When my youngest was in her early elementary school years, she handed me a picture of a girl with a large, sad face. The paper said, “I have nothing to do.” She was not describing her existential state. She gave this to me as an assignment. I was supposed to relieve her boredom by entertaining her. I know people who grew up in Yiddish-speaking homes; when they complained about boredom, a parent would say, “Go knock your head against the wall.” I am more in the Wendy Mogel () camp; she believes parents have a paradoxical mission: “We have to work hard not to provide our children with interesting things to do. Children need a chance to build up their boredom tolerance muscle…Being messy, noisy, silly, goofy and vegging-out are as essential to the development of your child’s mind and spirit as anything else he does.” This good advice did not work, however, with my own struggle against boredom as an educator. Teachers cannot be noisy, silly and veg-out in the classroom when we are bored. What’s a teacher to do?
Even those of us for whom teaching is oxygen have moments when we simply cannot teach the same class again, when we have taught it so many times, we can’t remember if we told a joke before. We feel stuck, but we rarely talk about it. To exacerbate matters, there is very little research on boredom in education and what there is mostly focuses on teacher management of student boredom and student coping mechanisms for their experience of boredom. Joe DI Geroimimo, who was a district school superintendent in California, discusses the problem of not dealing with teacher boredom in his article, “.” He observed a slew of teachers leaving or retiring early and even paying penalties on their retirement funds to get out of the job.
Much has been written about pressures on the job, student discipline problems, low pay, paper work, and so on. What is rarely mentioned is boredom. After teaching year after year, the same subject in the same school at the same grade level, boredom becomes a primary factor in burnout…The majority of staff inevitably have taught the same grade, used the same textbooks, and taught the course in the same way for years.
It’s no wonder teacher burnout occurs, but are we talking about it in Jewish day school settings?
No. We are not giving teacher boredom the attention it deserves. Psychoanalyst Erich Fromm writes in : “I think that the word bored does not get the attention it deserves. We speak of all sorts of terrible things that happen to people, but we rarely speak about one of the most terrible things of all: that is, being bored, being bored alone and, worse than that, being bored together.” As teachers, are we all bored together?
Sean Desmond Healy believes that because we associate boredom with childish emotions, we disassociate from it as adults. In , he explains: “Boredom is often used to refer to feelings that are superficial…feelings so common and of so little effect that the state is thought to be too trivial and banal to warrant any sustained attention.” The philosopher Lars Svendsen is more dramatic “…we often do not have any well-developed concepts for that which torments us. Very few people indeed have any well thought-out concept of boredom. It is usually a blank label applied to everything that fails to grasp one’s interest. Boredom is first and foremost something we live with, not so much something we think about systematically.”
What is it we live with? Dr. Bruce Leckar () describes boredom as, “…a feeling of uninvolvement, a lack of concentration, absence of motivation, a feeling of emptiness and, above all, no excitement or enthusiasm for what is happening.” Teachers charged with engaging students, may themselves have profound moments of disengagement, where they need to feel re-charged. There are days when we feel little motivation to work hard, to master the craft, to teach fresh material, to be excited in the presence of our students.
THE JEWISH ORIGINS OF BOREDOM
The relative silence about boredom generally is not true, however, when it comes to Jewish texts. We have been thinking about boredom for a long time. Although the term boredom originated late in the English language, likely in the 18th century in print, the sense of purposelessness peppers the biblical book of Kohelet – “That which has been, is that which shall be, and that which has been done is that which shall be done. There is nothing new under the sun.” (1:9). It underscores one of the curses in Deuteronomy: “…your life shall hang in doubt before you. You will fear day and night and have no affirmation of your life. In the morning you will say, ‘I wish it were evening.’ In the evening, you will say, ‘I wish it were morning’” (28: 66-67). This verse points to a depressive state of ennui, a loss of mission and purpose. According to Fromm ( ), boredom and depression share many similar characteristics, with the chief difference being that one can lift oneself out of boredom with appropriate stimulation. The same cannot be said of depression.
Boredom even appears in a Mishna in BT Ketubot (5:5). The Sages debated what tasks a woman in a marriage had to undertake for her household and which was she exempt from if she had servants. The more servants, the less work, that is until we get to the Mishna’s end, “Rabbi Eliezer says: even if she brought him a hundred servants, he may compel her to work in wool; for idleness leads to licentiousness. Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel says: if a man forbade his wife under a vow to do any work, he must divorce her and give her a ketuba for idleness leads to boredom (she’amum).” Work provides purpose and vitality.
TACKLING TEACHER BOREDOM
Dorothy Parker was on to something when she wrote, “The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.” Stimulating teacher curiosity through high-level professional development, peer mentoring, and small group collaborative, intellectual work can help catalyze new ways of thinking and being in the classroom. DI Geroimimo saw in his experience that teachers who asked to be assigned to a new school or new grade rarely complained of boredom. Administrators and teachers, he suggests, need to play an active role in encouraging new assignments and the use of new materials.
But teachers cannot rely on higher-ups alone to catalyze creativity and energy. It was the poet Dylan Thomas who said, “Something is boring me. I think it’s me” (as seen in Rayner Heppenstall’s ). Teachers have to have the courage to name what bores them. It feels risky to state what no longer animates us because boredom has implications: leaving the field, losing connection to students, settling into indifference. It is in the act of naming, though, that educators begin to take responsibility for their own emotional states. I am accountable for my inner professional life. What should I do about it?
We do so, not only with techniques and a change of actions, but a modification of perspective. I’ve personally been inspired by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel () notion of radical amazement as a “sense of perpetual surprise”. What still surprises me when I teach? I take comfort in the words of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s () reminder that, “For the Jew there is no such thing as routine. Everything is a wondrous miracle. He is excited by everything from the novel to the unknown to the everyday and ordinary.” What has become routine in my teaching that I can imbue with a sense of newness? It is not that there is no routine; it is that we make choices as to whether we bring to each moment in the classroom a sense of sameness or a sense of uniqueness. As educators, we make these choices every time we close the door to our classrooms. We return wonder to the classroom when we have the capacity, even many years in, to see in the face of students their own sense of curiosity and wonder. We become re-animated about our sacred careers when we can still have I-Thou moments, connecting deeply to ideas and to our students and remembering that, “This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes” (Psalms 118:23).
by Erica Brown
Dr. Erica Brown is the director of the Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership at George Washington University’s Graduate School for Education and Human
Development, where she serves as an associate professor of curriculum and instruction. Many years ago she wrote a book entitled, Spiritual Boredom: Rediscovering the Wonder of Judaism.