Have you ever felt like you would go insane if you were forced to listen to one more minute of what a teacher was saying? I have. So what makes this happen? And is this pain necessary? This week, in our ongoing weekly series on education and learning, we're going to explore the many aspects of what makes a teacher boring.
Ever see the old sci-fi movie, "Scanners?' You know, the one wherein the bad guys can make peoples' heads explode with thought alone. Imagine having one of these guys as your teacher?
Back in high school, I had a guy like that. He might have even been a "scanner." And as I think about it, it might have been better for me had he exploded my head. His class was that painful. Really. A true horror flick.
So now. Let me ask you. How do you think a person like him ever got to be a teacher?
The answer? He passed exams. In fact, I'm sure he passed a lot of exams. All of which were supposed to measure his ability to teach. Did they? Well based on how boring his classes were, not really. So what did those tests measure? You tell me. Not how to teach, that's for sure.
Perhaps, then, it's simply a case of "garbage in, garbage out," as the computer geeks say?
To be honest, I doubt it. I know some pretty good teachers who have gone through the very same kinds of schools.
So what made this guy so boring? In everyday language, he made information more important than people. And in the language of Emergence Personality Theorists, he presented his teachings from the "Outer Layers."
Making information more important than people. Teaching from the "Outer Layers." What does all this mean? And what does this have to do with what makes teachers boring? These are the questions we'll be exploring this week.
Dr. "T's" Boring Lecture
Of course, high schools aren't the only places where boring teachers exist. In fact, not that long ago, I had the misfortune to sit for some eight leaden hours in front of a very boring fellow. His name was Dr. "T" and he was supposed to share with us his twenty five years of experience helping kids with learning disabilities.
I, in fact, showed up that day very eager to hear what he had to say. And wanting to learn something new. After all, much of my work explores the nature of learning disabilities. Within an hour or so, though, I was wishing that a scanner would come and explode my head. Or, at the very least, his head. Why? Because the closest thing to a personal experience this guy had to offer was that he mentioned his name at least seventy two times per hour. As well as having plastered it on every page of every handout, at least five times per page.
Dr. "T's" this. And Dr. "T's" that. Whoa, was this guy full of himself. And boring to boot. So what exactly made him so boring?
In a word, "lists." He presented everything he knew in "lists."
He gave us short lists.
He gave us long lists.
He gave us really long lists. All of which he read to us in his best pompous monotone.
Line by line.
Word for word.
Okay. So some things need to be presented in lists. But a solid eight hours of lists! Talk about being verbally abused.
Perhaps, then, this is why we call these kinds of classes, "boring." These impersonal lists of data about how children fail to learn literally bore holes into our heads. In fact, I can honestly say, this experience was as close as I have ever come to a lingual version of Chinese water torture.
I also admit, somewhat reluctantly, that there were a few moments during this day wherein I imagined ending it all by having an abrupt Layer 4 outburst. Some kind of angry vision in which I punished this guy, for torturing us all, by liberally applying a Louisville slugger to the source of these lists; Dr. T's head!
What Makes Boring Teachers Painful?
By now, I'm sure you realize how mad this guy got me. Really mad. And all kidding aside though, can you understand why?
The pain of boredom is real, not imagined. Which is why any teacher who tries to bore facts into a student's head can have such a profoundly devastating effect on this student's ability to learn. Learning is not supposed to be this painful.
So how about me? Did I learn anything that day?
Yes. Actually, I did. And I will probably never forget what I learned that day. I learned this man's name. Dr. "T."
Later though, I learned much more, as I tried to process what had happened. In effect, I did what any good student does with painful experiences. I looked for the good in it.
Did I find any? Yes, I did. I realized that regardless of how willing a student may be, some teachers just cannot teach. And lest you think this is a no brainer, realize, this realization was painful for me. I believe in trying to see the good in everything and in everyone. Believe me, I tried that day to find the good in what this man was teaching. I really did.
So what was his problem? What, in fact, makes boring teachers evoke so much pain?
To see, let's take a look at this week's diagram, the heart of which is Emergence Personality Theory's, Onion of Personality. And for those who have yet to be introduced to this theory, in Emergence Personality Theory, we visually represent the structure of personality, the place wherein we store our life experiences, as an onion with ten fractally interactive layers. Or as a ten piece set of Russian nesting dolls, if this image is easier to visualize.
As for what this structure does, in effect, it is where we store our life experiences. And how we organize them into meaningful experiences, from the most personally meaningful to the least personal meaningful.
Thus, in the inner most layer, Layer Ten, we find the experiences wherein we connect to and feel the very warmth of the essence of life itself. These are the most personally meaningful experiences we human beings can ever have. And in the outer most Layer, Layer One, we find the experiences wherein we feel pretty close to numb but have no awareness of this numbness. Thus, in this, the most impersonal layer, we are zoned out and feeling no pain. Or anything else, for that matter.
In a way, we could say these layers affect us similarly to how being on the various planets in our solar system might affect us. Thus, were you to be on the ninth planet from the sun; Pluto, you would feel cold and numb and distant. As well as being as far away from the people in your life as this planetoid is from the sun. However, if you were on the third planet from the sun (which, of course, you are), then you would feel the warmth of the sun but also a need for it too. As well as feeling the effects of coming into and leaving the presences of other human beings.
In a way, this effect is what astrologer Steven Forest is referring to when he writes about people on sea voyages. He says that after a few days at sea, even the largest sailboat feels extraordinarily small, and that this makes peoples' smallest quirks loom very large in our minds. He contrasts this with how people appear to us at enormous social distances and says, at great social distances, we stop seeing who people are and instead, think of them in terms of what they do or what they represent.
Herein lies the essence of the experience of boredom. Boredom is an Outer Layer experience. A being-on-Pluto experience.
