Tutoring as an Introvert: Understanding and Supporting Introverted Tutors in the Writing Center
Updated: Sep 14, 2022
By Supraja Regunathan
This paper focuses on understanding whether introverted tutors are competent at being effective tutors and whether interacting with tutees for extended periods may affect them negatively. I interviewed two introverted tutors, one with 89% introversion and the other with 82%. I chose them randomly after I administered the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) test to 15 WC tutors at the American University of Sharjah (AUS). Similarly, using the results of the MBTI test, I observed one extroverted and one introverted tutor as they conducted a tutoring session. I found that introverted tutors are more empathetic, observant and reflective than extraverted tutors are. In addition, they experience burnout and emotional fatigue more often than extroverted tutors. I provide suggestions to overcome the physical and mental impact of tutoring in this paper.
Keywords: introversion, tutors, writing center, personality type, tutoring style
Tutoring as an Introvert:
Understanding and Supporting Introverted Tutors in the Writing Center
“Are you friendly, confident, & helpful? Why not become a writing center tutor?” I read aloud; this was the result of the “Join us!” button in the Inkblot Journal, the official writing center journal of the American University of Sharjah (AUS). “I don’t seem friendly at first glance,” I thought to myself, “neither do I seem confident.” Owing to my introverted nature, I tend to be closed off to people I am not familiar with and am terrified of public speaking. Nevertheless, I ended up taking WRI 221 as a challenge to myself as I genuinely loved tutoring my friends in other courses; why would tutoring others be any different?
Before I knew it, I was sitting amongst some of the most extroverted students I knew. They exchanged conversations and friendly banter as if it was second nature while I resorted to sitting next to and conversing with my introverted friend. Soon enough, we started discussing the important role of conversation in writing center tutorials, and it made me wonder: How would multiple hour-long sessions make introverted tutors feel? Do introverted tutors feel represented in the writing center? Do introverts have the qualities of an effective tutor, and what is the psychological impact of working in the writing center on them? These questions urged me to research the topic of introverted tutors in the writing center. This topic is important in representing and in better understanding the different personalities of tutors, with a focus on those who are more introverted, as it may be crucial for improving their presence in the writing center. My findings revealed that introverted tutors make effective writing tutors but that emotional labor and fatigue that comes with tutoring and interacting with people for extended periods may affect the tutors negatively. Thus, it is important to understand and learn to support introverted tutors in the writing center.
Understanding “the Introvert”
These introverted characteristics— quiet, reserved, and introspective— are not ones that come to mind when one thinks of an effective tutor; however, they are stereotypes and may not be representative of all introverts. Introversion, along with its more extroverted companion, is at the extreme ends of a spectrum. Early psychologists claimed that the difference between personalities is the individual’s expression of energy, more specifically their source and how they direct it. In Psychological Types, Jung (1921) defined extroversion as “an outward turning of libido” (para. 710) and introversion as “an inward turning of libido” (para. 769). Unlike Freud’s definition of libido, the word here represents the totality of psychic energy, not solely limited to sexual desire, and the way individuals regain this energy. While Jung provided the foundation of this theory, which was revolutionary at its time, it is important to consider that categorizing one’s personality entirely by this binary system is neither efficient nor holistic. Introversion and extroversion lie on the opposite ends of a bell curve, and most people typically fall somewhere in between, just like other continuous scales like height and weight. The human brain is complex and an individual’s personality is multi-faceted, ever-changing, and dynamic depending on the internal or external stimuli.
Nevertheless, the introversion-extroversion spectrum can lead to an accurate representation of one’s personality. For instance, the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), a test popularized by a website known as 16Personalities, is a personality test including extroversion and introversion as two of the several markers to help one understand themselves better.Discovered by a mother-daughter duo with no formal training in psychology, the MBTI test was first intended to be used for helping individuals market themselves for job opportunities, and match workers to jobs that best suit them (Geyer, 1995). Now, used in a more informal setting, the test includes 16 different personality types based on 5 key factors: the mind, how one interacts with their environment; energy, how one directs mental energy; nature, how one makes decisions and copes with emotions; tactics, how one approaches work, planning, and decision-making; and identity, how one is confident in their abilities and decisions (16Personalities, 2022). On completing the test, a person is allocated to one of 16 labels that best describes their personality, including the percentages of each of the factors. Therefore, the MBTI test is a good depiction of the spectral nature of introversion and extroversion and was consequently used in my primary research as a standardized test for interviewing introverted tutors at the AUS Writing Center (WC) (see Appendix A).
