“Ugh, the beginning of the year, my least favorite time.” A fellow science teacher walked into my class right before the start of school with that line. “What?” I asked. “I love the first day of school! Everything is fresh and new!” His response was something I had never thought of before, “I’d rather just be six weeks in. That way I know everyone and we get to joke around. At the beginning of the year, I can’t make jokes.” This struck me, not only about the cycle of the academic year but about the time it takes to get to know our students and how we go about building relationships with them.
For me, teaching mostly 16 year-olds, my relationships with my students are built through 1. caring deeply about their success and 2. humor. I’m pretty sure that anyone reading this blog is past the old ‘Don’t Smile ’til November’ adage but even in 2013, when I received my teaching certificate, I was told that sarcasm is never to be used in the classroom. Have you been around anyone in high school, ever? Sarcasm is a language unto its own, and it requires nuance as do all forms of humor and even human communication. Part of our job is to help students become adults that can function in society and a huge part of that is recognizing how to use humor correctly.
Let’s get into this messy business of how to keep laughter in schools.
1. Know yourself. Students at any age can smell inauthenticity a mile away. If you don’t know how to pronounce the word meme, you can’t use them. But do infuse what you think is fun! I believe that the ability to make and understand jokes about chemistry shows a deep understanding of the subject itself. Each concept I teach comes with some sort of cartoon, or meme to kick it off. It’s a nice time to step out of the traditional notes and also infuse some of my personality into my teaching. Here’s an example of what I use thanks to xkcd, who is also to thank for all of the pictures within this blog post.
2. Know your students. This is one I have learned again this year. I’ve been deeply pondering how teaching is a bit like being Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day. You are living the same year over and over, you grow, change, learn to play the piano, get comfortable in your classroom but the students around you come in at the same place your students came in last year and the year before that. I realized during the first week that I was still in the same joke mode that I ended on last year. We didn’t know each other well enough yet, they needed to trust me to understand the class before we could get to that point. It takes time to build up a relationship to be able to joke, this is why small talk exists, because I’m sure that you can’t make new friends if you joke with them the same way that you joke with old ones.
3. Know your power. You are the adult and that creates an immediate imbalance of power in the room. Which is okay, that power is important when you need it, BUT this is where humor can get teachers into trouble. I liken this idea to how I have discipline-type conversations in the classroom. I only call out whole group behavior to the whole group. If most of the class is off task, I will stop all of them and talk about it. If one student is off task, I will not discuss this publicly, but rather pull that student aside for a discussion. Shaming individual students publicly will never change their behavior in a meaningful, intrinsic way. Same goes for humor, I might admonish the whole class for not getting my Legends of the Hidden Temple reference, “The choice is yours and yours alone.” But I would never single out a student publicly in the same way.
4. Know your context. This is more of the list of don’ts. As far as context goes, I don’t joke about a student’s progress, their abilities, or really anything that has to do with their learning. I take that very seriously and a student should never be in doubt as to whether my praise should be taken otherwise. I do use sarcasm, but I usually only employ it positively. An example would be asking my color-coded note takers to get their work a little more organized. ;)
5. Know the boundaries. This is not nuanced. I do not make jokes about student identities (or any human identities for that matter.) I do not make jokes about student relationships.
Now that I’ve laid down all of these rules, we will all be good to go, right? Haha, definitely not. Teachers have probably 1,000 short conversations with students every day. Each one of these interactions brings with it context, individual understandings, and a whole mess of human emotions. When in doubt, be positive, honest, and kind.
I’d love to see more examples of deliberate uses of humor in the classroom! In high school, I got to turn Oedipus Rex into a laughter-inducing rap battle. Please share below if you have something you do that brings hilarity to your work.
Don’t forget to join our #wateachlead chat on humor in the classroom! Sunday, October 8th at 7pm PST.
I’ll leave you with one of my favorites that allows me to give math teachers a hard time. :)
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