In my last post, I urged teachers to get out of their figurative shells and classrooms by outlining 10 things to remember when they wanted to hide out in their classrooms. To my delight, it received more attention than I’d anticipated!
Several teachers left comments on the blog, Facebook, and even Instagram thanking me for the reminder, admitting that they were guilty of hiding away during lunch. Another teacher emailed me reminding me that some school sites are actually small, so the staff sees each other every day.
What stood out was an email from a teacher wondering about how teachers can find the courage to seek out their colleagues. Now that she knew the WHY, she wanted to know the HOW.
This question stood out because I’d assumed that, as adults, we would know how to talk to each other. But then I remembered that it definitely wasn’t easy for me, and I had to think back about how I got to the point where I could converse with other teachers without wanting to sprint back to my classroom.
Therefore, let me give you some tips from someone who suffered from social anxiety.
Wait – anxiety? Really?
Most of you reading this don’t know me, but if we were hanging out or sitting in professional development together, you might assume that I’m an extrovert. I smile at people, I’m energetic, I tease people, and I say hi to anyone who passes by.
And you wouldn’t be completely wrong since I’m somewhere in the middle between extroverted and introverted. I found out that there’s something called an extroverted introvert, which is someone who can be “on” in public but would prefer to be alone or one-on-one with people.
In any case, being in crowds or going to parties and big events turns my stomach into knots. I have to psych myself up, especially if it’s a situation where I only know the host or nobody at all. I usually bring a wing-person (like my husband) so that I have someone to talk to. Otherwise, you’ll find me draining the chip bowl to keep myself busy (and no, I don’t double-dip).
This affliction plagued me for decades and was one of the reasons why I holed myself up in the band room for all of those years. I’m definitely better now, and a lot of it has to do with people reaching out to me, me putting myself out there, and just the confidence that comes with aging.
So there’s hope?
Absolutely! Look, I’m no therapist, and my stomach cramps up when I go to a social function, but through this past decade, I’ve made huge gains in terms of reaching out to teachers and not rebounding like a rubber band into my shell.
Here are the five ways I made happen.
1. Mindset matters
First, you need to remember that even if you also have social anxiety or are a true introvert, collaboration is part of being a good teacher. You don’t have to necessarily change who you are – you’re just changing how you conduct business.
Being social with your colleagues is good for your career as well as your students. If you reframe the experience so that you see it as benefiting them by getting the best advice, curriculum, and pedagogy, then it starts to seem selfish to hold back.
When I realized that my students were missing out on opportunities as a result of my hermit status, I put on my big girl pants and started to venture past my wing of the school.
2. Make friends with extroverts
This idea always seemed funny to me, but it makes complete sense. If someone you know has no problem asking another person to do something for you, is willing to speak up for you, or generally do the things that mortify you as a result of your social anxiety or shyness, then why not lean on them?
In return, you can offer to help them with your own areas of strength. I remember a friend who was very loud, gregarious, and opinionated. One time they were upset about another colleague doing this or that and would vent to me about it. I was able to present an alternative opinion from the other person’s perspective, not because my friend was wrong, but because there are always two sides to the story.
For other colleagues, I offered my ability to plan many steps ahead and foresee everything that could go wrong. They often came to me with an idea, and I’d find holes in it as well as identify ways to strengthen their plan. And when I needed someone to bring something up at a staff meeting, I could just ask them and they’d gladly return the favor.
3. Make an initial connection over a mutual student
If you’re nervous about talking to a colleague, but really need to discuss something with them, a great way to break the ice is to first chit chat about a mutual student. It gives you a topic to prepare so that you don’t feel stupid asking them a question, and after that, they’ll most likely greet you in passing, which will make it easier for further conversation.
One of my colleagues was new to my school, and I encouraged (forced) him to eat lunch in the staff lounge. After a few months, he finally chimed in during a conversation by bringing up a concern about a student. Several other teachers at the table had that same student and gave him advice on who she should next to, how to get her to work, etc. After that, he naturally joined in regular conversation with the rest of us.
4. Master the art of small talk
Let me first confess that I find small talk exhausting. It’s not that I don’t care about other people and their lives, but it’s just difficult for me to keep a conversation going with a perfect stranger. I feel like I’m interrogating them for the sake of finding common ground. However, it works, so suck it up and learn how to do it well.
Here are some ideas for what to talk about:
- Ask about their weekend – past or future.
- Find out what part of town they live in. If you’ve been there, talk about your favorite restaurant/store/mall/etc. If not, ask them what it’s like.
- Bring up something newsworthy.
- If they mention something that you have in common with or are curious about, follow up with questions.
- If they look tired, ask them if they’ve had a long week. Give them a moment to vent, and just listen.
- If you see them wearing, carrying, or using something unusual, comment on it. That will definitely spark conversation!
During the small talk, pay attention to their answers and make a mental note of them. That way can bring it up again the next time you talk, showing that you paid attention.
5. Give more than you receive
Some teachers tend to either ask a slew of questions in rapid fire or are too embarrassed to ask at all. I honestly LOVE when people ask me questions pertaining to teaching (or cats), so it doesn’t bother me. Anytime I can help someone become a better teacher, I’m the first to sign up.
However, most teachers don’t appreciate someone who constantly asks and never offers in return. You know who I’m talking about – they want lengthy explanations during the passing period when you’re hustling to the bathroom, they want all of your lesson plans, or they repeatedly ask you how to do something, but in reality they just want you to do it for them.
But when you need them to watch your class while you run to the bathroom or need help creating a bus list for a field trip, they have a dossier of prepared excuses for why they can’t help.
Don’t be afraid to ask your colleagues for help, but also ask YOURSELF this: how are you giving back?
If you’re wondering how much to ask and how much to give, you could do at least 3 gives for every ask (you don’t have to actually count, but you get the picture). It could be a compliment, offering to make copies, help someone bring something to their car, print out and run sub plans over to their classroom, bringing them a cup of coffee, listening to them completely vent about something, etc.
Part of being a colleague is being collegial, which involves shared responsibility. We’re responsible to each other to make teaching easier. We help each other bear the burden that comes with our jobs.
The result? Less anxiety…at school
Since I took the steps to painstakingly make contact with all of the teachers at my previous school, I was completely at ease. We’d freely ask questions, offer each other advice, and smile in the hallways (unless it was during state testing…nobody smiles then).
I never imagined I’d get to that place, and getting over that anxiety opened up so many opportunities for me in my career. Don’t let your shyness or anxiety hold you back.
Try it out and take it slow
If you suffer from the same affliction, try some of these techniques out. Take it slow, and only test out one at a time. If you start to feel awkward or nervous, just remember that your colleagues are people just like you, and they want the best for the students – just like you.
At my current school, my anxiety has crept back a tiny bit since I’m still fairly new, but now I’m armed with techniques to help me overcome it faster.
I still don’t know everyone’s names, and I tend to cling to my department.
I smile at everyone and engage in small talk when necessary, and I’m still serious about my goal of making contact with each staff member this year. I’ll let you know how that goes.
However, I’m still wary of attending staff parties at someone’s house (my stomach tightened a bit as I wrote that). That’s kind of a stretch for me, so we’ll see.
But if I DO decide to go, they’re going to need another bowl of chips just for me, just in case.