moment. It is a series of moments, and both successes and failures, over a career of honing your craft. 

But the first stop is accepting (dare I say embracing?) your introversion. Earlier in this piece, I shared some of the problematic traits of introversion from Jean Granneman’s book. Later, however, she also shares some of the positive traits. 

“You notice details that others miss.” 

“You’re a good listener.” 

“You’re very creative.”

“You alternate between being with people and being alone.” (italics mine)

Now, while it may seem obvious that being introverted comes with a range of advantages as well as disadvantages, this was not the tone in the United States that I grew up in. While many generations of American children have grown up with the mantra that “in America, you can grow up to be whatever you want to be,” this also came with the underlying message of, “but you get there by making a lot of noise and being noticed.” 

On top of that, being shy or quiet was looked at with suspicion. Of course, kids like me were constantly reminded that there was nothing wrong with that. For much of my childhood, I thought my full name was “John’s fine, he’s just a little quiet.” But in the paranoid mind of the quiet child, that is interpreted as, “if they always say that, there must be something wrong with being quiet.” 

As I slowly but surely gained confidence as a teacher, I did recognize that my positive introvert traits balanced out any shortcomings that I attributed to my laidback temperament. As Laurie Helgoe points out in Introvert Power, “Here’s a well-kept secret: introversion is not defined by lack. Introversion, when embraced, is a wellspring of riches. It took me years to acknowledge this simple reality, to claim my home, and to value all it offers.” So, yes, I did eventually embrace my introversion. Let me return to some of Granneman’s traits of introversion and how they can actually contribute to effective teaching. 

You notice details that others miss

As teachers, we are also observers. Classroom dynamics and management are an integral part of our job. Teachers need a keen eye for noticing and addressing the small things before they become big things. If we make the class all about ourselves, it may have a negative impact on our observation skills. 

You’re a good listener. 

This is a teaching skill that seems to be overlooked by the genkier is better crowd. Sometimes students just want to be listened to like a normal human being and not have the teacher bounce around the room like Richard Simmons in his prime just because they could correctly respond to the question, “What did you do this weekend?” I already know I can speak English. My job is to carefully listen to my students and help them improve their English. 

You’re very creative. 

My fellow teachers may not have noticed this, but EFL materials can be dull (insert sarcastic emoji of your choice here). Many textbooks take a cookie cutter approach to try to inspire language learners around the world to actively speak English. It is the individual teacher’s job to make these activities engaging. That takes not only enthusiasm, but also creativity. 

You alternate between being with people and being alone

I’ll let you in on another secret. Introverts don’t hate people. We don’t hate socializing. We just have our limits. Whereas extroverts thrive on social interaction, introverts need our downtime after too much interaction. Unlike the young English conversation teacher (me!) who used to be mortified to face a “big” class of seven (!) students, I now remarkably can achieve flow and feel incredibly at ease in the classroom despite teaching classes of 30 to 40 students. But come Friday afternoon, my brain is like the dreaded red low battery warning on your smartphone. After some much-needed private weekend forest bathing, however, I’m energized to start the teaching cycle again on Monday morning. So, this trait is not exactly an advantage, but merely shows a misconception about introverts. While we may not be social butterflies, neither are we wallflowers. We make the most of the time that we do spend with people.

Another helpful step in understanding that introverts can still become effective teachers was receiving wise advice about the teaching profession. One invaluable piece of advice that still sticks with me nearly 25 years later came from my older cousin Todd, a fellow EFL teacher. Todd is someone I had always looked up to as a teacher, in that he always made the act of teaching look so easy (and not just because he’s an extrovert!). 

When I was struggling with my identity as a teacher and still figuring out ways to add more California to my teaching repertoire, Todd summed it up perfectly: “Students know when a teacher is teaching in a way that he doesn’t believe in. They can smell it, just like they would a lack of preparation.” If only Todd had been my first teacher trainer. It would have been a great help to start my career with the advice “Be yourself” instead of “Be more Californian.” 

