Steve Schertzer

Boredom in the ESL classroom

What every teacher, student and administrator should know

"When I have occasionally set myself to consider the different distractions of men, I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact; that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber."
---- Blase Pascal, French philosopher. (1623--1662.)

"Teacher, I'm bored." "Teacher, this is boring. Can we do something else?" "Teacher, you're boring!" "Teacher, are you bored?"

Who hasn't heard this from time to time? Just me? I thought so. But boredom in the ESL classroom is a problem. I just know it. Even if we don't acknowledge it, or do our best to ignore it in the hope that it will just go away. Like any other social problem, we as educators must come to terms with boredom if we are to help solve the problem.

One of the things we may not know about boredom is that it comes in many shapes and sizes which contributes to its many perceptions. Blase Pascal was right. Man has yet to find a way to stay quietly in his own chamber. We are by nature restless beings, relentlessly seeking the next quick fix to our boredom, whether it be drugs, alcohol, loveless sex, or ESL lessons. But that's just one way of looking at it.

Another problem with boredom is that, at least from a Marxist perspective, it's seen as primarily an aristocratic and bourgeois phenomenon. The upper class, and to a slightly lesser extent, the middle class of any society can be found at the malls purchasing overpriced and essentially useless items simply in order to stave off any boredom that has invaded and infested every cell of their body. The same can be said about people who spend hours on end in front of their computers playing violent games, chatting provocatively to people they'll (hopefully) never meet, and sending spam emails to others requesting them to buy Viagra or donate money to their fictitious cause. All this because, as Pascal said, they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber.

This is also the same boredom that has driven thousands of useless and desperate people to seek refuge in English language schools, simply to escape the drudgery of their domesticity. This boredom has become a huge social malaise--- perhaps a malaise of the modernity of contemporary society. This malaise of modernity--- this boredom--- where just about everything has become easy and perhaps too convenient--- is spreading like a cancer into the very heart and soul of humanity.

"People of wealth and the so called upper class suffer the most from boredom."
---- Arthur Schopenhauer, German Philosopher. (1788--1860.)

The poor, at least the real financial poor, have precious little time for social frivolities such as boredom. They're simply wondering where their next meal will come from. Try living on a dollar or two a day, like a billion other people in this world, and see if you have time to feel bored. But I do realize that the Marxist perspective on this issue, although valid in a sense, is also a bit simplistic. Of course poor people feel bored. Why wouldn't they? It's a human emotion we all feel from time to time, isn't it?

When I hear of students complaining that they're bored, my first response, at least to myself is, "So?" My next response is,
"I really don't care." Which is true. I can't see why I should. I can't see why anybody should care. Education is the solution to boredom. Education offers opportunities for the student that staying ignorant doesn't. It's that simple.

"Work relieves us from three great evils: Boredom, vice, and want."
---- French proverb.

But perhaps a better response to, "Teacher I'm bored", would be, "Then get a job! Earn some money! Roll up your sleeves and get to work! Learn something! Do something! Anything! But don't just stand there and complain that you're bored. Volunteer at a soup kitchen. Help an old lady cross the street. Talk to God. Make merit. Buy a beggar a meal. Anything! Go to a doctor. Increase your meds." Okay, I'm getting a bit carried away. But you get my point. Doesn't the good book say something about idleness being the devil's work tools?

The thing is--- and here is where I hope every language school director is listening--- students are not necessarily bored by their ESL classes or their teachers. Although certain ESL teachers and classes are boring from time to time--- they can't always be fun and exciting--- the vast majority of ESL students bring their boredom with them to class. And for a large number of students, boredom is the main reason--- and, at times, the ONLY reason for taking ESL classes! In other words, ESL classes and their teachers are NOT the cause of the students' boredom. The students were bored long before they ever got to the classroom.

"You'll find boredom where there is an absence of a good idea."
----Earl Nightingale, American radio announcer, author, motivator, speaker. (1921--1989.)

Boredom is not only a social and psychological problem, it is a social and psychological disease. It is tough enough for us ESL teachers to teach even under the best of circumstances, but when we are constantly faced with a multitude of lifeless, listless people, made spiritually sterile and emotionally bereft by their own hierarchical and conformist cultures, then the challenge of teaching them anything at all becomes, at the very least, a herculean task.

