Student & Teacher Boredom: What can we do?

We have all read statistics on the decline of student engagement between kindergarten and graduation. I recently read the article Bored Out of their Minds which talks about students and the reasons for their lack of interest as they get older. One particular part of the article that struck me was:

“But who cares? Isn’t boredom just a natural side effect of daily life’s tedium? Until very recently, that’s how educators, academics, and neuroscientists alike have treated it. In fact, in the preface to Boredom: A Lively History, Peter Toohey presents the possibility that boredom might not even exist. What we call “boredom” might be just a “grab bag of a term” that covers “frustration, surfeit, depression, disgust, indifference, apathy.””

It’s difficult to not be frustrated by articles like this, not because they’re wrong, but because they’re right. The data is there, we see it on the faces of our students and kids everyday, and yet either don’t know what to do about it or don’t care enough to try. My own kids express their dislike for their classes and how boring they are all the time. My younger son (the same one who went on this rant regarding imaginary numbers) had been telling us that he wanted to go into Biomedical Engineering, and wanted to learn how to code because he wanted to learn to create new prosthetics for people who had lost limbs. Recently, he told me that he has changed his mind. The coding class that he took in school was so boring and frustrating (not because it was hard but because it was too easy) that he lost interest in the entire coding process. The class’s assignments consisted of repeatedly building a website with HTML with minor changes in the coding. I think of all the amazing activities that can be done with coding and I shudder at the fact that an entire semester course consisted of this one skill. He was bored out of his mind. His experience changed his entire outlook toward a profession he was confident he would pursue.

I’m not saying that all students will have wide-eyed amazement at everything they do in school. I liked school because I knew how to “play school” and it, in general, came easy to me, but math was not my strong suit. I had to work really hard to get good grades because it didn’t come naturally to me (evidenced by the fact that I told someone the other day that $1799 x 3 was $1400 – I’m not even kidding). It’s going to happen that not every student likes every subject they take. However, if we allow students more choice and create opportunities for cross curricular learning, they can couple their interests with their struggles, and be more engaged than they would be otherwise.

Because my role is to work with teachers more than students now, I also connected this article to an image by Sylvia Duckworth that I often use in Twitter PD.

duckworth twitter

Any chance that you know an educator that seems to feel “frustration, surfeit, depression, disgust, indifference, apathy”? I would say that I could probably name a few. Honestly, whether discussing student boredom or teacher boredom, I can’t even imagine being so miserable at an activity in which you spend the majority of your time.

The awesome thing about being an educator, however, is that we have control of how we handle boredom when it sets in. If we would allow the students voice and choice in their learning, like they so desperately want anyway, we would find that when we create these opportunities for students it reawakens the reason we became teachers in the first place. Their engagement in the learning process becomes your engagement in facilitating their learning. They are no longer just handing in papers. Their creativity will amaze and entertain you…probably blow you away at their resourcefulness. They will take ownership, and isn’t that exactly what we want anyway? It’s definitely a win-win.

When boredom set in for me when I was a teacher, I took matters into my own hands. I was introduced to Twitter and ran with it. I learned what personalized professional development was and became more cognizant of what it was that I wanted to learn more about and made my own opportunities. However, this required me to be reflective enough to:

  1. Recognize that I needed to be the one to change
  2. Quit blaming others for me staying inside my box
  3. Realize my strengths, weaknesses, and interests, how these affected my students, and what I could do about it

But once I did that, I was able to take control of my own learning and reengage in my profession. I could have left teaching all together or I could have become cynical and apathetic, but instead, I’m consistently thankful that I found a profession that I love so much.

Student engagement and teacher job satisfaction really aren’t that different. Each of us needs to be given the permission and authority to take ownership of what it is we want to learn and how to best engage. Every single decision we make as a teacher, including taking control of our learning and development, will affect our students. Hopefully, the ownership in our own growth provides opportunities for our students to engage and become less frustrated with their education as they get older.

We Underestimate our Students

I always felt like one of my strengths as a teacher was that I always had high expectations for my students. I never lowered expectations based on a specific class or student. I expected them to grow and make progress (at their level), to enjoy learning (most of the time-we all have our days), and that each of them had strengths that made our class the community it was. Students would rise to the expectations. There was never a reason to lower them. I tried hard not to underestimate what my students could accomplish.

