A former student of mine, now a police officer and one of my volunteer assistant basketball coaches, disappeared a few seasons ago for several months. When he resurfaced, he told me he had been assigned suddenly by narcotics to go undercover as a student in a local high school (he is 24 but looks like a muscular 16 year old). He told me he’d set up a few arrests and I couldn’t help but ask him how he had done academically in his classes. To that he gave me a long hard stare. He said, “It was worse than the first time I was in high school. Worse than your class,” he said. The boredom, he told me, was torturous.
Perhaps this was an exaggeration, but I know better than to dismiss what he said outright. As a mentor teacher who has spent hours in different classrooms making observations, I have had to fight off sleep many times. Such occasions are a sobering reminder to me; it would be irresponsible not to wonder if I might have that same effect on some of my students.
When I began teaching 20-some years ago, I was startled by the short attention span of many children. Their minds seemed to have been shaped entirely by the mean streets of their neighborhoods and by the electronic myth factory. I concluded, in my rookie teacher arrogance, that a generation of children had been so mentally stunted by unstable family lives and communities and my the overstimulation of growing up in front of television sets that nothing short of turning schools into amusement parks would reach them.
I don’t think I was entirely wrong. Children are certainly shaped by the world around them — and by the false world on the screens in front of so many of them. They often enter our classrooms with a knowledge base polluted by misinformation and half-truths, their imaginations stunted by an oversaturation of digital entertainment.
But I think that I too have lacked imagination in thinking about this problem. It is my students who have made me realize that. They have shown me that they don’t really need an educational amusement park. The solution to their over-stimulation is not more of it with an educational slant. What they need to learn is how to read — not just decode language but understand perspective and context and the deeper meanings of a text. They need to learn how to think, how to distinguish logic from emotion, fact from assumption, reasoning from prejudice.
They need to be engaged in constructive intellectual human contact. Teachers can offer that and model and encourage and insist on it. We can be relentless and infectious sources of passion for the knowledge of science and art, for understanding and discovery. We can organize our classes so that students can bridge the gaps between what they know and what they ought to know and make what they ought to know the very things they want to know. It also doesn’t hurt if we make some effort, now and then, to be a little entertaining and to provide students with opportunities to amuse each other while they learn. It’s a long school day and a long school year and 13 years of it can become a tedious grind.
The boredom our students so often express can be a symptom of their limitations — limitations which need to be challenged and ultimately defeated. But such claims of boredom can also be a sign what we are teaching is not useful or that how we are teaching it is not compelling.
Being able to read the meaning of student boredom may be the single most important skill for effective teaching.