“I don’t know if we can be reduced into these categories, but the 16Personalities test called me out,” said one of the tutors, who will be referred to as Tutor A. “I felt like it was really accurate for me” (personal communication, April 6, 2022). The tutor scored an 82% on the introversion scale and believed it best represented them. It ticked all the right boxes: they valued time for themselves, they did not like being a part of big groups, and they often felt uncomfortable socializing with more than three people. Another introverted tutor from the AUS WC, Tutor B, received an 89% on the introversion scale and found the test just as enjoyable and accurate as it was back when they did it in high school. They explained that the test was comparatively new at the time, and they shared an anecdote about how their mother believed introversion to be a kind of sickness and consoled them that nothing was wrong with them (personal communication, April 5, 2022). Introverts are highly self-aware and are more prone to being self-conscious and introspective (Fenigstein, Scheier, & Buss, 1975; Fletcher & Baldry, 2000). Introverts also recharge by spending time with themselves (Jung, 1921) and reflect before making a decision. Unlike their more extroverted counterparts, introverted people listen to others carefully, learn through observation, and are sociable with people they know. Do these characteristics make introverted tutors less effective?
Tutoring as an Introvert and its Benefits
As there is limited literature on the characteristics that constitute an effective tutor, I asked my interviewees, Tutor A, and B for their opinions. “I think a tutor needs to be empathetic, patient, and considerate,” said Tutor A (personal communication, April 6, 2022). “Good tutors need to genuinely want to help the tutees and I feel like putting myself in their shoes helps with that.” What guidance would I want if I were in their place?” added Tutor A (personal communication, April 6, 2022). When asked if the qualities they listed had any relation with introverted tutors’ characteristics, Tutor A replied that they had never thought of it in that sense but as introverts are more introspective, they may be more sensitive and in tune with the emotions of the tutee (personal communication, April 6, 2022). Nevertheless, Tutor A did clarify that they did not feel that the qualities they listed were related to their introversion, besides empathy (personal communication, April 6, 2022). Tutor B also mentioned being empathetic as an important tutor characteristic in addition to being intuitive, confident, and sensitive to the tutee’s work. When asked the same follow-up question, Tutor B replied that they do feel like the characteristics they listed align with introverted tutors. “Empathy is something introverts usually have,” said Tutor B, “... [Introverts] can tell and pick up on people’s feelings.” Expanding further on this idea, Tutor B stated that introverted tutors with their high levels of intuition might be better at identifying whether a tutee is feeling nervous or dissatisfied with their work.
Hills & Argyle (2001) conducted a study on the relationship between happiness, levels of extroversion, and empathy. Their results were unexpected: while happy introverts and extroverts had similar levels of empathy, unhappy extroverts had one-third the amount of empathy an unhappy introvert would have. The introvert had a consistent level of empathy irrespective of their happiness. It can be inferred that although introverts are not necessarily more empathetic than extroverts, they are more consistently empathetic irrespective of their emotions. Introverts are also observant– a recent study by Yale psychologists called introverts “the best amateur social psychologists” (Gollwitzer & Bargh, 2018). The duo meant that introverts can judge the world more accurately than their more sociable peers. Cheek et al. (2011) claim that introverts gravitate toward solitude, which allows for more awareness, reflection, and observation of themselves and others.
In the literature, extroverts are considered better communicators than introverts, and, as mentioned earlier and emphasized by both Tutor A, and B in their interviews, conversation between the tutor and tutee is key to an effective tutoring session. Norton (1983) attributes several characteristics observable in extroverts as the qualities of an effective communicator. For example, Norton claims that a good communicator “finds it easy to interact with others whether they are intimates, friends, acquaintances, or strangers” (p. 72). Moreover, he asserts that openness, dominance, and relaxedness are some of the other characteristics of good communicators. A study conducted by Opt & Loffredo (2003) assessed participants with the Myers-Briggs test to identify whether one’s personality type affected their communication skills, as per Norton’s definition. The results were indicative of a positive correlation between extroversion and being a good communicator, while their less sociable counterparts scored lower on the scale.
