How To Be A More Interesting Teacher
contributed by Jeffrey Benson
It is not a version of grit to passively accept boredom. It is not a version of grit to be passive. For teachers or for students: it’s a version of submission.
It is good to know how to manage one’s boredom in life without losing one’s mind. It is good to learn to cope with disappointment and failure, and to find inner resolve. And there’s enough boredom and disappointment and failure in the commerce of life to learn those lessons without my actually building it into a task that my students have no choice about and saying, “Here’s something else you’ll find boring.”
From needless instructions to repetitive emails to to wasteful meetings to duplicate communication to (insert needless and wasteful activity here), there’s a lot of boredom for citizens that is the result of intentional planning. All of that is not inevitable boredom, and it wears us down. So let’s not do it then. We are teachers!
When we stand in the class, we are the most influential force in the lives of our students. In that time and place we are potentially their hero, their role model, their hope. And because we are teachers, we know something very important, almost mysterious in its power: all information is potentially interesting, every skill acquired broadens our potentials, and all impassioned activity leads to learning. Our best teachers showed us over and over that life is not a struggle against boredom—it is a wonder to be apprehended!
So then, I ask and challenge you to consider, “I will not bore myself today because I will not plan to bore the kids.” Let’s not watch more of the sands of our own professional lives slip away in boredom that we can avoid.
8 Ways To Be A More Interesting Teacher
1. Listen to your students
As much as I have had that as my intention (and not only in the classroom, but in faculty meetings as well, and wouldn’t you like your principal to have the intention not to bore you at meetings?), I know I have sometimes bored students. It wasn’t in my plans, but a class would end and I knew Edgar over there was missing in action. But I didn’t plan it. I’d have to check in with Edgar and find out what didn’t work for him, because I didn’t see a boring part in my lesson plan.
Edgar might have something to teach me about my planning. And because so much of my career has been spent with challenging students, who are often barely holding on to their motivation, if I didn’t communicate the worth of the lesson, they were unlikely to find whatever little motivation was left in their tank.
Perhaps we could translate our phrase, “This is the boring part,” into “I have no idea how to make this interesting,” or “I can’t figure out why this is in the curriculum guide,” or “I know this is truly worthless to you,” or “I too am but a fallible person trapped in a system that is slowly killing my passion and I am so sorry that you have to bear any of the burden of that.”
2. Seek the connections
When the information in the required curriculum seems so far from their lives that you assume it will be boring (why else would information be boring?), offer them the challenge to make the connections. Don’t do the hypothetical, “You never know when you will be building a shed and need to use the Pythagorean Theorem” if you yourself have never used the Pythagorean Theorem.
Tell them how the information truly impacts you as an adult. Consider how the information may impact the lives of their families, or their community. Have them survey members of their community: “Tell me why you think I should learn about the three branches of government?” The class can send emails to professional organizations that are impacted by that information. Invite in a local professional.
3. Develop cognitive challenges using Bloom’s Taxonomy
Thinking is inherently interesting, even if the facts may seem irrelevant. Throughout the year underscore the types of thinking you are asking of students: “You have to do some powerful analyzing today to see what are the most important pieces to this information;” “As we do this, let’s evaluate whether we should add this to the list of essential information;” “The challenge today is to find a way to translate this information so that your younger brother or sister would understand it.” One of the benefits of applying higher-order thinking to information is that it is far better remembered.
4. Time it
“Class, I am not sure if any of you will find this interesting, so let’s set the timer for five minutes, and then stop and talk about what you think of this.”
5. Be weird
Look at the task through multiple intelligences. Graphs and pictograms offer various perspectives on what may at first seem dry data. Giving a dramatic reading to a list of historical names and dates is not boring to either try or to watch. Asking students to verbally free associate with rules of grammar is hilarious. Chanting as a class the chemical symbols on the Periodic Table of the Elements is sublime.
6. Encourage, model, and allow for creative note-taking
Teachers often identify note-taking as a boring part of the class. Of course it is, if the students have little inherent interest in the material and note-taking is condemned to be only for the test coming up. Start making note-taking interesting with two-column notes, which offer students a space to make their own connections and rhymes, drawings and stick figures.
Have students share with the class their most interesting note-taking creations. Try it yourself, watching or listening to the news at home one evening, and see how idiosyncratic and engaged you can make it. Celebrating how students employ arrows and underlines and boxes and shadowing, and parenthetical commentary can make note-taking a collectively enriching opportunity or … dare I say one of the best times you’ll offer students in class?
7. Summarize essential ideas consistently and creatively
If the next two pages of the textbook are deadly and likely to destroy momentum, tell the students your summary, ask them to summarize what you said in their own words, and move on. You can do the same for sections of movies. Let’s not confuse what takes effort with what is worth the effort; e.g. digging a deep hole in the ground and immediately filling it up again takes effort, but it’s not worthwhile.
Laboriously reading boring textbooks should be kept to a minimum, and identified for what it is— a challenge, if you have no alternative (you probably do). Don’t undermine your relationship with your students by using your teacher power to coerce them to do really boring tasks because it will be ‘good for them.’ It’s not good for any of you.
8. Don’t teach it
Instead, integrate a few of the main ideas into another lesson.
The last item above might put many of our colleagues into risk with their school administration. We are in an era of imposed curriculum, in which our wisdom as teachers to make decisions about how to bring our very real students to mastery is not being honored and trusted. Too many of our colleagues are trapped in systems in which they must rigidly check off that they have “covered” items on a predetermined (and not critically assessed) pacing guide. The standardized test demands that students be exposed to information at such a rate that meaning and depth are often false advertising.
So do what you can. One of the seven items above can usually help you avoid, “This is the boring part.” And then consider digging into your own professional soul for some grit to join committees, professional associations, political campaigns, contract negotiating teams, letter writing efforts, and public hearings, adding your voice to the others who are exhorting us, on behalf of our students and ourselves, not to passively allow the work of schools to be boring.
Your students will love you for it.
Jeffrey Benson has worked in almost every school context in his 35 years as an educator, from elementary school through graduate programs. He has been a consultant to public and private schools, mentored teachers and principals in varied school settings, and has written on many school-based issues. Benson’s new book, Hanging In: Strategies for Teaching the Students Who Challenge Us Most(ASCD, 2014),shows educators the value of tenacity and building connections when teaching the students who most need our help. You can learn more at www.jeffreybenson.org; adapted image attribution flickr user tulanepublicrelations