The Teacher Is In: Personality Edition

(This post cross-posted between Front Page and Mindless Diversions.  I’ll open comments on the former and close them on the latter just to keep things neat and tidy.)

Recently I asked folks to submit questions that I, as a teacher, could answer.  This is one of those answers…

Jaybird asks:

“Personality types and their effect upon learning.

I’m pretty sure that everybody here is an INTP or an INTJ, for example. I know that I, in my own life, don’t interact with a whole lot of non-NT types. (IT. You know how it is.)

Of course, if you don’t like Myers-Briggs (AND WHO DOES???), the personality archetype system that works best for you with regards to the kids that you teach.”

I (attempt to) answer:

While Myers-Briggs is something I vaguely remember being discussed in one education class or another, I can’t say I am that familiar with it.  Having researched it a bit, I can’t say that I would find the application of it to my age-range (4- and 5-year-olds) particularly useful.  That being said, “personality”, however we choose to define it, has an enormous impact in the classroom.  Here are some of the ways that I find it impacts my teaching:

First, the bulk of my curriculum is focused on social-emotional development.  I view this as my foremost charge in the education of young children.  Helping them develop skills related to self-advocacy, conflict negotiation, problem solving, frustration tolerance, fostering positive social interactions and relationships, managing emotions, etc. is core to my work.  As I learn each student, I must tailor how I teach them these skills accordingly.  If little Johnny is a dominant child who likes to be in the lead, I work to help him balance this by developing comfort and competency deferring and taking on secondary roles.  Conversely, if little Juan is a deferential child who prefers to follow, I work to help him balance this by giving him safe and supportive opportunities for leadership.  The odds are that Johnny will remain a leader and Juan will remain a follower; my goal is not to change their essential being.  Rather, it is to arm them with the skills to thrive and succeed regardless of the situation, such that if called upon to step back and follow, Johnny will be able to; and if called upon to lead, Juan will do so swimmingly.  Multiply an infinite number of personalities by the vast complexities of human life and interactions and you get a sense of the bulk of my job.

Second, it is my position that there is a linear, if not parabolic, relationship between the age of a student and her ability to accommodate her learning to the demands of the learning environment.  This position is a mixture of what I know about how children develop and grow and what I believe ought to be true about how schools respond to this knowledge.  So, on one end of the spectrum, you have folks like myself, who must largely accommodate the learning environment and experiences to children.  On the other, you have higher education, where I think it is fair to expect a student to accommodate her own approach to the environment.  I might want a visual learner to grasp a concept during a circle time meeting but, odds are, she won’t.  She has not yet developed the skills to be anything other than who she naturally is as a learner.  I can sit there and talk to her until I’m blue in the face about what a square is but until I draw that on the board, she likely won’t get it.  Going to the other end of the spectrum, I think it fair to say to a graduate student who prefers to answer long-form essays that next week’s test is multiple-choice and she should be expected to do as well (perhaps not AS well, but to at least perform competently) on that as she would on any other form of assessment (this presumes that she has been given the skills to be successful in a variety of arenas, something that we can’t necessarily presume of our education system at this point).  So, again, for myself, knowing who my students are is imperative.

Third, and probably most on point to Mr. Jaybird’s question, I get to something I touched on above: learning style.  I am generally a believer in Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences.  As I understand it, he has spun off the original eight that he proposed (though I was always a bit dubious of the “Naturalistic” as being too content specific) into about 9 million at this point, but I think the theory as a whole stands up.  I take it in a bit of a different direction and choose not to see kids as distinctly possessing specific intellects, but instead to falling somewhere along a spectrum in each area.  So a child, Malcom, might rate highly in spatial and linguistic abilities but poorly in interpersonal skills.  Right next to him might sit Sun, who rates highly in bodily-kinesthetic and musical abilities but poorly linguistically.  And, because of their age, I can’t reasonably expect them to learn in a way that is outside of their most preferred, strongest method.  HOLY JEBUS, BAT-TEACHER!

So what does this all mean?  First and foremost, I must know my students.  I spend the first several weeks of school just getting to know them.  We establish basic routines, work to build classroom community, and go over some basic fundamentals, but I can’t launch too deeply into anything else until I know them.  And even the ways in which I do these things is informed by what I know more broadly about the age I teach: the children come with a variety of strengths and weaknesses, learning styles and preferences, and personality types, which means I must offer content, skills, and concepts in a variety of forms to ensure all students have access to the curriculum.  As I get to know them more, individually and collectively, I can more precisely tailor things, as mentioned in the first point above.  So if we’re doing a study on shapes and I want the kids to learn about triangles, we might first hunt for triangles in the classroom, then make triangles with our bodies on the rug, then draw them, then build them out of blocks, and finally define the properties of the shape.  This ensures two things: every child’s preferred learning style is targeted -and- each child has an opportunity to safely develop skills and comfort in other learning styles.  And, layered over the top of this, is again what was discussed above and what we more commonly think of as personality.  So little Abdul, who is a kinesthetic learner who will best understand a triangle by contorting his body into one, might also be little Abdul, the introvert with a fear of risk-taking and discomfort working in front of the group.  So now I’ve got to make sure little Abdul has a chance to make his body into a triangle because that’s how he’ll best learn it, but I must also make sure I don’t call little Abdul first to do so because he’ll likely freeze up and not get the true experience; better to let him see others try, perhaps struggle, and emerge safely so that he can have the experience as anxiety-free as I can make it.