Where there is "an absence of a good idea", there is also an absence of curiosity and creativity. Where there is an absence of curiosity and creativity, there is an absence of will. Now here's the herculean task of all ESL educators teaching in conformist and anti-individual societies: To transform and reshape societies where a great number of its people lack the basic human qualities and characteristics necessary to build great and lasting civilizations; curiosity, creativity, will, ambition, diligence, passion, desire, foresight, and a profound social and spiritual yearning for self-reliance. Great and lasting civilizations were built by people who possessed all these qualities to a greater or lesser degree. Great civilizations and societies were built by people who rolled up their sleeves and got to work--- boredom or no boredom.

The point and mission of any educational endeavor--- including ESL--- is to push the process forward by improving the conditions of both the learner and the society in which the learner functions. As long as this is being done, as long as we as educators and learners continue to work together to ensure that the process is moved forward, on however small or minute scale it may be, then boredom--- and by extension--- just about all sentiment becomes a moot point. In fact, boredom, and other similar social diseases, becomes an impediment and a danger to the educational endeavor itself.

"Lotte signed, a deep internal cadence, her face turning to the weeping window. 'I'm bored Lulu. I'm not a bad person, but I'm bored. And it was a little drama for me, you and Douglas. A woman can do a lot of damage just in the name of maintaining a bit of interest in this life.'"
---- Lotte Gerard. (A character in David Baddiel's novel "The Secret Purposes.", 2004.)

Then there are students who say they're bored because they know that they can get away with murder. In the spring of 2003, I spent just over a month at an adult language school in Istanbul. I was on a tourist visa having flown there directly from Bangkok. (You can get a work visa for Turkey ONLY in your home country.) I was teaching part time--- barely 10 hours a week plus another couple of hours in something called a "Conversation hour" where you just sit and talk to the students. It brought back nightmares of my Korea days.

Needless to say, these "Conversation hours" were a colossal waste of time. Several teachers, myself included, were treated by the students with, "Teacher, this is boring. Let's talk about something else", whenever they got tired with discussing a certain topic, which only took most of them about 10 minutes. It was not unheard of at this school for students to request another teacher, and get it, just because they were bored. This is what happens when you allow students to run the school where foreigners teach.

When it comes to boredom, the bottom line is simple. It's not that I can't do anything with bored students. I simply won't. I suppose I can dance naked for them or put on a clown's suit and juggle balls. That may make me a better clown, but how will it make me a better teacher? A bored mind is a closed mind, and a closed mind has no place in a place of learning and instruction. Period.

"Only those who want everything done for them are bored."
---- Billy Graham, American Evangelist. (1918--)

Students from all walks of life must come to English class for a reason. They must have a reason for being there. "I just wanted to get out of the house," is not a good enough reason. "I just want something to do until my kids get home from school," is not a good enough reason. "I'm just here because my parents want me to be here," is not a good enough reason. "I'm just here because there's nothing good on T.V. right now," is not a good enough reason."I'm just here to find me a man," is not a good enough reason.

There are several good reasons to take ESL classes: Because you want to live and work abroad; because you want to escape religious or political persecution; because you have found the love of your life and want to move to his or her country; because you're a single parent raising a child on your own, and you want to make a better life for both yourself and your child; or because you simply love to learn and want to better yourself as a human being. These are great reasons to take ESL classes, and these reasons, as well as many others, leaves the learner with very little room to feel bored.

For the last three months I have had the pleasure of having "Aung" in two of my lower level classes. "Aung" is a young man in his 20's from Burma. He is living and studying here in Bangkok, but is looking forward to going home one day. I hope that one day soon he will go home to a free and democratic Burma. But I'm glad to see that he's enjoying my classes and that he is not bored. (At least I don't think he is.) He's been the brightest student in both my lower level classes, and I know that he's there not only because he wants to be, but because he feels that if Burma is to be free one day, he has to be. Now there's a reason to be in an ESL class!

I also have "Yu" in the same class. Yu is a mom and a 28 year old nurse who hasn't missed any of my classes. I'm also proud of her for what she is trying to do--- carve out a better life for herself and her family--- despite the odds against her. ESL students must take their fair share of the responsibility in moving the education process forward, or else it's simply not going to work.

"Are you bored with life? Then throw yourself into some work you believe in with all your heart, live for it, die for it, and you will find happiness that you had thought could never be yours."
---- Dale Carnegie, American author and trainer. (1888--1955.)

