As a mom, I have no problem dealing with this complaint. I can invite my child to accompany me in my task, assign them their own chores, or just send them outside to play. As a teacher in a classroom or homeschool however, it sometimes poses a bit of a problem. Sending everyone outside probably won’t work when there is a lesson to be completed. Even so, there are some options you can consider when the boredom monster nods its sleepy head.
“Wait! Didn’t you just say this won’t work?” Well, yes. And no. Sometimes a change of scenery is just the necessary solution. Everyone loves a fun surprise, and maybe sitting outside for a read aloud session under the trees is just what the teacher ordered. Or maybe getting outside of the four walls of the schoolroom can provide some fresh inspiration. Creating similes, writing descriptive paragraphs, or comparing two items? Nature provides a wealth of material from which to draw.
Consider the Skill
It probably comes as no surprise that today’s students are not necessarily skilled in the art of paying attention. The many causes of this are numerous enough to fill another blog post, but one of the main things we can do as teachers is to model what this skill looks like. Don’t assume that your students come to you already knowing how to pay attention or even what that looks like. You can begin with simple bodily postures (no resting heads on desks, no lying on the bed/couch during a lesson, no engaging in other distracting activities.) You can teach the advantages of having tools at the ready: pen/pencil, paper for note-taking, any required reading material. You can practice the art of narration (A Classical Guide to Narration by Jason Barney is a great resource) which requires the skill of listening. A student who doesn’t know how to pay attention can easily default to a posture of boredom.
Set High Expectations
Once your students know the rudiments of paying attention, it’s time to hold them accountable. Remembering that skills take practice, we offer a kind and gracious reminder when needed. We might even have a classroom discussion about the advantages of attending in order to be able to contribute more effectively to discussion and to better take in and learn the new material. As teachers we are used to assessing constantly as we teach, and this skill is no different. Be on the lookout for opportunities to offer a well-timed word of encouragement when you notice a child listening well.
Are you asking specific students specific questions? Are you calling on students by name to invite them in and show you value their participation? Are you honoring their contributions as a gift both to you, the teacher, and the rest of their fellow classmates? If any of these are neglected, all become reasons—in the student’s mind—to just check out and wait for the class to end. Calling on students by name is not a “Gotcha! I knew you weren’t listening,” rather it is an invitation to rejoin the discussion and a reminder that what they say matters.
Engage Their Minds
We were born wanting to learn, to know, to discover, and to grow. Sometimes this looks like wrestling with new ideas. Sometimes this looks like furrowed brows pondering an unexpected question. As teachers we need to be comfortable with the fact that growth and thinking needs to be happening on the part of the students. We aren’t there to pour knowledge into their brains and hope they retain at least a little bit of it. If we know how to present questions worth struggling over, ask them to compare types to find essential elements, and give them tasks that require them to harmonize disparate concepts, boredom should be the least of anyone’s worries. To put it another way: If our class seems bored, the answer is not for us as teachers to talk more. The answer is to ask good questions, maybe even better questions, so the energy comes from the students.
Pick Up the Pace
One way to grow as a teacher is to learn the art of self-assessment. One question that might be worth considering is to look at your own teaching style. Even better, ask a trusted colleague or mentor to watch you teach. Do you need to adjust the timing and flow of your lesson in order to inject a little more energy into your lesson? Please don’t hear me say that teaching is a performance. We all have our own personalities and styles, and we bring our own set of gifts to our tasks. It takes time and practice to feel comfortable standing in front of students. Thinking about some of the basics of public speaking: Do you need to vary your volume and tone of voice? Do you need to move around the room more? Would it be appropriate to talk faster at certain points and slow down at others? Don’t try to be someone you are not, but don’t be afraid to offer more of who you are!
Salt the Oats
“You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.”
“No, but you sure can salt the oats!”
Sometimes students are bored because they lack a challenge. They really might be honestly and truly bored and in need of some stimulation. Don’t hold back! What about giving them a harder problem to solve? What about giving them a taste of a concept normally reserved for the next unit or even the next year? What about inspiring them by asking them to read something normally reserved for “X” grade and asking them to rise to the challenge? There is always a humility required when learning new skills and ideas, and we need to equip and encourage our students to “not despise the day of small things.” But there are also times to take the training wheels off and see what they can do. What looks like boredom may really be a request for a chance to test their limits and see what they are capable of. What an opportunity for both teacher and student!
As teachers we have the joy and the delight of seeing those “lightbulb” moments when our students get it. Those moments are a gift to us just as much as they are to them. But part of being in relationship with those in our care means we need to attend to those moments when the light seems dim. These are the privileges and challenges that come with being a teacher. I hope the previous suggestions are tools you find helpful.