Again, just as knowing to be yourself in the classroom seems as obvious as understanding that being introverted has advantages as well as drawbacks, it may take time for these life lessons to sink in. But it was words of wisdom like this that helped me gain confidence and direction as a teacher. And the students noticed it, too. In my first university class after my cousin’s sage advice, something was different. Excitement rippled through the classroom as I heard students whispering to one another, “Do you smell that? John is finally being himself as a teacher.” And before I knew it, the students picked me up and triumphantly carried me on their shoulders like John Keating in Dead Poets Society!

While advice or compliments from fellow teachers is nice, nothing is as valuable as words directly from your students to confirm your worth as a teacher. Kind and sincere words from students mean so much because, while I have always gotten good results on course evaluations, we have all seen the looks in the eyes of students when they are told that they can leave the classroom as soon as they complete the evaluation (“Yup sure, the class was fine, I’m outta here!”). And if they do take the time to write an actual comment, 90 percent of the time it is just “toku ni arimasen” (nothing in particular), which might as well be translated as, “I don’t have any particular hatred for this teacher.” So, it’s always meaningful and special when a student takes the time to write a detailed comment. 

I share some of these words not to boast, but just to encourage my fellow introverts who may have also struggled with self-doubt about whether they really have what it takes to be a teacher. One comment I still remember came from a student in my first year of teaching in an intensive English program at the university level in Japan. She wrote, “What I especially appreciated about this class was the teacher made a sense of community. There were some days when I was down and didn’t want to come to university at all, but I came just because I wanted to be with the teacher and classmates in this class.” Now, this may not seem like much to the average educator (that’s just what teachers are supposed to do, right?), but it’s the highest praise for the introverted teacher who may fear whether they have the leadership skills to bring together a class of 30 students, especially students from a different culture and generation. And it was especially reaffirming for a teacher like me, who, again, used to consider a class with seven students a mega class! 

It was also rewarding to hear from students that they were not always necessarily comfortable with over-genki teachers. Also in my first year of university teaching, I listened in horror as I could overhear a fellow English teacher in the classroom next to mine giddily shouting “Awesome! Great job! Yay!!!” to every first-year university student who was able to respond to the question, “How are you today?” My introvert’s inferiority complex kicked in as I asked myself, “Is that the way I should be teaching? The students really like such enthusiasm, don’t they?” I felt a great sense of relief when, weeks later, a shared student wrote in his class journal that “that teacher made us feel like elementary school students and we didn’t know how to react.” Score one for introverted teachers. 

Another prized comment came from a more recent class in which students were tasked with being discussion leaders. The student wrote, “Being a discussion leader in this class was one of the biggest challenges of my life. But the sense of accomplishment I got after was like I had never felt before.” Comments like this mean so much to me because it is also natural for introverts to question whether they can be leaders themselves (but another secret is that introverts can and do make good leaders). Such comments are immensely rewarding, as they show that despite my introverted nature, I can lead my students and encourage them to take risks. And show them that these risks are worth it. 

Despite my slow and awkward start as a teacher, I have also miraculously managed to win four teaching awards at my current university. Again, I mention this not to boast, but just more out of pure shock that I somehow managed to accomplish this (and I laugh at the irony that someone as introverted as myself can win a teaching award in the category of “active learning methodology”). In my early days as a teacher, I had all the classroom presence of a geeky early teen at his first school dance. I was in a classroom with Japanese students, who are notorious for being shy to speak English, but yet they were also stuck with a teacher who struggled with socializing and small talk. Taking time to develop as a teacher couldn’t completely be blamed on my introverted nature, but it certainly didn’t help matters either. 

So, I mention these kind words from students and teaching awards as encouragement for my fellow introverted teachers. Not to turn all Mike Brady on the dear reader suddenly, but it comes down to a quote attributed to Henry Ford: “Whether you think that you can or you can’t, you’re usually right.” Introversion can make teaching more challenging, but as long as you feel a true calling for the profession, you will find a way to be an effective teacher. 

*** 

Don’t Celebrate Just Yet!

