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On Boredom

            One of the most painful things I can hear from my students is “I’m bored.” I can work with “I don’t understand,” or “I don’t like to draw/read/write/sing/play.” But “I’m bored” feels like a condemnation of my ability to be the fun teacher.

            And I hear it all the time.

“That means you’re boring.”

            So, okay, that’s clearly one of my own issues. I want to be loved. I want to be the favorite. I want to be the teacher everyone thinks back on as the best, most insightful, blah blah blah. And I do need to work on that.

            But there might also be something going on with the students, something I need to help them work on. Because, first of all, walking into the class and saying “I’m bored,” as if the teacher is supposed to keep you entertained from the word go, with never a blank moment, is just not possible, let alone good for you.

            Some people say that kids have become more entitled, more used to having things done for them and given to them, and more used to having access to passive entertainment and whole worlds of TV and video to keep them from being bored. But I’m wondering if there’s more to it.

            I wonder if, for some of the kids, “I’m bored” means, I really need to be distracted from the low grade depression and anxiety that I live with on a daily basis, because I don’t see it letting up anytime soon. Or, I need you to keep me entertained because I feel under-loved and I equate your constant attention and energy with love. Or, what I really am is tired, overwhelmed, hungry, sad, or lonely – but no one responds when I say those things.

I remember being bored as a kid. I remember sitting in my bedroom on the weekends and not knowing how to fill my time when I didn’t have homework or a play date or something to read or something to watch on TV. We didn’t have smartphones and 24 hour TV and internet back then, so I really was left to my own devices if Mom was busy (and she was always busy keeping those plates spinning).

“Is plate spinning fun?

            But looking back, I was a kid with a lot of internal resources and interests, so it’s unlikely that I was legitimately bored. I was much more likely to be depressed, lonely, sad, angry, frightened, hurt, etc. I just assumed that the name for my problem was boredom. I would gladly do math homework or read social studies or do chores around the house, just to avoid having to sit with my own feelings for long enough to feel bad.

            And then, when I first started going to a commuter school for college, my classes were all packed into two days a week, because I couldn’t drive so I had to be dropped off in the morning and picked up at night, and I had classes starting at nine in the morning and ending at five or six at night, except, there was an hour and a half break in the afternoon with nothing to do and nowhere to go. If I’d been at home during that hour and a half it would have been fine; I could read, or exercise, or watch TV, or do my homework, or go for a walk, or whatever. But trapped on campus, in full view of other people, I could barely concentrate and I felt like there was a video camera on me at all times, judging my use of time, my personality, my outfit, my food intake, and on and on and on. That’s what I think of when I think of boredom: that overwhelmed state where I think I need to be accomplishing everything at once, and yet I can’t concentrate for five seconds at a time. But I don’t know if that’s what the kids are feeling.

Sometimes when my students say they’re bored, I think what they mean is that they resent having to be at synagogue school, and I know this because when I ask what they’d rather be doing they say, sitting in front of the TV at home, with the dog, eating pizza. And I wonder if what they’re actually saying is that they feel overstimulated and need a break from being productive and social. School, by its very nature, requires them to be both.

            Or maybe some of my students are bored because they really do need more of a challenge, or because they need activities that are better tailored to their specific abilities and interests, or because they need more structure and guidance from me. I don’t want to assume that I’m not at fault. But sometimes I have to accept that the task we are working on in class may be less exciting than they want it to be, but is still necessary. There are certain prayers they need to learn, and lessons from the Hebrew Bible, and that just may not be something they value at this point in their lives.

“I’m shocked.”

            I keep reminding myself that just because boredom was a sign of toxic things in my own childhood, that’s not necessarily true for my students. A little bit of boredom can be a spur to creativity, or at the very least be a manageable annoyance. But I feel bad when they seem bored, or distracted, or annoyed by what we’re doing in class, and it doesn’t feel safe to just let it go and assume it’s healthy or manageable boredom when it could be a sign that they are in pain or that I am failing them as a teacher.

