When you're a teacher, you have very little opportunity for solitude. Students want to hang out with you before and after school; they want to eat lunch in your classroom. Colleagues constantly stop by to chat, vent, and laugh. Administrators drop in to discuss issues and concerns. There's a constant stream of people and devices demanding your attention. Your brain, however, needs regular doses of quiet—time to focus on your own thoughts and experiences—in order to be happy and productive. What's a teacher to do?
The Dangers of Solitude Deprivation
There are three crucial benefits provided by solitude: new ideas, an understanding of the self, and closeness to others, notes computer scientist Cal Newport, author of Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World.
Newport suggests regular doses of alone time, mixed with sociality, are necessary to flourish as a human being. These days, though, teachers have little chance of being completely alone with their thoughts. Shared classrooms and other school spaces offer little privacy. Smartphones and other devices provide a constant influx of emails, assignments, information, and entertainment.
We're told that's a good thing. Newport points out that over the past few decades, we've been sold the idea that more connectivity is better than less, and, as a result, most people now prioritize communication over reflection. He warns that when we avoid alone time, we miss out on the positive things it brings: "the ability to clarify hard problems, to regulate emotions, to build moral courage, and to strengthen relationships." As a result, our quality of life declines, our anxiety increases, and our mental health issues multiply.
Teenagers, especially, have grown up in a time period where spending time alone with their thoughts no longer exists. The consequence, Newport suggests, is that they've lost the ability to process and make sense of emotions, to reflect on who they are and what really matters.
How can teachers regain valuable alone time, and how can they help their students understand the importance of time spent by themselves? Here are some steps to put into practice.
Further reading: Teacher Burnout: Causes, Symptoms, and Prevention
Understand the Benefits of Solitude
Until I read Newport's research, I never realized how important it was to unplug, be alone, and spend time with my own thoughts. In fact, despite feeling stressed and anxious almost all the time, I didn't recognize that the lack of alone time was one of the major reasons for those feelings. Sharing the facts with students can help them understand the dangers of over-connectivity, as well as the restorative value of alone time. Teachers can even provide time in their own classroom for guided meditation, which can help both teacher and students reconnect with their bodies and relax.
Spend Time without the Phone
Learning to manage phone use is important for both adults and students. In my classroom, students are required to dock their phones. I provide charging stations to help ease the pain of separation. I put my phone away, as well. The result is students are better able to pay attention and interact collaboratively. The lack of distraction means they are "present" and in the moment—something we talk about beforehand. I always give a few minutes at the end of the period for tech checks, and most students tell me they actually enjoy the time away from their phones. I also encourage students to monitor their phone time, and I do the same. I was shocked at the number of hours I spent on my smartphone, and I'm taking steps to cut back.
Take Long Walks
Newport recommends long walks—without headphones playing music, podcasts, or phone calls—as a high-quality source of solitude. The most difficult aspect of this habit is finding the time. If you can make walking a part of your commute, take that gift; otherwise, you might have to build the time into your schedule. It's well worth it to do so. Quiet time spent walking will enable you to become more creative, work out professional problems and issues, and take time for self-reflection.
Further reading: Teacher Work-Life Balance: How to Create Harmony Between Your Relationships and Teaching Career
Write Yourself a Letter
I thought this advice was a little hokey at first until I realized I write plenty of letters to myself on notepads and scrap paper every day. Writing a letter to yourself can be a source of inspiration. It can help you commit to a behavior or habit or work out a complicated decision. Newport points out that writing frees us from outside input and provides a conceptual scaffolding to sort and organize our thinking. Students can benefit from this technique, as well. Let them know how embracing the well-researched strategy of writing can enable them to make sense of difficult circumstances and provide them with a powerful tool they'll be able to use for the rest of their lives. Practice this type of writing in class. Everyone will benefit!
With so much noise in our world, it's time to seek out opportunities to be by ourselves to think and reflect. Both teachers and students can learn to be less overwhelmed and more in control of their lives when they engage in a little solitude.