Ask a Teacher: Does Your Mind Ever Wander While You're Teaching?
Q: Does your mind ever wander while you’re teaching class? What do you think about?
A: To be honest, my mind stays razor-focused at all times, and brings an almost frightening intensity to bear on every single solitary…I’m sorry, what were we talking about? The apartment across the way just put on some party lights, and brought to mind my enduring love of bright, shiny objects.
I wish I was less distracted, both in the classroom and generally, but despite my best efforts to the contrary, sometimes my mind does wander during class. This doesn’t happen very often, because for the most part, I am required to be on top of the discussion, synthesize everyone’s points, and make sure we keep things productive and respectful. However, there are times when I accidentally check out. In my defense (this is what I tell myself), everyone does this, and teachers are no different. During these times, I am usually thinking about other things that need doing, although to be honest, sometimes I am not actually thinking about anything at all. This happens most during speeches and videos.
Most speeches, both student and otherwise, are read more or less off the page, and delivered without panache or real risk. As a result, they are often boring, and this has very little to do with whether or not they are good, in the sense of conveying solid arguments about important issues. Videos, too, practically invite the mind to wander, due to the darkened room and warm embrace of artificial light. My mind, to be honest, shuts down at the mere thought of it. They are essentially passive activities, and without any impetus to direct participation, students and teachers are equally likely to check out. I often have to do a mental double-take when video clips and speeches are nearing their ends, to remind myself of what they were meant to accomplish and restart class participation.
There are good reasons to assign speeches and use videos, but one still has to deal with the passive element of these activities. To this end, there are several strategies available to help maintain focus during these times. Taking notes helps. It shows an active involvement on the part of the teacher, and also forces me to stay attentive to whatever is happening. I almost never look back on these notes, but the act of taking them helps keep me on track. Also, I try and think of possible questions that, if put on the spot, I would ask the speaker, or the class as a whole. Finally, for classroom speeches, I make sure to look presenters straight in the face when I am not taking notes. Once my eyes start wandering, my mind is sure to follow, and while my piercing gaze might weird some people out, most are probably glad to know that someone is listening, and the idea of an audience (even an audience of one) is crucial to what the speeches are meant to accomplish.
These strategies, I should note, are useful for both students and teachers, and they are by no means my own invention. Everyone has ways to keep themselves attentive when studying or listening, ranging from fidgeting to pursuing active engagement (asking questions and the like). I fidget compulsively, but the reason I emphasize note-taking, question development, and eye contact in these situations is that they seem to help me stay focused on the material, as opposed to staying focused on trying to stay focused.
Mr. Jung teaches college writing in Chicago, where he lives with his wife and their growing collection of street maps.
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