            I remember, years ago, when my cousin’s son came to visit from France with his grandmother. He was five years old and learning English but still very French. We were sitting at a table full of adults and even though there was another child there, he was barely two years old and sitting at the other end of the table. And then there was me. I was twenty-three years old and not sure where I fit in. The five year old was sitting next to me and at one point he mumbled something under his breath in French that I couldn’t quite hear and I asked him to repeat it, because I was curious, and because I wanted to see if I could understand his French, but then he told me, louder, and in English, that he was bored. Immediately, his grandmother, sitting across form us, corrected him, saying that in French the term is reflexive, which is more correct, because you make yourself bored. And I got really annoyed and said, no, he’s bored because he’s five years old and sitting at a table full of adults speaking in a foreign language, talking about things he doesn’t understand or care about, and he needs something age-appropriate to do so he can feel engaged. I hope I said it a little less aggressively than that, but I was remembering so many times when my needs had been ignored, and it just pressed my buttons. And then, of course, I was volunteered to take him, and the toddler, into the living room to find toys to play with. The five year old, of course, complained that what he really wanted was to watch TV, and not to play with some baby, but at least he was smiling when he said it, and he wasn’t complaining about being bored anymore.

            That experience taught me that sometimes boredom is about not feeling heard, and not feeling like you are being taken into account, and I try to keep that in mind with my students. But it’s hard to balance everyone’s feelings at once, especially when most of them start out angry that they have to be at synagogue school in the first place, and nothing I say can convince them that learning Hebrew is more fun than watching TV and playing with their dog while eating pizza. Weird.

“We want pizza too.”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

62 responses »

  1. Thank you for an interesting and thoughtful post. I think you pointing out that teachers can’t also be entertainers is important, Like you said, “Because, first of all, walking into the class and saying “I’m bored,” as if the teacher is supposed to keep you entertained from the word go, with never a blank moment, is just not possible, let alone good for you.” Another consideration is that some topics are really boring. In school (back in Sweden) I loved math, science, history, world studies, geography but I hated foreign languages including English and German. Other students hated math and history but loved English. I thought English was complicated, strange and boring and I had a hard time learning it. It was not my thing and I got bad grades in English. However, it was still good for me to learn English. You don’t learn effectively when you are bored but depending on the student’s like and dislikes boredom is sometimes unavoidable. Sometimes you just have to accept to be bored and as a teacher you just have to let it go when students are bored.

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  2. Hoping more people read your post because if they do, I think they’d become more considerate (especially towards those who feel like they’re not being heard or listened to) and the chances of them and their friends and family and all they encounter being bored would decrease.

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  3. Such an important topic, Rachel, and relevant to SOooo many people of every age, although especially the young. You’ve done a great job of reflecting on the possible underlying reasons and the many challenges. There are no simple answers, sadly.

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  4. People have no right to expect someone else to do their thinking for them just because they are too lazy to come up with anything themselves. My mother had the cure for that. “If you’re bored, you can help me with the housework,” (or some other chore). Being bored is a luxury she never had time for.

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  5. When I was growing I’d say, “mom, there’s nothing to do” and she would say, “I’ll give you something to do,” usually house cleaning of some sort, and I learned to quit saying it. 😊

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  6. I treat boredom as a chance to be creative.

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  7. A very insightful post. I, too, had lots of internal resources and interests, but I do remember “I’m bored” when watching rain run down the windows when I wanted to go outside and play – then I just didn’t want to be cooped up in our small flat.

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  8. As usual Rachel you’ve hit the nail on the head.

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  9. I’m of two minds regarding boredom. First of all it is a toxic reaction to one’s surroundings. Secondly, it is an opportunity to exercise patience. What I wouldn’t give now for the luxury of childhood boredom when time seemed limitless.

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  10. My Aiunt used to say ‘only boring people are bored’ and that was end of discussion. I guess she meant I needed to use my imagination or get practical and find soMething that would interest me but somehow when delivered in a cut glass English accent it never came across that way 😀

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  11. There are too many stimulants in everyday life and kids seem to think stimulation is required at all times. Growing up, we all learned how to keep from saying “I’m bored” in Mom’s earshot. She always had chore assignments to alleviate our boredom. Happy Sunday Rachel. Allan

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  12. I don’t remember the feeling of boredom as a child, probably because I grew up in a time when ‘quiet’ was almost seen as a gift and also because I was always an avid reader and always willing to read for hours if there was nothing else to do. I watch children not even old enough for school yet being kept entertained by a parent’s smart phone and realize that we teach children to find ways to keep them entertained by anything other than spending time with them. I don’t know how a child can walk into a classroom and immediately state “I’m bored”, as so I do believe it has nothing to do with you as a teacher and something to do with the child’s life outside of the classroom. Is there a way you can give the child saying “I’m bored” some easy projects around the classroom with a comment about keeping them entertained? I agree that “bored” is probably a cover word for something far deeper. Just remind yourself that it’s not you and the classroom!

