Secrets for Secondary School Teachers: How to Succeed in Your First Year (2004)

Chapter 8. Avoiding Boredom—Theirs and Yours

If there’s one thing that kids hate most about school (besides having to get up early), it’s the boredom. I (Cary) think that most teachers are so repetitive and predictable. Whether it’s taking notes or doing problems on the board, the same routines are used over and over again.

My advice is: Avoid this! Take risks by trying new ideas. If students come to class and they already know they’re going to be lectured to all period, then interest is lost before things even begin.

The way to get my attention (and keep me from falling asleep) is to surprise me. Be innovative and enthusiastic. Catch me off guard, and I will respond positively. Last of all, never act like you are bored. When I can see my teacher is bored, it is definitely going to rub off on me.

The following situation seems to happen too often. I walk into my science classroom, passing a hanging skeleton and all the usual posters of plants and animals. The bell rings, and I take my seat. Well, first I talk to a few of my friends.

The teacher takes attendance and then walks over to the light switch, turning it off. You can hear groans across the room. He turns the overhead projector on and begins the usual hour of nonstop talking. The classroom is dark and stuffy. In the background, I hear the teacher’s monotone explaining something. What was that he just said? My head droops, and I feel the coolness of the table against my face. I’m drifting away.

I’m sorry, but in that situation, I really couldn’t care less whether a fish has a three-chambered heart or a four-chambered heart.

Who cares?

Entering my history class after lunch, I notice my teacher is not in the room. Every day, I look forward to this class as my teacher makes the past come alive. The bell rings and still no teacher. A friend and I start talking about the fight that happened at lunch, as do most of my other classmates. Suddenly, the door is whisked open, and my usually jovial teacher enters with a sullen look on his face.

“Everybody, shut up right now!” he yells.

There is complete silence.

Now, this is weird. This teacher never yells at us. A girl starts to giggle, and my teacher screams at her, “Get out of this classroom right now!”

During the next several minutes, two more kids are thrown out of the classroom for the dumbest reasons—one is chewing gum; the other has forgotten her pen. He screams at the gum chewer, who is on the verge of tears: “Get out of here! The gum always ends up on the floor.”

As the teacher paces the room, none of us are even breathing. We are terrified, as much by how strange this is as by how cruel he is being to us. The teacher walks to the door, opens it, and directs all the students in the hallway (there are now 7 or 8 of them by then) to go to the dean’s office. Then he goes back to his desk and asks someone a question that nobody knows the answer to. He storms out of the room claiming he can’t teach kids who are as stupid as we are.

We all sit there in silence, wondering what happened to our wonderful teacher. A few minutes later, he enters the room, bringing all of the kids back. Strangely, he has his usual smile on his face. What the heck is going on?

The teacher explains that what he was doing was acting out the role of a dictator. We had been studying World War II and learning about the ways Hitler and Mussolini had been able to control the populace. The rest of the period, we are so charged up about what we had experienced that none of us want to leave when the bell rings. Now, that is teaching!

What Cary described in the first example is typical of what so many children experience in school. It isn’t that they aren’t interested in learning, it’s just that they don’t want to learn what you are teaching or at least in the way you are presenting the material to them. All human beings learn best when they are actively engaged with the content as Cary shows in the second example, when they see the relevance of the subject to their lives, when they can imagine specific ways that investing their time and energy will result in something useful and practical. Your job, then, is to keep the children, and yourself, excited about what is going on in your classroom. Find a connection that relates to them personally.


Long-term planning will help you see the picture of what students experience in the classroom. Take note of your usual teaching methods and look for new methods and/or novel introductory activities to kick off a unit. Using a variety of instructional methods and assessments will provide you and your students with needed stimulation. Let the multiple intelligences mentioned in Chapter 3 be your guide. Include art, music, poetry, and movement in your lessons. Reach your students on an emotional level. Involve them in collaborative projects. Encourage them to take risks and try new roles or ways of thinking. The following list suggests several ways to fan the flames of interest.

Challenge the students to become actively involved. They can develop interviews, plays, or simulations of events. If you haven’t seen students act out the firing of a neuron, you’ve got a sight to see! They can produce projects such as journals, books, newspapers, displays, or products to show you results of their research. Ask them to write a jingle, an advertisement, or a song. For example, students in Spanish can demonstrate a conversation between a student and a counselor. Math students can role-play the use of an algebra problem in a real-world setting. History students can make a magazine of events about a cultural issue. Child development students can create a poster to demonstrate safety issues for toddlers. Home economics students can plan a restaurant and create a menu. Geography students can write songs to describe environments and cultures they have studied. Students teach each other. You facilitate the learning by providing resources and direction, and feedback as needed. Students with limited English language skills tend to be more comfortable working in small-group situations. Their peers with help them learn new words and use them fluently.

Stimulate higher level student thinking. Teach higher order thinking skills. Ask open-ended questions. Pose situations or problems in which students will have to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate information individually and in small groups. Groups can present the results of their discussion to the whole class. Use the “What if” scenario to get them thinking. Give students plenty of time to formulate answers.

Be dramatic. If you are comfortable doing so, you can exaggerate your tone of voice and gestures for emphasis. Use your voice to its greatest potential. Learn a magic trick if it will spur interest. Dress in a costume to create an effect. Demonstrate your passion for your subject.

Decorate. Change your room. Rearrange the furniture. Create new bulletin boards that correspond to the current topic of study. Turn your room into a museum by bringing in artifacts or pictures. Use your wall space and boards to create a setting in which students will be involved in a project. Hang signs from the ceiling. Bring in lamps to change the lighting. Just create a new atmosphere of the unexpected so that students begin to wonder what will happen next.