Thus, boredom is the experience of feeling that you are at a great social distance from any other human beings.
What makes this experience even more painful though is that, in reality, there is a human being standing right there in front of you. A teacher no less.
Unfortunately, this person has ceased to see you as a human being and instead, is entirely focused on what you do and what you represent. Which in the case of a boring teacher, implies that our grades are all that matter and that we, as individuals, have no meaning.
The Pragmatic Aspects of Boring Teachers
Okay. So the essence of a boring teacher is that they impersonally focus on that we get good grades rather than on teaching us to connect to each other. Pragmatically, what does this look like?
My take on it? I've already mentioned it. Lists. And more lists. Reams and reams of facts and data. Add to this that a boring teacher expects you to memorize, and proficiently parrot, these reams of data, and you have the essence of one heck of a boring class. And one heck of a boring teacher.
What might this look like? Well, say we are talking about a sixth grade math teacher.
A boring sixth grade math teacher might drill you over and over with endless problems all involving the algebraic formulas for computing the sides of right triangles.
Contrast this with a real teacher. A real teacher focuses on stories not data. And on giving students real life experiences, not dreadfully vapid data streams. Thus a real math teacher might tell her sixth graders stories about the mysterious sixth century Greek vegetarian from the isle of Samos who, besides teaching math, taught that souls migrate from body to body.
Then she might personally challenge her students by asking them if they knew this man's name?
Do you know?
How about a first grade teacher charged with teaching children the alphabet.
A boring first grade teacher might ask these little boys and girls to spend hour after hour writing "a's" on blue-dashed-line paper.
And a real teacher?
A real teacher would tell these kids the story of how the "A" came to be, the remarkable journey wherein the little figure which began life as an Ugaritic scribe's, scratched into a clay tablet, figure of an ox head, eventually became the acrophonic distant relative of the Phoenician word for this ox head; "aleph." Which, of course, we, today, know as the word their Greek neighbors renamed this figure of an ox head to; "alpha."
What makes this story so wonderful? The idea that learning where the "A" came from integrates into us a personally meaningful adventure story, easily as fascinating as any television heroes' journey.
This, in fact, is what makes us permanently store this story in the Inner Layers of our minds, as part of our common, human familial history.
In addition, this story is one of the oldest stories we know wherein we can see where we each derive a part of our shared humanity. How? It tells the story of how we humans learned to do something no other creature on our planet can do; talk to each other with little lines drawn on paper.
I personally cannot get over how few teachers use stories like this to open children's minds to learning. And how even fewer feel personally drawn to even discover these stories for themselves.
I, myself, do not feel knowledgeable about any one else's work until I personally experience at least some part of both their life and times.
For instance, take personality theorist, Sigmund Freud. Do you think you know who Freud was? I thought I did. And worse, I didn't like him. Sight, unseen, no less.
Then I read that later in his life, Freud got cancer of the palette. And that he lived for another twenty plus years with much of his palette and jaw removed. During which time he added a third drive to his personality theories. Thanatos. The fear of death.
Can you now picture what this personal experience must have been like for Freud? He was a talk therapist who got cancer of the mouth. Can you imagine? Yet he did what all great students would do. He explored this horror until he turned it into a legitimate contribution to our sense of knowing ourselves. And a view point from which we humans can examine our lives.
To me this makes Freud a truly remarkable man.
Finally, do you realize what all this means? It means that perhaps the most important part of all real teachers, and class rooms, is that you get to know them personally. As real people, with real people stories.
Now let me ask you. How many of your teachers did you get to know personally? Ten? Three? One? None?
How many taught you with personal stories? Most? Few? Any?
And how many were memorable in a personally lasting way, even if what made these memories last was that they these folks were the worst pains in the ass?
Ever wonder what made them so memorable? Certainly it was not merely what these teachers taught you. That's for sure. In truth, you remember them because they were real, memorable flesh and blood people. Likeable or not.
Boring teachers are faceless data machines who ask us to ingest and regurgitate reams of impersonal data.
Real teachers are real people, who tell real life stories. Stories about themselves. And stories about others.
Within these stories, we learn about our humanity. And about other real people who also loved learning. So much so, in fact, that they, like Jesus and Gandhi, and Mandela and Freud, turned painful experiences into lasting personal human contributions.
This is what makes people like Jesus and Gandhi among the greatest teachers who have ever lived. As well as what makes it absolutely impossible to see them as boring.
In all fairness, I have to mention the obvious; that we can all be boring at times. How do we do this? We make spewing information more important than connecting in personally meaningful human exchanges. Which is why, at times, in the midst of a lecture, from a boss or spouse or well meaning friend, that we can feel such strong urges to explode their heads in mid sentence.
Personally? I think the aloneness of boredom is one of the most powerfully painful experiences we humans could ever endure. Almost as painful as abandonment injuries. No coincidence, then, that we experience these events very similarly.
Thus, when you feel bored, what you're experiencing very closely resembles what we feel when we feel abandoned; you feel as if no one knows you're there and worse, no one even cares. At least, not in a personally meaningful way.
Moreover, when you're feeling this way in a classroom, what you're feeling is that all that matters to your teacher is that she or he gets to drill into you his or her lists of meaningless data.
And yes, the teacher may be following a required curriculum.
They may even have prefaced this lesson with an apology for your having to learn you this stuff.
Even so, there is no legitimate excuse for any teacher who tries to pass off unimaginative drivel for being taught lessons.
Speaking of which, Dr. T., God bless you, buddy. I apologize for making you this week's scapegoat.
I also pray you find the humanity in the little boys and girls you so callously label "learning disabled." And being as I was once one of those little boys, I mean this with all my heart.
Until next week then. I hope you're all well,