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    • We live in a world where it’s almost impossible to get by on one salary per family, so I have a lot of sympathy for parents relying on technology to help out. But it definitely impacts the kids.

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  13. Maya lets us know when she’s bored…… her chin rests on the keyboard and always puts the caps lock on, or a gonk is gently placed on our laps, or thrust into our hands. Bless!! Good post Rachel.

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  14. Boredom can definitely be a spur to creativity! If I was ever bored in school I would make up a story in my head to keep myself entertained, and I quite often ended up being lost in the world of the story. Thus begun my interest in writing! I I should add that it was rarely the teacher’s fault, and I would never have DARED tell a teacher I was bored.

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  15. Nowadays kids aren’t used to using their imagination, so if there is nothing electronic involved, they’re bored.

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  16. If my 8 year old grandson says he is “bored” i look him in the eye and say:”Well I’m afraid that’s your problem. ” I have noticed he says it less now,

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  17. Is it really the teacher though, thinking back on my school days…some classes namely the subject I was forced to learn was indeed boring, not because the teacher wasn’t enlivening. I think as usual you are being hard on yourself.

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  18. From what I remember of my school days, unfortunately going to school is a legal requirement. So kids will get bored every now and then, lol. Lots of kids/teenagers wont realise until their older, that they should cherish the time now. There’s a quote, that I can’t think of right now, about youth being wasted on the young…Actually, I think that’s it, lol

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  19. Frequently, children feel “bored” because they have been trained by our culture to expect constant excitement and distraction. Their curiosity is stunted, their attention-span limited, and their patience non-existent. It takes an inspired and inspiring teacher to break through that logjam and re-ignite childish interest.

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  20. This is such a versatile treatise (sorry to use an impersonal-sounding word) about boredom. As a teacher, I tended to feel annoyed over the notion that I had to entertain the class. But I didn’t talk at the students all the time and aimed for interaction in all things. I like to think that that approach was good for learning, though if it curbed boredom then that was all right. (So I was probably more concerned about boredom than I let on.) As far as the emotional realities that might be concomitant to boredom, well, you make it make sense. Lacking a balance of stimulation, dealing with depression, feeling unheard–these certainly go on, I’m sure. How much to address in the classroom, I don’t know. More than bringing a dog to class and ordering pizza–except on special days–I suppose. You certainly know the issues and how to articulate them.

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  21. I always said if someone is bored, it’s because they are boring, meaning they aren’t creative. This seemed to stop children from saying it around me. The chores trick also works but I preferred getting them to use their creativity.

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  22. Growing up with a mom that was very creative was double edged I loved all the new things I learned but I thought I could never be as good as her I guess I had a competitive streak so when I would get off the bus my skin would crawl, I hated being stuck in that box 6 hours a day and boy I wish we would have had homeschooling then then again mom with 4 was grateful for those 6 hrs. off.

    I remember less than a handful of teachers and I bet they wanted to be outside as well 🙂 Not sure it was boredom for me more like that in the 60’s and 70’s all my teachers did was discipline 5 students in class while the other 25 sat and waited to be taught something.

    Loved your thoughts.

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  23. I suppose it depends on your population, but I find that when kids say “I’m bored”, 15% might say that because they’re so used to YouTube and TikTok and phone games (yeah, I know those are more fun, I can’t compete with your phone in class), but 85% of the time it’s because my students are so below grade level, they haven’t the skills or resources to even access the grade-level content material. So they they express boredom because they have no hope of achieving (some pretend it’s boring because they can’t handle their failure, or struggle), or they might genuinely believe it’s boring because they haven’t a hope of understanding. Usually it’s not because the material (science in my case) is actually boring.

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  24. Sometimes being bored only reflects on a particular subject matter being taught– and/or one’s current attention span. Imagine yourself a student in a classroom– not knowing of whatever few of the other students might not be as attentive as yourself. Or maybe the subject needs an intermission to spice up the atmosphere.
    Ob, boy! Sorry, Rachel. I’m startle to rattle on– probably even “boring” you (LOL). Have a good one, lady.
    Art

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  25. “I’m bored “ is the standard teenager phrase the world over. Ignore and do your thing. It will get through !

    Reply

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