Illustrate your subject. Use diagrams, pictures, slides, models. Create your own art work. Use charts. Make cartoons. Show photographs. Bring in samples. Play music. Show movies. Do demonstrations and create models. These visual aids are especially important in working with language learners. These students are often familiar with the concepts you are discussing, but may not recognize the terms you use. The visuals create a common basis for all students. Students with disabilities will also benefit from the visual references.

Instigate questions. Bring in a big box or a big bag, and clear away the space around it. Put a question mark on the front. Let the students guess what is in it. Surprise them with an interesting artifact. Use inquiry as a method of teaching.

Inscribe thought-provoking quotes. Questions or statements can be posed for students’ reactions. They can serve as the basis of a journal entry, a brief discussion, or a way to divide the class into teams (based on student responses). They can be posted on the front board or written on a bulletin board. Students can be given the responsibility for providing the “quote of the day” or the “quotes of the week.” Several art teachers I (Ellen) know post an art dilemma of the day, such as, “If a monkey is handed a brush and paints a picture, is it abstract art?”

Introduce variety. Plan for a “change of pace” activity. One example might be to assign each student a famous person to research and provide a biography of the person. Take turns letting the rest of the members of the class ask questions to find the identity of the person. Schedule brief reports throughout the month. Set up a round-robin or debate schedule. Use cooperative learning strategies. Have students give a brief talk on their lives as a student in your class and videotape their performances to play back for the class. Not only do students enjoy seeing themselves on tape, but the tape can be used periodically for review. Also, it provides feedback to students on their communication skills.

Integrate with other disciplines. English (or science, math, or physical education) does not have to stand alone as a separate entity. Bring in artwork associated with your subject. Play related music for the students. Or better yet, have your student musicians play for the class. Teach students dance steps, or invite a member of the community to do it for you. Coordinate your lessons with other members of your faculty. Many middle schools today are organized in teams, which will facilitate the planning process to work collaboratively. In non-teamed situations, you will need to seek out teachers from different areas who are interested in joining in collaborative efforts.

Incorporate carefully planned games. Prepare questions and answers in advance for a game of Jeopardy or Tic Tac Toe. Try baseball, where correct answers move a player around the diamond, or football, where correct answers advance a player 10 yards. If you have a behaviorally responsible class, you can even play volleyball with a nerf ball, where the right to serve is earned by correctly answering a question. A simulated Pictionary game will serve to reinforce vocabulary words in German class or in a science class. Students can play as an entire class or in teams of four. The latter, of course, will be noisy, but as you circulate around the room, you will see that the level of involvement will be quite high. I (Ellen) have seen middle school and high school classes in which teachers have students create their own board games. There are also many commercially produced simulation games, many of which are now available on CDs, that are excellent in the classroom. Games are excellent ways to review material and reinforce knowledge.

Invite guest speakers and parents to your room to share their real-life experiences. Encourage students to find people who are especially interesting and can talk about how a particular subject relates to their lives. We have seen how classes become meaningful to students when they interact with a speaker. An insurance actuary even made probability theory seem interesting. A Vietnamese immigrant talked about how she viewed the English language. A homeless person told his story about losing control over his life. Bring the real world into your classroom so students can relate on a personal level.

Initiate correspondence. Arrange for a pen pal for your students, as a class or with individuals. This can be in your own school, with another school in your district, or a school in another part of the country or the world. Many students are successfully communicating with pen pals through e-mail. The Peace Corps will match a teacher with a Peace Corps volunteer through their program called World Wise Schools. They will also provide information on retired volunteers living in your area who are interested in getting involved with your students. Again, this strategy will help to personalize the school experience.

Use multiple resources. Bring in library books and CDs as well as videotapes. Pre-screen videotapes for relevant and appropriate content, and show only the sections that are meaningful. Arrange for students to have access to the Internet. Arrange for students to go on “virtual field trips,” such as the Colonial Williamsburg Electronic Field Trip or the Tramline Volcano Field Trip. Contact museums to see if they have “traveling trunks” of artifacts that they will loan to public schools. Check with universities, too. Teacher education programs may have resources available to enliven your lessons. Having material available at different levels will help meet the varying ability levels of your students.

Include rewards. Build fun into your classroom every week, especially with activities that are seen as rewards for hard work. Students also react positively to prizes. Typically, teachers use candy, but there can be problems such as food allergies and candy wrappers on the floor, as well as sugar “highs” and “lows.” Although giving prizes all the time can be costly and may lose meaning if done too frequently, bestowing awards of some type from time to time will get the students’ attention. The gift can be an honor as well as a tangible item. Many teachers have effectively used tokens that they distribute and later collect for extra points or other rewards that their particular students find desirable.


Beginning teachers often get caught up in collecting specific techniques and exercises and supposedly foolproof lesson plans. You can’t prevent boredom and conduct interesting classes simply by memorizing a series of activities that have worked for others.

As we say throughout this book, the specifics of what you do are not as important as your general attitude and basic values. If you believe that learning should be fun as well as hard work, that humor and play are important parts of school, then boredom can be kept at bay. The elements of surprise, laughter, spontaneity, variability, and high energy can be customized to fit your unique personality and teaching style. The key is to engage the learner by doing anything and everything you can think of.

If you develop solid relationships with your students, and create an open classroom environment, you will find that your mistakes and miscalculations will be forgiven. You don’t have to pick the perfect activity or classroom lesson and expect it to work flawlessly every time. Sometimes, you will find that you have to try two, three, or even more different structures before you find something that really engages your students. The key factor is to give yourself permission to be playful and spontaneous and surprising. Learning need not be considered drudgery. If you expect your classroom to be spirited and interesting and exciting, then you can help make it so.