Although the communication skills of an introvert may not be as apparent as for extroverts, it does not indicate that they do not have these skills. More than 55% of communication is non-verbal, and introverts can use their observational skills to their advantage (Forsythe, 2019). Introverts are also good listeners and notice subtle cues like the tone of someone’s voice or their body language (Forsythe, 2019). Owing to their empathy, introverts are easier to talk to, not egocentric, and are more selective with their words compared to their extroverted counterparts (Forsythe, 2019). Despite having to communicate with new and unfamiliar people in most sessions, tutoring can be beneficial to introverted tutors. According to Touvinen et al. (2020), introverts with higher social interaction have higher self-esteem and are less likely to burn out compared to those with lower social interaction. Interestingly, extroverts showed a slight decline for the same, with extroverts with higher social interaction showing lower self-esteem compared to those with lower social interaction.
To understand the findings of both the interviews I conducted as well as the secondary research, I observed two tutoring sessions: one with an extroverted tutor and the other with an introverted one. My goal was to determine the effectiveness of the sessions in relation to their personality types. Once again, I chose the tutors, Tutor E, and Tutor, based on their high levels of extroversion and introversion, respectively, based on their results from the MBTI test. Body language stood out the most. Both the tutors were sitting side-by-side with their tutees, but Tutor I, the introverted tutor was sitting at an angle, giving their tutee more personal space. Tutor E, the extraverted tutor, was open with their body language and used many gestures to explain their point, while Tutor I did not and kept their hands close to their body. As for the overall session, Tutor E spoke a lot more to their tutee than Tutor I and their tutee, and this could perhaps be attributed to the nature of their session, which was CV building. Tutor I spoke a lot less than their tutee and focused more on asking questions to clarify the content of the research paper. Interestingly, whenever there was silence in the session, as the tutee was making comments or corrections, Tutor E would fill the silence with small talk and questions about their CV while Tutor I would sit back and wait until the tutee gave them a signal that they were done.
Nevertheless, both the sessions were textbook examples of an effective session, and the tutees left satisfied. I conclude that introverts can be effective tutors and can benefit from the social interaction they gain from their tutoring sessions.
The Mental and Physical Impact of Tutoring
Irrespective of their personality type, tutors in the WC often feel exhausted both physically and mentally after attending sessions back-to-back; this effect can be amplified for introverted tutors. When asked if they ever felt tutoring to be taxing, Tutor A, being a more seasoned tutor, responded that they only felt that way when they took longer shifts in previous semesters (personal communication, April 6, 2022). “This was also when I had half-hour sessions, so sometimes I would have to meet 6 or 7 tutees in one shift,” said Tutor A (personal communication, April 6, 2022). On the other hand, Tutor B, a comparatively new tutor, found tutoring to be taxing both physically and mentally. Tutor B explained that they usually have a checklist for the introduction and icebreakers at the beginning of the session as they are not comfortable with small talk: “It’s physically exhausting because [of] having to talk a lot and communicat[ing], asking a lot of questions and making sure the tutee is on the right track, you know?” (personal communication, April 5, 2022). I asked Tutor B whether they reached out for help for the physical and mental exhaustion, and they responded that they did not because they would just “figure it out and move on” (personal communication, April 5,
2022). Introverts are less likely to reach out for help compared to extroverts (Ancowitz, 2009); they are used to being self-sufficient and prefer to be independent.
While the focus of the WC is on the tutee, it is important to acknowledge and address the mental struggles of the tutors. Out of 127 WC tutors in a survey conducted by Denger et al. (2015), 57% had at least one of the several mental health disorders mentioned on their list, which included depression, anxiety, and ADHD. Out of them, 72% of the tutors did not disclose their symptoms to anybody prior to the study (Denger, Wojciehowski, & Giroux, 2015). They offered a variety of reasons: some claimed that their concerns or illness did not affect their tutoring, while others were afraid of being perceived as unprofessional which could jeopardize their job (Denger, Wojciehowski, & Giroux, 2015). Some others did not feel comfortable disclosing such information, while a few others did not want to burden others with their issues (Denger, Wojciehowski, & Giroux, 2015).
