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The Importance of humor in the classroom

In math class, students sit slouched in their chairs, staring in the direction of the teacher, me.  Some students are cross-eyed with blank, spacy expressions on their faces. I was enthusiastically explaining the art of the distribution property for multiplication. Who wouldn’t be excited about this? I thought this concept was the greatest thing since peanut butter! So, what was wrong?  Mmmmm.  As I surveyed the room, I was sure some students were on the verge of nodding off.  I saw one student completely unabsorbed picking his nose.  While still, other students seemed not to care. You guys don’t find stuff interesting?   Ok, reality check.

Suddenly, I shouted, Wake Up!  You all look like Penny from the Big Bang Theory (popular at the time)!  The students sporadically jerked and jumped while giggling. Was it because I was no longer talking about distribution theory, or maybe because I mentioned a goofy show, or perhaps it was because I was finally connecting with them? Whatever the reason, we spent the rest of the time learning about distribution theory in a fun and entertaining manner.

Sometimes in a classroom, time seems to stand still, and student’s minds thicken with thoughts, lots of ideas (none of them about math). Eyes glaze over and you know you have lost them. It is time for a break – a laughter break.

The difficulty with laughter has always been in the delivery and the willingness for the teacher to “bomb”.  Not to mention overcoming the traditional pedagogy that has shaped many teachers, i.e., instruction is all business. So, if you are willing, dissent, try some simple ways to bring humor into the classroom. You will be pleasantly surprised! A word of caution make sure that you or your students never use humor to put someone down or make fun of them. This is especially true for diverse and inclusion students in your classrooms. A classroom is a place of safety, not a comedy club. The use of humor is to engage students, draw their attention to your lesson, and offer inspiration.

But I am NOT a funny teacher! I hear this all the time.

Here are six pointers to make you a funnier teacher even if you aren’t.

  1. Recognize that all comedy comes from pain, we use laughter to deal with it. I remember my first year of teaching and some girls made fun of curly red hair that was never tamed by a brush. It hurt a little (I haven’t heard that since middle school), but I decided to address the issue.  I went to the girls and told them you noticed my hair; well you should have seen my bell-bottom pants! I was a real fashion statement. The girls laughed but it also defused the situation and they learned that they can’t rattle my cage!  It is amazing how adolescent youth zero in on other’s perceived flaws, so turn them into a positive.
  • Once you get to know your students, it will be easier to “joke around with them.”  Take the time to find out their sensitivities and difficulties (yes, I know, you have lots of students). Once you know their concerns, it will be easier for you to twist things around into a positive and make things laughable. So, how to you find out? Ask questions. Adolescents are brutally honest.
  • Frequently, teachers are the “joke” to their students. So, the sooner you make fun of yourself, the better off you will be.   I understand that you have to be strict and enforce the rules. However, by adding some self-deprecating remarks your students will know you are real.  For me, I often say it is an “age thing” when I intentionally forget or misplace something.  Of course, my students are pretty sure that I was raised with the dinosaurs anyway. Wait until the grey hair shows! More proof.
  • The best comedy stems from true honesty. Telling students about the time I came out of the bathroom with my skirt tucked into your pantyhose may have been momentarily humiliating but instantly funny. Telling such stories will help your students face their everyday disappointments and embarrassing episodes. Life happens to us all.
  • There is nothing more entertaining and captivating than a weird teacher.  Come to school wearing some weird articles of clothing such as a bow tie, or bell-bottom pants.  Or develop some unexpected things you do in the classroom. I have found that bright colors work well to attract attention. In the winter months, I make sure that I wear brightly colored socks which are often mismatched. My students notice (I make sure that they do) and I make up a story about the socks
  • Political cartoons and comic strips make great classroom posters and good lesson starters. Of course, discretion is needed. Most adolescents are into graphic novels, so make use of them. I have found that cartoons are great to use when your students are looking at you with cross eyes!  Your students will love it and they are cheap!

Becoming a funnier teacher is possible for everyone. However, it does take a little convincing and practice to do it – but you can do it. The bottom line – you students will love you and they wouldn’t even realize they are learning.

Written by PJ Larsen, Ed. D., Veteran classroom teacher, college professor, and adventure traveler.

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