Bored Students are the Teacher’s Responsibility: What Can You Do About It?

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As a teacher, your job is extremely clear. There is a bottom line. It’s student learning. Period. That’s it, that’s all, and there ain’t no more. 

However, as every decent teacher knows, there’s a hell of a lot to student learning. It’s vaster and far more complicated than most people other than good teachers know. It includes content learning, social-emotional learning, and even ethical/values learning.They all matter, and every teacher is entrusted to ensure their students achieve in all these kinds of learning and probably others as well.

The responsibility for student learning is dramatically important, powerful, and extremely difficult to bear. It’s also an honor and possibly a sacred privilege. (Not a religious person, my use of the word sacred is vanishingly spare). Teachers should be held to an extremely high standard. Given the work we do and who we work with, it’s too important not to be done with absolute excellence.

Absolute excellence–doing the best thing for student learning 100% of the time–is almost certainly impossible. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be our goal. Good teachers must do everything within reason to get their students learning as much as possible as efficiently as possible. That’s the job. Period.

Teaching is hard.

My Students Are Bored. Isn’t that THEIR Problem?

If your students are bored in your classroom, they are not learning. Blaming students for being bored does not improve their learning. In fact, it seals it in. Blaming students for being bored also alleviates their teacher from having to create conditions in which their students learn. More bluntly: It gives excuses to poor teachers.

If you find yourself blaming your students for being bored (or anything, for that matter), you’d better ask yourself if you’re as good a teacher as you think you are. You probably aren’t.

If your students are bored, you need to ask yourself some questions:

Are they really bored? Or is something else going on?

The only valid reason for a student to not be learning during a class is if that student needs a break from learning. If the student is choosing to take a break, it may be that the student is too overworked to continue to learn. The break will help them rejuvenate themselves–or to, as Thomas Covey says in his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, “sharpen their saw.” Or, the student is choosing not to learn for some other reason: distraction by something in the classroom or from another part of the student’s life, disinterest, anger (at you, the school, or others in the class), mental illness, hunger, physical illness, learning disability (or, learning difference), or outright hostility to what they are being asked to learn or do.

Good teachers examine their students and try to find out if they are in some sort of distress. If they are, they help solve that distress, using all resources available. After all, a student in distress cannot learn (or learn as well as a student in security). If needed resources are not available, THAT is the problem. Not the student.

Why are they bored?

If you determine that a student or multiple students are truly bored, then you need to examine how you are teaching. Here are some questions to ask yourself about why your students are bored:

  • Are you too teacher-centered? Are you expecting students to sit and what you work? They don’t usually like that, except in small doses.
  • Are you failing to ensure your students understand why what you are teaching is truly important for them? Saying something “will be on the test” is not making the content relevant; it’s making a threat. Threats don’t work on many students. (That’s a good thing.)
  • Are you teaching to just one segment of the learners in your classroom, and neglecting others? Are you differentiating your curriculum and methods enough?
  • Do the students dislike the teaching methods you are using? It’s hard to learn if you dislike what you dislike how you’re being required to learn it.

What can I change to engage the students in their learning in this class?

The questions in the previous subject lead to lots of pathways for change that might re-engage bored students. Here are some things to try:

  • Active Learning Methods, such as in-class writing, collaborative writing, break-out groups with report outs, creating surveys for students to respond to and discuss, literature circles (which can be done with any form of reading, even nonfiction articles), reading-writing workshops.
  • Ask the students what they think they would like to do. Students understand that they are required to learn content. They may not like it, but they will do it if they are given enjoyable (or at least not unpleasant) ways of doing it. Students probably won’t have great answers–they are not experts in teaching–but even the fact that you are asking them is likely to engage them more.
  • Give them CHOICE in all ways possible. Choice always increases student engagement. Too much choice can paralyze students, but the ability to choose from a group of options is magically effective. Let the class choose the next book. Let the students choose from several books and work in groups according to their preferences. Give students three options for a writing assignment. Choice is ALWAYS helpful. And, it prepares students for life in a real-world democracy.
  • Try gamifying your classroom a little bit. (But avoid those horrible token games that train students like chickens in a Skinner box.)
  • Ask other teachers for help. You probably have colleagues who’ve come up with great ideas. Why not ask them about them? If you can’t think of any, ask the students what classes they enjoy and why. Yeah, this is humbling. Get over it. Our duty is to student learning, not our own egos.

Forgive Yourself for Not Being Perfect

Teaching is among the most difficult jobs on the planet, and it is arguably the most important. If you are a teacher, you have chosen a very, very, very hard job. It’s also a wonderful job with amazing advantages, especially the honor and joy of working with young people and getting to watch and even influence them as they grow to happy, productive adults. 

Yes, teaching is hard. And, yes, we have to strive for perfection, even though we know we will never achieve it. The point is not reaching perfection. The point is reaching every student and helping that student to learn, grow, and succeed. Teaching is a no excuses profession and it is an impossible profession. That’s what you agreed to when you became a teacher, whether you realized it or not.

It’s ok that we teachers aren’t perfect. But it’s not ok for us to settle for anything less. We must keep striving and be gentle with ourselves when we inevitably fail. We need to build resilience, care for ourselves, and work as well as we reasonably can even in the face of public apathy or outright hostility. 

But the struggle, the striving–always in service of better and faster student learning–can never stop. Bored students are not learning what we are paid to ensure they learn. We have to do better.

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