In keeping with the Mike Brady tone I’ve suddenly set, let me reveal the reference in the overlong title of this piece. According to an old song by Johnny Mercer, “You gotta ac-cent-tchu-ate (sic) the positive / e-lim-i-nate (sic) the negative.” I quote this song because we need to remind ourselves that introversion comes with strengths as well as drawbacks, and we need to make the most of these strengths. But we cannot simply eliminate the drawbacks, as introverts do not magically transform into extroverts (unless, of course, they’re using performance enhancers). My introverted nature does still make some aspects of my job more challenging and/or time-consuming. 

I need extra time for class preparation

I remember asking a fellow long-term teacher about how much time he needs for class prep. He surprisingly wasn’t joking when he told me, “Let’s see. On my bus ride to the university, I read a book. At some point I’ll look up for a few moments and decide what I’m doing that day.” It wasn’t a case of him being a lazy or jaded teacher. He had just been teaching for many years, was using the same materials, and had a firm grasp on what works in the language classroom. 

If only things were so easy for us introverts. Now, I am certainly not suggesting that introverts especially put extra time into lesson planning. But it definitely seems to be a consistent pattern among my introverted brothers and sisters that I’ve discussed this issue with. Considering we may lack natural skills for socializing and small talk, perhaps it comes down to needing to feel in control of what may transpire in the classroom. So, even if I’ve taught a respective lesson dozens of times, I still need to devote time before class to going over different scenarios and how I’ll respond to them. 

I need my alone time before teaching

Let me reveal some more introvert secrets, courtesy of Laurie Helgoe (Introvert Power) again: “The opposite of social is not antisocial / introverted. We are not snobs.” But it’s certainly understandable that introverts may sometimes be mistaken for being antisocial. Small talk is simply something I struggle to engage in just before a class. Even if someone wants to talk to me about matters of utmost importance, such as whether the Hanshin Tigers can repeat in 2024 or which keyboardist fit in best with the Grateful Dead, you’ll have to save it for another time. If you see me coming down the hall and I suddenly leap over a railing to avoid small talk, don’t worry, it’s not you, it’s me. I’ve got a class to teach. 

I need more time to unwind after teaching

Let’s return to the battery analogy. Extroverts thrive on social interaction. It’s almost like heavily using a smartphone and yet the battery percentage is going up. For introverts, while it is a misconception that we are antisocial, our batteries drain much more quickly, and we often need our time after a long day or week of teaching. The important thing is just to understand this and discover what best helps you recover. My yearly ritual in early April, at the end of the first week of classes when I have just been tasked with putting on my genki face to greet a couple hundred new students, is to immediately escape to Imabari in Ehime Prefecture. The next day, I spend the whole day cycling the shimanami kaido, a 70-kilometer journey over a series of bridges connecting remote islands. 

“Are you crazy? How do you have the energy for that after the first week of classes?” my friends ask me (or shout to me as I’m leaping over a railing). 

But it’s not about using up energy. I’m actually recharging my battery. 

*** 

Final Words from John and Johnny 

The last couple decades have seen a boom in books telling us introverts that we can thrive in a supposedly extroverted world, from Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (Susan Cain) to The Introvert Advantage (Marti Olsen Laney) to The Powerful Purpose of Introverts (Holly Gerth). It seems like any book about introversion needs to include a list of surprising introverts. The list is usually a hodgepodge of successful and/or seemingly outgoing people, like Albert Einstein, Mark Zuckerberg, Charles Manson, and the guy from the Police Academy movies who made those cool sound effects with his mouth (note that this may or may not be a real list). 

Of all of these “you won’t believe who’s an introvert!” proclamations, however, one that really struck a chord with me was a quote by Johnny Carson. After all, here’s a man who deftly commanded The Tonight Show for nearly 30 years while being watched by millions and millions of people. Carson admitted, “I still feel uncomfortable in large groups of people. With audiences, I’m fine. I can go out in front of 20,000 people because I’m in charge….”

The key words here are in charge. We cannot help being born with an introverted nature. But we are in charge of how we design our classes. We are in charge of how much work we put into making engaging lessons for our students. We are in charge of providing constructive and inspiring feedback. Being introverted can make teaching more difficult, but it also comes with advantages. 

Be creative. 

Be a good listener. 

Be a good observer. 

And most importantly, be yourself in the classroom. 

Accentuate the positive, accept the negative.