What happens after the student says he’s bored? Again, the way the teacher takes this feedback is important. Sometimes the temptation to retaliate is great. When someone says it’s too easy, the temptation is to leap up six levels and give him something really hard! After all, he messed up your lesson plan, so you want to mess up his. If I can take this feedback less personally, I can begin a conversation about what makes the material boring. A bored student is a disengaged student, but a student who says he is bored gives you an entryway into dealing with some math difficulties, and into re-engaging the student. I try to find out if the student is bored because it is too hard. (I know from personal experience that frustration gets boring very quickly.) Is she bored because it is too easy? Because he doesn’t see the point of this particular thing? Because they’ve done it all before, and nothing seems different this time around? Whatever the reason, it is sometimes easier for a student to admit to being bored than to admit to being scared or frustrated.
I’m frustrated; I’m irritated; I’m mad.
I like to say when I’m irritated or frustrated, or mad, for two reasons. First, saying it helps me calm down a little. Second, it gives me a chance to make it clear what I’m frustrated about. Even if I don’t say anything, the students know I’m irritated about something—the emotion leaks out in my voice or my body language, and they are past masters at reading voice and body language of teachers. They often assume the worst—that I’m mad at them because they are stupid. Saying what I’m frustrated about is useful to them as well.
For example, I might say, "I’m feeling frustrated with myself. You and I have been working really hard on this, and I can’t seem to find an example or an explanation that will help. My brain seems to have frozen solid. Can you let me think about it overnight, and maybe I can come up with something that will be useful to both of us." (Here I make it clear that I’m frustrated with myself, not with the student. The student gets to see that I’m human, that teaching is work, and also gets a chance to be generous with me by giving me some time to come up with something new.)
"I’m frustrated when you miss so many classes. It’s hard for me to help you catch up, and I worry that even if you do catch up today, you might not come tomorrow, and then the next day we’ll be back at square one. That makes things hard for you, and it makes my job harder too." (Here it is clear that the attendance is the problem, not that the student is stupid. It seems to me that it is easier to come to some solution about lack of attendance than to cure stupidity. It also makes it clear that his absences have an effect on me, that I want him to attend regularly not "for his own good," but because it makes my job easier and more fulfilling.)
Students also get angry in math class, and often they direct their anger at the instructor. "You don't like brown people." "You only work with the pretty girls." "You don't care about people who've been out of school a long time." "You don't understand youth." "You don't." Students lash out, and it hurts, and your own emotion interferes with your ability to teach that moment or that student. Once again, this is a place to acknowledge my feelings, figure out where the student's anger is coming from, and go on from there.