A firsthand account of a tutor from the College of Lake County (CLC) WC, Emmerson (2018) describes a prospective tutor struggling with depression and anxiety who decides to work in the WC. Being timid and anxiety-prone, Emmerson was worried about becoming a tutor but learned that she could turn her weaknesses into strengths in the WC under the guidance of her instructor. For instance, when a tutee felt frustrated, Emmerson would stay silent, applying what she had learned in her counseling sessions, and would encourage them to talk out their feelings. Emmerson explained, “Reflection comes from the person talking through what is bothering them, and if I were to interrupt their flow, the person might not get to the answer themselves.”
As for those tutors dealing with burnout, WC tutor Ferguson (n.d) at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, explains how the more a job requires one to hold back their negative emotions and release their positive emotions, the higher the burnout rate (Mann, 2004; Yilmaz, Altinkurt, Guner, & Sen, 2015). Display rules can be defined as “behavioral expectations about which emotions ought to be expressed and which ought to be hidden” and are taught to employees during training (Fergusen, n.d.). For example, a waitress smiling at the customer and being polite is her following the display rules taught in her training. However, display rules are not taught and are engrained in society through socialization. Tutors, especially new ones, often feel a sense of guilt when they think they have not met the expectations of the tutee or were not able to apply the strategies they learned in training to their tutorials effectively (Rowell, 2015). Burnout can also arise from these unmet expectations, consequently leading to an overall decrease in the productivity of the session and those that follow (Rowell, 2015).
Rashtchi & Mashhour (2019) conducted a study with EFL introverted and extroverted tutors to understand the relationship between reflective learning and burnout. Their results showed that there is a negative correlation between reflective learning and burnout regardless of personality type and that introverted tutors experience more burnout compared to extroverted tutors. Nonetheless, it is important to address the mental and physical impact of tutoring and help support tutors in the writing center, regardless of their personality type.
Supporting Tutors in Writing Centers
To ensure the introverted tutors do not become demotivated or to help them recover from burnout, the WC can support tutors by providing them with resources, ranging from handouts discussing the importance of the physical and emotional well-being of tutors to directing them to counseling services, if required. Some tips that tutors can keep in mind include making sure they do not overburden themselves when scheduling their shifts. Taking breaks is important in jobs that have high emotional labor to ensure that there is enough time to recharge (Rowell, 2015). If tutors are unable to deal with burnout, they will be unable to help their tutees effectively. To counter burnout, writing centers could have monthly evaluations to determine how light or severe their tutors’ burnout is. One way to do this would be through Maslach’s Burnout Inventory, a test that measures burnout on a scale of 1-7 per item (Maslach & Jackson, 1981). The items include emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, personal achievement, cynicism, and personal efficacy. When an increase in any of these categories is seen, a plan of action is required for the tutors to overcome their burnout. Sometimes negative emotions may arise in a session and to help the tutor manage them, they could, for example, squeeze a stress ball or take a few breaths to release their negative emotions. Another method is mindful meditation, which can be practiced by the burnt-out tutors before or after a session to calm themselves down and to help them clear their minds (Johnson, 2018). Generally, it involves taking deep breaths and softening one’s muscles in an organized manner.
Tutor B prefers reading in their downtime in a quiet and comfortable environment while Tutor A takes fewer consecutive hours currently— these are their personalized ways of supporting their wellbeing. What can writing centers do to support their introverted tutors better? Encouraging tutors to select a tutoring style that they feel comfortable with and to personalize it is important. Thompson (1994) conducted a study where he picked three tutors at random from a WC and administered the MBTI test. After they were assigned to their four-letter acronyms, Thompson observed two of their sessions and took notes (Thompson,1994). His notes of the tutors were compared to the Myers-Briggs description of their personality type, and Thompson found out that there was a relationship between the tutor’s personality type and their tutoring style (Thompson, 1994). Nevertheless, he did make it clear that one’s personality type is one of the many influences and not the sole influence on their tutoring style (Thompson, 1994). For example, Tutor Amy, who had an MBTI of ISFJ (considerate and kind individuals with a strong sense of commitment to others), focused on details over the bigger picture, unlike her colleague Dan with an MBTI of ENTP (strategic, adaptable, energetic and enthusiastic). Amy also enumerated the different skills she and her tutee worked on at the end of every session to give them a sense of accomplishment. The Myers-Briggs description of ISFJ is that these individuals "like to make decisions, come to closure, and then carry on" (Thompson, 1994, p. 144). Using this study as a model, writing centers could administer personality type assessments to their tutors during tutor training to help them understand themselves as it relates to their tutoring style. However, because MBTI is not science-based, another personality assessment could be administered in its place like the Big Five Personality Test.
