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Dear Mitch,

I am a tutor in the southern part of the United States, and I just began working with a fifteen-year-old boy who hates school and tells me that everything is boring. Every subject, every teacher, and most of the other students in his class – all of them, he finds "boring".

I know this is common among adolescents, to describe everything as "boring" even if they don't fully mean it, because it's cool to find things boring and only a real 'geek' would admit to finding school interesting, BUT the thing that's different here is that this boy actually seems to be telling the truth: he truly does feel that the subjects, textbooks and teachers are 'boring', and, as a result, even though he performs well on the standard I.Q. tests, etc., he does very poorly in school because he finds it too "boring" to pay attention. (Incidentally, we're not talking about an ADD kid or anything like that; this kid can focus on anything he wants, but he sincerely finds school work boring, even when it presented outside of school.

Assuming this young man is not just posturing to be "cool" and is being sincere, is there some approach you know of that might be worth a try?

The reason I am taking the time to write in (which is something I never do) is this: From what I remember learning in grad school getting my teaching degree for high school language arts and world history, my understanding is that academic subjects, or anything else that requires consistent focus and some effort on the part of the learner, is much harder to learn when the learner isn't at least a drop interested or curious about the material presented. In fact, I recently read an article in the Times that said it was this particular discovery that is one of the main reasons why the leaders in education have evolved more than anyone could have predicted over the last decade or so to incorporate Howard Gardiner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences and the wide range of recognized learning styles so that more students can be engaged in ways that capitalize on their inherent abilities.

I'm meeting with the boy for the second time next week, and it would be quite a triumph to get him to at least allow himself the chance to see that not everything he thinks is boring really is.

Any ideas?


Lynette Bailey


Dear Ms. Bailey,

I was excited to read your email, even more than usual, because this "boring" syndrome is a subject I have observed and investigated on a case-by-case basis to see where – if anywhere -- it comes from. And, of course, to see what -- if anything -- can be done to overcome it. After all, you are certainly correct in your assertion that it does not make learning any easier; oh no, quite the contrary.

Whenever I get this type of question, which, sadly, I have on numerous occasions when meeting with colleagues, I always start by reassuring the teacher that the problem is not caused by him/her. There may indeed be people who spend their lives trying to be teachers and collect paychecks and then retirement benefits for it, even though they are not in the right field because they do manage to make material boring, BUT, FORTUNATELY, I have not come across any such individual; the closest is the temporary lull that some teachers experience when facing challenges in their life outside of school, ranging from family hardships to health problems. Teachers are human, and like most of us cannot always plaster a smile on their face when they don't feel that way; everyone has bad days, some have bad seasons or even a bad year, and of course in the case of a teacher it is a terrible loss for the students. Fortunately, they recover and even come to learn that life can be just as complicated for a responsible adult as it is for an adolescent. Teaching is typically more demanding than most laypeople would guess, and although there are exceptions, the financial rewards are typically not commensurate with the responsibilities and the number of hours outside prepping and foll9wing through. That is why teachers who see themselves boring students day after day tend to gravitate toward a career change. This was not always the case, by the way, but the world has changed and peoples' expectations of themselves and others have grown, and I rarely meet a mature adult who is willing or capable of spending their entire work-life feeling inadequate and seeing it reflected in the eyes of others.

(But know that I am not saying a teacher is free from blame in a case of 'boredom'; no, a teacher sensing such a student has the responsibility to work doubly hard to engage the young mind before it's too late.)

NOW, a suggestion? Yes, find a quiet semi-private moment with the student when you can communicate one-to-one frankly even if there are others in the room. Then explain to the student an important concept that EVERYONE should be taught at the earliest appropriate point in his or her life: "Boredom" is a RELEXIVE emotion. WHAT??? WHAT DOES THAT MEAN????

Simple: It is a two way street. Instead of withdrawing or even pulling back slightly when something new seems of no interest to you, TRY THE OPPOSITE! Try throwing yourself in a little deeper. WHAT? YES, think about it: MANY things, if not most, are boring to us when we know nothing about them. The quintessential example is a movie or novel in a foreign language with no subtitles or guide of any kind. Put me in front of the best Chinese film ever made (or Japanese or Swahili or French or, well you name it) and I will be bored even though I know it has won a thousand awards and is considered a masterpiece. Why? Because I don't know what's going on, I lack the tools to figure it out quickly enough, and it is soon BORING me to death. I shut down and start to think about other things I need to do that day. BUT...

This is an extreme example to make a point, and although students often are trying to learn in a language that is new to them, they have more of a chance than I would during a two hour movie. BUT: ON A MORE REAL-LIFE AND COMMON LEVEL, think about a television show you love. Chances are if you can r3emember the very first time you watched it, it was not 100% gripping instantly. No, you did not know the characters and so may have had to work a little just to follow the action and figure out what was going on, you did not know enough about the show's setting to feel comfortable enough t move beyond trying to just take it in,. And you certainly could mot have cared as much about the characters as you later came to... AFTER you got to know them...

If something is boring, try harder. Learn more of the jargon that will help you grasp what is going on, and become a little more of an expert in it – then, if you find something boring, so be it. BUT chances are when a student tells you a particular class or book is boring, that student will not be able to tell you much about the book or topic. Rarely, does someone understand every world of a book and continue reading it and conclude that the experience was boring.

On a personal note, I have a daughter of my own, and as it happens, by sheer chance, that she is about as perfect as, well, as most fathers probably find their daughters to be (though I'm actually correct in my assessment of her near-perfection). And I often think of one afternoon of her early childhood that I vividly recall even years later (probably because we tend to recall the ones in which we miraculously said or did the right thing without any blundering). It was her first day of a day summer day-camp in which we had enrolled her before her fiftieth request that we not forget to do so. And she was introduced to tennis. She was handed a racket, a ball, and assigned to a friend who was also handed a racket (no ball, as apparently the game requires each player to have his/her own racket but are encouraged to share the ball.) Neither girl had ever played (I think they had just turned four or five and had busy lives with numerous other activities.)

The girls played for ten-hundred-million hours (probably ten or fifteen minutes in adult time), and both girls declared the sport to be "BOOOORING..."

I asked if she felt any delight in seeing a ball she hit make its way over the net. The girls were perplexed. I inquired further and discovered that neither the ability speed or strength yet to even hit the ball hard enough to get it airborne. They asked me how can adults find it fun when you can't even see the ball flying around in the sun? I tried to tell them that there are many activities in life (perhaps most) that are not "fun" until you develop at least some degree of skill. Until then, there is nothing to judge. They were playing in a foreign-language play and had no idea of the plot or methods to move things along.

They shrugged. However, both girls are now passionate athletes.

NOTE: I would be remiss if I didn't mention a young boy who happens to be peculiarly close to perfect. As it happens, he's my son, and he is worthy of much description on any website for children and adults; today, however, the relevant one is my daughter.

Hope this helps,