Personality matters: What I learned as a high school teacher
By Sarah Mulvey
Rachel was a star student. She was in my homeroom and my first period English class, so I saw her all morning and was responsible for reviewing her grades. This sweet girl had one best friend, but she didn’t really talk to anyone else. She was silent throughout every class unless called on to answer questions but she took meticulous notes and wrote some truly spectacular science fiction stories in her spare time. She used to stay after school so we could review.
Although Rachel rocked my English class, her math grade dropped significantly during the second half of quarter one – sometime after Halloween. When I asked her what was going on, she replied that she “didn’t know” why her grade fell, and refused to offer any more information on the topic.
Rachel had Mr. B for math. He taught in the classroom next to mine, but he was quite a presence in the entire hallway – his loud voice could be heard echoing up and down the hallway every time he taught a lesson. When I stopped by his room to discuss Rachel’s grade, it turned out that the drop was due to lack of participation. Suddenly it all made sense.
Mr. B had a loud, rambunctious personality that kept quite a few of his students entertained. He liked to crack jokes during class, moved rapidly about the room as he was teaching, and encouraged students to “jump into the lesson” with questions and comments without raising their hands. His had a fun teaching style that keeps most students engaged in every lesson, no matter how “boring” the content. But not poor Rachel, who felt intimidated by Mr. B’s loud personality and was a bit too shy to speak in the class – and her grade suffered as a result.
Mr. B was one of those awesome teachers who care about the well-being of each and every student, and after he realized what was going on with Rachel, he encouraged her to speak by asking her direct questions in class. They even had a “secret signal” that he would use to warn her when a question was coming her way. He refused to drop the low participation grade, however, because he believed that doing so would be to “handicap” Rachel – he wanted her to overcome her fear of speaking in front of the class, not find a way around it.
Rachel’s story is a happy one, but it makes me wonder: how many other kids out there struggle in a class because of the teacher’s personality? In Rachel’s case, she was too intimidated to participate in the lesson, but there could be many other problems. A creative child may crave variety when working with a by-the-book teacher who swears by routines, lectures and notes; an extroverted student may be stuck in relative isolation if a more introverted teacher thinks that others will dislike group work, as she did; a student who loves team work and collaborating with classmates may feel unappreciated by a teacher who prefers not to delegate classroom tasks; the potential for personality clashes extends far and wide.
In an ideal world, teachers would be aware of their personalities to make accommodations and coach students as needed, the way Mr. B did for Rachel. The fact is few of us have the self-awareness to recognize the ways in which our personalities affect others. After all, education is not “one-size-fits all” – what works for one student may not work for the next, so it’s important that the teacher remain conscious of the fact that while some students respond well to their personalities, the outliers may need some help. The challenge is to make teachers truly aware of their personalities, how they impact their students’ learning, and teach them when and how to adapt their practices for their students.
If personality assessments are such a simple answer to many students’ struggles, you may wonder why they aren’t used in schools more often. The problem is that few people think to look to teacher-student personality differences (or clashes) as an underlying cause for difficulties in the classroom. Student “failure” is often chalked up to things like lack of effort, difficulties with the content, distraction, lack of talent on the teacher’s part, etc. If schools start implementing personality surveys and coach teachers on how to work with students based on their results, we can minimize these cases and help each and every student reach his or her full potential, regardless of whose classroom they’re in.