It is our collective responsibility as ESL teachers, educators, administrators, principals, supervisors, and language school directors to remind our students everyday of their responsibility to come to class with a purpose; with a reason for being there, far beyond the ridiculous and mundane, "I have nothing better to do." We must continue to remind our students of their collective responsibility for making both themselves and their society better.

I'm not sure what happened to "Thanya", the 23 year old who dropped out of my writing class because she was bored. I do know that she was an only child, that her parents bought her a car, and that she had a cell phone far more expensive than mine. I also know that when she complained to one of the AUA managers about her boredom in my writing class, it wasn't taken too seriously. I'm glad that Tanya's complaint wasn't taken too seriously. There's only so much we ESL teachers can do (and should do) for someone so easily bored by life's circumstances.

I can still remember my paternal grandfather Fred, who left his small Romanian village to come to Canada in 1928. He had very little with him except a strong desire and a deep determination to carve out a life for himself in the new world. He married and had four children, one of which became my father. Grandfather Fred worked extremely hard, six sometimes seven days a week, holding down two full time jobs and, at times, taking on extra work when required. Eventually his family did achieve middle class status, a status that I enjoyed throughout my life as well. But I have never forgotten how hard my grandparents had to work to make that happen.

I wonder if Thanya, and others like her, are aware of how hard their ancestors struggled in what is still a third world country. I wonder if Thanya, and the others like her who have reached the 'upper-middleclass' of their society, can still see the dire poverty of all those around them. Or have they shut themselves out to whatever they don't care to see? Her English was good, very good. And I not only wonder why she needed to learn English, but IF she needed to learn English.

Connecting the individual's need to learn English to that of the greater good is one of the reasons why we're here. An ESL teacher must see the relationship between the individual's desire to improve himself and the societies need to better itself. This is the definite and clear link that binds us all to our goals and mission. ESL students must see and feel this as well. They must see and feel how the betterment of their lives will contribute to the overall improvement of their society. And language school directors and managers must also see this connection so that when a students walks into their office complaining that they are bored, the appropriate response will be,

"(Student's name), you have an amazing opportunity here. Not only will you learn something, but you have the added opportunity (and responsibility) to take your new-found knowledge and transform your society, making it a far better place to live not only for you and your family, but for many others around you. Life offers us so few of these pivotal moments. Let's not forget that there are others out there not as fortunate as yourself. So let's take this opportunity, (student's name), and make a difference."

There you have it. I said my piece about boredom in the ESL classroom. I just hope you weren't too bored reading it.


Absolutely loved it! Thank so much for writing such a beautiful thing!

By Rafael Alejandro, MÉRIDA (2nd October 2020)

I read this because i'm in an ESL and i'm bored because the teacher is boring and gives us boring stuff to do and shes always yelling at everyone. Say we act like 3 year old when she treats us like 3 years old kids.

By chris, ohio (15th May 2018)

It was this very student boredom you discuss so well that made me angry for a short but very intense time. I was angry at a pair of students who would not participate in my classes. They would just sit there and be bored or say "I don't know." It didn't matter what approach or teaching technique I knew that I used.

Of course, like many teachers, I quickly turned this anger on myself. Why wasn't I a good enough teacher that I could engage these two students? Why couldn't I reach them?! I realise now I should not have been so hard on myself. I was doing my best.

Fortunately, my anger triggered a burst of inspiration, and I ended up creating something I hope the English teaching world finds useful in dealing with that same boredom I experienced.

The urge to beat a fellow classmate at a game may not be the ultimate solution to the boredom you discuss, but it will at least buy some time and accomplish some teaching goals while the world searches for a better one.

Thank you for an excellent read.

By Sean Anderson, Japan (8th January 2014)

Read every word and was not bored for a sec. It was just what I needed at the moment as I feel that no matter how much I try, some of my classes (adults of in-company training) are bored. As I have just started (have been teaching for 6 months so far), I am very enthusiastic about my teaching, materials, etc, so I seem to take those silent groups who seem to have no motivation to discuss ANY topic very personally. I guess I shouldn't. THANK YOU!

By Mary, Estonia (23rd January 2013)

Nice piece! No I wasn't bored and could in fact relate to it :-)

By paul, uk (16th August 2011)

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