When the interviewees were asked if the AUS WC supported them well, Tutor A and B agreed. Tutor B focused on the facilities provided by the WC at AUS like natural lighting, the policy of being quiet, and the space provided at the back for the tutors when they needed a break or downtime (personal communication, April 5, 2022). On the other hand, Tutor A talked about the tutoring resources offered like techniques and workshops (personal communication, April 6,
2022). In addition, Tutor A also talked about the personal support they received from other tutors (personal communication, April 6, 2022). To summarize, the AUS WC supports their tutors well, irrespective of personality type, and can support them further by including the different methods discussed above.
Introverted tutors are effective tutors — they just need to be understood and supported. After observing the introverted and extroverted tutors and speaking with the tutors and their tutees, I discovered that both sessions held by both were equally successful. I was able to infer that one’s personality does not restrict their capabilities as a tutor but instead defines their tutoring style. However, it is important to recognize the limitations of my primary research, which can be mainly attributed to the sample size-only two tutorial observations and two interviews. In further research, I would like to conduct in-depth analysis of different tutoring styles in relation to tutors' personalities, as introversion-extroversion is only a facet of one’s personality.
This research may help the WC to become aware of and gauge the kind of support the tutors require. I advocate for the WC to keep monthly check-ins for the tutors. As discussed earlier, this can be achieved by an effective method adopted by several WCs: Maslach’s Burnout Inventory. It includes a series of categories with questions to assess how much exhaustion and mental fatigue the individual feels. When an increase is seen in any of the categories, a plan of action should be discussed with the tutor. In general, it is important to talk extensively about mental health and physical well-being in the biweekly or monthly meetings in the WC. This will not only positively impact the tutors, but their students as well and the entire program.
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This appendix consists of the interview question posed to the interviewees, Tutor A and Tutor B. Before the interview was conducted, the interviewees were made aware of the agenda or general structure of the interview which was:
1. Their experiences as an introvert,
2. The characteristics they associate with an effective or good tutor,
3. Their experiences as an introverted tutor,
4. The approach or tutoring strategies they use,
5. If applicable, the emotional and physical impact of being a tutor, and
6. Tips on how they handle it
The interview was broadly divided into three sections and the questions posed are listed below. It is important to note that follow-up questions that were asked on the spot are not included in this list as they differed depending on the answers provided by the interviewees.
I. Icebreaker/ Getting to know the tutor
1. What is your name? Could you please spell it?
2. Please introduce yourself.
3. If you could use one word to describe your personality, what would it be?
4. What are your thoughts on personality tests?
5. Have you always been an introvert?
6. Have people had misconceptions about you after knowing you are an introvert?
a. If yes, what are they?
1. What qualities do you think a tutor should have?
2. Do you think there are any qualities of an introverted tutor that may be a strength in the writing center? What about weaknesses?
a. If yes, what are they?
3. How important is conversation in the writing center?
a. As an introvert, do you approach conversation differently?
i. If yes, how?
ii. If not, do you think there is a standardized way of interacting with tutees, irrespective of one’s personality?
iii. Besides conversation, do you think there are any other differences between extroverted and introverted tutors?
4. Do you think a tutor’s personality is important in achieving a “successful” tutoring session?
a. Crabtree says that “... many students arrive with a citation machine mentality….” What are your thoughts on the statement?
b. Do you think personality influences behavior?
5. Have you ever found tutoring to be taxing either emotionally or physically?
a. If yes, did you reach out to someone about it?
b. What helped or still helps you when you find yourself in a similar situation?
1. What can introverted tutors do to create a more positive environment for themselves?
a. What can introverted tutors do to create a more positive environment for their tutees?
2. Do you think it is important to include tutors of a spectrum of personalities in the writing center?
3. Concerning research, do you think there is adequate research being conducted on understanding tutors and their tutoring styles?
a. What about research on supporting tutors?
4. How can writing centers support introverted tutors better?