Yesterday, I was shopping with my daughter and I ran into one of my former pre-service teacher students from the university. She’s a super girl, appropriately candid and always asked great questions. She will be a fantastic teacher. She was in one of my first classes I taught, and we all know as teachers how first classes have the ability to create a special imprint. When I asked her how her semester was going, she replied with “It’s a joke”. Immediately, I jumped to the conclusion that it was a lot of work, that she was swamped and struggling to keep up, therefore: a joke. When I asked her some clarifying questions, I found that by “joke” she meant that her classes were too easy. She said she was able to get all her work done at her job, hence the reason she was out shopping instead of studying like a college student should. She said that she thought her classes would be more rigorous. Instead, she barely has any work to do at all.

I’m not going to lie, I was a little shocked, but my pre-service students always continue to amaze me. It’s one of the reasons that I love teaching those classes. Then I realized that I had totally underestimated her because she is a “college student” and I had fixed her with a get-out-of-as-much-work-as-possible stamp, which was wrong of me to do. In this case, she WANTS to learn. She WANTS to be a great teacher. Her classes are not providing her with enough to keep her learning, and it’s irritating to her. IRRITATING TO HER that she can’t get the learning she needs to be awesome (which she will be anyway because she will make it happen on her own – she’ll be awesome in spite of school).

I feel like we find that same thing with teachers in the field. They have a window where they are excited and want to do what’s best for their students but are not provided with the training and tools they need to move forward, so some burn out and some become cranky, but they don’t start out that way.

As for the high expectations for students part, it was a good gut check for me. I was discussing this with a teacher at the beginning of school. He’s a great guy, came into the teaching field from the private sector and is doing his absolute best while not yet having his teaching degree (he’s working on that). When I asked him how it was going (he was first-year teacher exhausted, we can all relate) he said, “I don’t know. I think I just need to lower my expectations for how my students should act”. I told him absolutely not, if anything, raise them. Have faith that your students will rise to the occasion and will probably surprise you by bypassing your expectations and coming in with ideas and behaviors that are better than expected. Yet, I did the same thing with one of my students, underestimated her because she is a college student.

Image result for high expectations for students

Adjunct Teaching

Sometime last December an opportunity to teach at the University of Oshkosh literally fell into my lap. The professor for the one and only instructional technology course for students in the college of education was going on sabbatical, and the school was looking for adjuncts to pick up her classes. I applied. I interviewed. I was offered two sections on the spot. It was truly something I had wanted to do since entering into the field of education, so I was beyond excited for the opportunity.

I began planning immediately. I tried to think of what my professors had done that I really liked when I was in college. They:

  • made me feel as though they cared and formed relationships
  • gave me practical knowledge as well as theory
  • remembered that we all had lives outside of school (I happened to have 3 kids while finishing my bachelors)
  • made me laugh
  • told me stories
  • challenged me to think differently
And I tried to remember what I didn’t like:
  • when they were super unorganized (I had a prof that wore her button-up shirt inside out once)
  • the work seemed like it was designed only to keep me busy
  • they lectured – all. the. time
  • there was no “give” to their methods (due dates were due dates no matter what, how I showed my learning was nonnegotiable, etc)
  • they clearly didn’t care
I also thought about my experiences in the professional development that I provide to teachers, and how I have been working toward providing PD that is more personalized and that has voice, choice and pacing options. I wanted that for my students as well because I wanted to model that type of classroom environment and learning. I wanted to model innovative thinking. I wanted to show the importance of making connections.
In true “first year teacher fashion”, I’m not sure how much of this I did. My good intentions were definitely there. We read the Innovator’s Mindset by George Couros (clearly I have an affinity for this book). I tried to come up with innovative ways for students to do their weekly reflections/discussions on the chapters. We did EDUin30 videos, group discussions, a Twitter chat, used Padlet…I wracked my brain trying to think of different ways. We connected with Jen Hegna and her Innovation Cohort of grad students twice during the semester to grow our PLN and learn the importance of being connected. I gave choice in their assessments and modeled using rubrics to allow for that choice. Once they figured out that they could actually be creative in their assessments, mainly in our very last Innovator’s Mindset reflection, what they turned in was amazing. Certainly beyond my expectations. Every. Single. One. 
Still, I feel like I could have done more.
Now that it’s the last two weeks of the semester, it has really hit me that the two classes I had this semester are the equivalent of the first class that I ever taught in middle school and then again in the first class I taught in elementary, I am going to MISS them. Every single Monday and Wednesday I laughed, had moments of teacher pride and saw many of them grow in their thinking. Sometimes I caught them rolling their eyes at me, but hey, there are times I’d roll my eyes at myself, too. One of the reasons I love being a technology coach is because I feel like I can reach so many more students by working with their teachers, even if I don’t do it directly. I feel the same way about teaching students who will one day be teachers, and on the way I also figured out that college students are phenomenal people. When you allow them, they love to laugh and have fun while they learn. They still can have a creative side when you allow them. They will challenge themselves as evidenced by some of their EDUin30 videos and how they posted them on Twitter (SO proud of them for that-see examples here). Sometimes I think we spend so much time labeling people with their generation and focusing on what they don’t do that we forget to remember the awesome people that they are and focus on their strengths. In the past, I have been guilty of this as well. Overall, I have learned that it is possible to love students after 14 weeks, and teaching these courses might be one of the most important jobs of my career.
 