So, that, in a 1000+ word nutshell, is how students’ personality impacts teaching in my classroom.  I realize I might not have tackled Jaybird’s question precisely as I believed he intended it.  If he/you were wondering whether an introverted person process mathematical facts and concepts differently than an extroverted person, I can’t answer that.  I haven’t heard of or seen research that touches on it, which makes me think it likely isn’t true, but it is just as possible that I have simply never encountered the work.  If you meant something other than this and what I discussed here, elaborate on the question in the comments JB and I’ll take another 1000+ word stab at it!

Thoughts?  Anyone want to sign up to teach PreK with me?!?!


One man. Two boys. Twelve kids.


  1. I’ve never really dug into Multiple Intelligences. So I got to googling:

    Verbal-Linguistic Intelligence — well-developed verbal skills and sensitivity to the sounds, meanings and rhythms of words

    Mathematical-Logical Intelligence — ability to think conceptually and abstractly, and capacity to discern logical or numerical patterns

    Musical Intelligence — ability to produce and appreciate rhythm, pitch and timber

    Visual-Spatial Intelligence — capacity to think in images and pictures, to visualize accurately and abstractly

    Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence — ability to control one’s body movements and to handle objects skillfully

    Interpersonal Intelligence — capacity to detect and respond appropriately to the moods, motivations and desires of others.

    Intrapersonal Intelligence — capacity to be self-aware and in tune with inner feelings, values, beliefs and thinking processes

    Naturalist Intelligence — ability to recognize and categorize plants, animals and other objects in nature

    Existential Intelligence — sensitivity and capacity to tackle deep questions about human existence, such as the meaning of life, why do we die, and how did we get here.

    Now I’m going to chew on this for a while.

    • I think this can easily be viewed too much of this is nurture vs. nature. When I was a kid, I didn’t give two… er… cents about stuff in nature. I couldn’t balance well (inner ear problems). I had little patience for repetitive tasks, so practicing free throws was going to be out. It didn’t mean that I had no BKI, it just meant I didn’t want to develop it.

      Not that this is the way it is intended to be used, but this is the way I hear people talk about it.

      • PC-

        I’m not sure I fully grasp what you mean by “too much nurture vs. nature”.

        On that front, I will say that our base levels in these areas are largely “nature”. On top of that, our propensity for growth in these areas is also largely natural. A person with strong BKI will likely develop that skill faster than someone who is weak to start out. Developing the weaker areas is largely going to be nurture, primarily because those aren’t natural areas of strength and my hunch (not necessarily informed by research) is that humans are designed to be specialized and, to an extent, I am trying to resist that. I definitely want kids to develop their natural strengths, but also believe there is value in being able to “play left handed”, in being able to succeed in areas outside of their natural strengths, because one never knows when they’ll be required to do so. As I explain to parents, part of my goal is to help kids develop all their skills but, knowing the limitations of creating true Renaissance men and women, to also help them identify strengths and weaknesses and to use the former to compensate for the latter.


    • JB-

      Definitely look into it. I didn’t really do the theory justice here and as is my wont, I didn’t cite a damn thing, instead riffing more off my gut and on-the-ground understanding of the various theories contained. To me, the broader theory of different intelligence types seems like a no-brainer; of course, there is tons of room to argue over the details.

  2. I always liked Gardner’s model. It makes much more sense then the single variable IQ style model. Of course the people who developed the first IQ tests didn’t think intelligence was actually a single variable either but it ended up being misused that way.

  3. I don’t know about teaching per-K but I have the urge to make my body into a triangle just to show Abdul up.

    • I’d put odds on Abdul. Kids are limber and flexible in a way that puts most adults to shame.

  4. By the way, you should put this on the front page. Not because it doesn’t belong here, but because it’s FP material.

    • Thanks, PC. Perhaps. As is my wont, this is more riffing than an actually researched article. Might need to clean it up a bit. Or might not! WILDCARD!

      • Also, posts on education brings EVERYONE out of the woodwork… everyone fancies themself an expert. The dialogue is often robust, but can quickly denigrate to infuriating when folks who’ve never taught a day in their life or studied development or education take a, “Let me tell you why you’re wrong!” approach. I have no qualms being challenged, even by those outside the education world (we can be entirely too insular and too unwilling to reflective) but there is often a tone to it that implies people’s personal experiences as students or as parents of students somehow trumps the years I’ve spent training and working, something that isn’t there, say, with folks who’ve spent years as patients but don’t suddenly presume they better understand medicine than a doctor.

  5. This was a fantastic post, which gave me a much more detailed, nuanced picture of early childhood education than I think I have yet seen. After having read this, if by some chance my son were to end up being your student, I would be thrilled to have him in such good hands.

    • Thanks, Russ. That means a lot coming from you.

      If I ever set up a boarding pre-school, your son has a slot (though he’ll likely be well into his twenties then)…

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