The Benefits of Doing Nothing

Walk into any classroom and you are likely to see the teacher doing stuff. They’re lecturing, meeting with students, conferencing, planning, assessing, entering data, designing units, or circulating throughout the room. Few teachers give themselves permission to do nothing. But they should. Doing nothing is important.

When I say doing nothing, I of course mean doing nothing outwardly.  While it may appear that we our sitting at our desks and counting the ceiling tiles, our brains are busy at work.

The reality is that teachers don’t spend enough time thinking because we’re so busy doing.

Our Best Ideas

Our best ideas often come to us when we are idle. Before I started this blog, I was an aspiring novelist. In the course of telling a story, I’d often get stuck. I couldn’t figure out what should happen next. The worst thing I could do was think more about the problem. Usually, my best ideas came when I left the work alone and did something mindless. It’s hard to come up with great ideas when we’re under pressure to do so.

The same thing happens with teaching. I have very few innovative ideas in February. But in the summer, when my mind is rested and I’m not stressed out from long days in the classroom, I regularly come up with new things to try for the upcoming school year. Teachers need to set aside time to just sit and think.

Sitting and thinking, instead of always doing, provides teachers with the mental space to be creative. I keep a notebook where I write down things to try in the classroom, and once a month I force myself to just sit and think of stuff. Ideas can come from books, blogs, colleagues, social media, or my favorite place, left field.

Reflection

Time to think allows teachers to actually reflect on what’s working and what isn’t. We’re all told how important it is to reflect on our lessons. It’s part of every teacher evaluation system I know of. But most teachers roll their eyes and think, “Yeah, right. And when am I supposed to do that?”

They ask that question because they don’t give themselves permission to do nothing. For most teachers, the thought of their principal walking in and seeing them sitting down and staring off into space is scary. We feel like we must always be working, and we fail to realize that thinking counts.

Time to think and reflect also lets teachers revisit their vision for the classroom to see if this year’s group is still on track or if things have gone off the rails and a recommitment is necessary. Every year, I write down my personal goals and the vision I have for my room. But once caught up in the day-to-day grind, I sometimes find myself just plugging along without thinking about the big things I want my room to be about. Without time to sit and think, I lose track of where I’m supposed to be leading my students.

Time to think can also save us trouble down the road. Taking a few minutes to think instead of responding emotionally to a student’s misbehavior, or a parent’s disrespectful email, or an administrator’s new idea can mean the difference between having a job and not having one.

When Helping Doesn’t Help

Students also benefit from a teacher doing nothing. Especially at the elementary level, too many of us rush in to save a student from failure or even frustration. We don’t want our students to struggle, and when we see them doing so, we want to help. That’s how we’re built.

But failure and frustration teach, often better than we do.

Stand back. Do nothing. Send the message to your students that they can do it without you.

I can always tell if I’ve helped too much when the state test rolls around. Since I’m not allowed to help at all, those students who I’ve not allowed to struggle don’t know what to do without my assistance. They don’t know how to solve problems because I haven’t allowed them to struggle with them. I’ve failed them, not only for that test, but in some ways, for life. There won’t always be someone around to help, and some problems just require that you sit there and think.

5 Replies to “The Benefits of Doing Nothing”

  1. Thanks for the “permission” 🙂 Or rather the reminder!

    I fully agree with you that students should work through their problems without intervention too soon. I make it clear in my class that students should ask for help when needed as that too is a life skill. Then I try to answer only the question asked because I tend to answer the question with too much explaining and not drawing on their knowledge.

  2. My best ideas don’t come to me in the work environment but when I am taking a shower, probably because I am relaxed and just zoning out. I find that there is an expectation in the work environment to be busy even if you are on duties other than teaching, to the extent where you feel guilty if you don’t look busy. Yes we are told to reflect especially when observations in the classrooms are becoming the new age learning tool but don’t stress you are told that you have 20 minutes to reflect. Too bad if you can’t reflect in the given time frame.

  3. Very true, as teachers we under so much pressure most times we don’t do justice to ourselves even in our reflections.
    My best ideas come when l am relaxed, doing other stuff not related to my work, like when l am sitting in front of the TV but not really watching, or reading a book, or in my garden.

  4. Agree with that last part let them find out what’s a good solution for them, isn’t it what we prefer as professionals? This kind of job just just won’t give you space you must create it, even if you feel guilty about it you must try, eventually you will get the benefits OR you will burn trying to catch time… slow down and time will catch up to you !

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