I highly recommend, if given the chance, to give being an adjunct a try. It is a truly rewarding experience. When you do, I hope you have someone like my friend Brian Bartel, who is a tech integrator like me by day and an adjunct by night, who answered every one of my questions. All 1001 of them. At least twice (I suspect he’s just copying and pasting answers to me now). Thanks Brian! 🙂

The First Post

The first post is the hardest. It has to be. There’s no established writing style, no inside jokes from another post to fall back on, no knowledge of my credentials or if what I have to say is worth the five minutes you found to read blog posts that will challenge your thinking and improve your teaching. However, when speaking about goals, one of the smartest guys I know asked me “Why not?”, and I couldn’t answer him with anything that didn’t involve me showing a complete lack of faith in myself – something I would never have allowed in my students. Therefore, welcome to my first blog post.
I didn’t set out to be a teacher. To be honest, when I went back for my Bachelor’s degree my own kids were little and the summers off sounded fantastic. Being done for the day when they were done: phenomenal. Spring break. Winter break. Snow days. A magical place called “Teachers’ lounges”. Need I say more?
When I was hired for my first job in a middle school I was terrified. I thought middle schoolers were narcissistic, cruel, and wore their pants down to their knees. They swore like pirates while looking like 12 year olds, made crude hand gestures, and might even try SMOKING for goodness sakes. I was fairly certain that they were going to eat me alive and laugh while they were doing it. As it turned out, I couldn’t have been more wrong. It took me about three months to figure out that my strong suit was humor and making connections to the students and I loved them. LOVED them. Many of them I loved like my own children. I had been right. They could be narcissistic, cruel, and all the other preconceived characteristics that I described…sometimes, but mostly they had moments of being little kids again loving a five minute hand-eye coordination game, crying when someone hurt their feelings, and were just trying to navigate their way through middle school unharmed which was not much different than what I was doing. I think they recognized that in me, and there was a great deal of mutual respect and affection because of it. Since then, I’ve always said that there is nothing like teaching middle schoolers, and I mean that in the kindest, most wistful way possible.
When I moved to teaching elementary school, I treated my students like a family. I didn’t know how else to treat them. There were days that I saw those kids more than I saw my own. I designed my classroom to look as much like a living room as possible. I had a couch against everyone’s better judgement. “I’d have lice” they said. “They’ll fight over spots” they said. And they did, no doubt. One year I even had to have a schedule on who could sit on the couch at what time, but they did it because they loved that old, ratty, 70’s style brown and orange couch. When they would leave for the year, they would say good-bye. To the couch. But, it was because it had been part of their home for a year. Before I left the classroom, I had so many different chairs and spots to sit that nobody had to fight. I was doing flexible seating before I knew what flexible seating was. Had I known then what I know now, I would have gotten rid of desks all together. Those moments of allowing the students to sit where they wanted, work how they were comfortable, even if it meant me getting down on the floor to hold our reading group, connected the kids to each other and to me in a way that desks couldn’t facilitate. There is more to flexible seating than a choice in where to sit. It helped build my classroom community.
My last experience as a classroom teacher I had looped from fourth to fifth grade with the same students. The students had the chance to opt out of my class for fifth grade and not a single one left. Having the same class two years in a row, especially the class I had, was truly the best experience of my career and I wholeheartedly recommend it to any teacher lucky enough to be given the chance. At some point in that year I discovered that I belonged in education. Actually belonged there, like a club that I originally didn’t want to be a part of. I wouldn’t be the same person I am today without the influence that all my students have had on me. I wouldn’t be the professional that I am if my students, and now other classroom teachers, hadn’t  inspired me to continue to learn and grow. So, for the teacher who didn’t want to be one, and a believer in the fact that everything happens the way it’s supposed to, I am truly grateful for teaching and how it has shaped my life. The education profession is like no other in the type of relationships you create and the influence you have on students, and we are all fortunate that our paths have brought us to students to love, protect, and teach.