“Blessed are we who can laugh at ourselves for we shall never cease to be amused.”
I can tell you that it is definitely NOT my paycheck that keeps me teaching. I can’t figure out specifically what it is that compels me to create a six-hour-a-day, five-day-a-week adventure show, but I have to admit, in a weird way, it’s a comical journey. Comical because I take learning so seriously and my expectations for my students are so steadfast, that all this seriousness demands a humor to keep the parts running smoothly. In other words, my science classroom has to be outrageously funny.
After a lifetime of working in transplant — a profession that encompasses both end-stage cardiac disease and organ donation — you might think that humor has no place. Yet finding a reason to laugh is what got everyone through the day — patients and caretakers alike. To that end, my hero remains Patch Adams. Patch, aka Dr. Hunter Doherty, is the founder of the Gesundheit! Institute. In the darkest of situations, from the terminally ill to the aged, he used humor to help his patients enjoy the life they still had. Humor is powerful.
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In his article, “What’s so funny about teaching,” Mark Phillips shares the absurdities that teachers face on a daily basis. “Every morning, many middle and high school teachers reach out to 100+ students, despite the fact that each student is totally different. Elementary teachers continually function in a surreal Lewis Carroll-like scenario in which they’re expected to be experts in four or five different subjects, as well as child psychologists, on a salary that is less than what most waitresses earn.”
I believe that when you lose the ability to laugh and be laughed at, you might as well pack up and head for the hills.
So what’s so funny about teaching a classroom full of students, you may ask? Everything. Humor in the classroom is powerful. It breaks down walls, defuses uncomfortable situations and the endorphins it releases helps to create a relaxed and inviting environment.
An old parenting adage I often recall during critical situations says “that moment in a screaming, yelling child’s life, when we are stressed, embarrassed or least inclined to offer a hug, is when the hug is most needed.” Likewise, when you are least inclined to use humor may very well be the moment when it is most needed.
It’s tough being a kid. Especially in middle school. You have six teachers and everyone wants a piece of you. And that doesn’t include your parents. You’re too tall, too short, too smart, not smart enough, and it goes on. As a middle school teacher, if I am hoping to engage my students, the most important thing I have to do is to make them want to be there without them realizing why.
There is a lot of research out there on the effect of humor in the classroom.
Melissa Wanzer in “The Use of Humor in the Classroom — The good, the bad and the not so funny things that teachers say and do,” explains the theories about humor and how humor impacts student learning. One theory is that humor has the power to get and hold attention. This is related to memory, which in turn is related to learning outcomes. Another idea is that humor helps to establish a rapport with students. Students who like their teachers attend class, pay more attention and tend to work harder to learn the subject matter.
Maryellen Weimer, PhD, in “Humor in the Classroom: 40 Years of Research” shares that humor in educational settings serves a variety of positive functions beyond simply making people laugh. Humor builds group (as in class) cohesion. People respond more positively to each other when humor is present. It brings them together. Humor positively affects levels of attention and interest. It’s a way to keep students engaged and involved with the course material.
She says there are many different types of humor — including some related to class material, funny stories (hopefully related to the content), humorous comments, self-disparaging humor, unplanned humor (spontaneous, unintentional), jokes, riddles, puns, funny props and visual illustrations.
Teachers should use humor they are comfortable with and which flows with their teaching strategies. Humor is not critical to effective instruction, so people shouldn’t try to be funny when they aren’t. If an instructor doesn’t use humor but would like to utilize its benefits in class, they should use the humor of others by sharing cartoons, comics or video clips.
And if the goal is to use humor to increase learning and retention of course material, then use the humor to illustrate a concept just taught. This way, the humor helps students remember the material — and material can’t be learned unless it is remembered.
Maurice Elias, Rutgers professor of Psychology, shares the importance of balancing the realities of content pacing, high stakes testing and budgetary challenges with humor. Humor reduces stress and tension in the classroom, improves retention of information, and promotes creative understanding. But most of all, it brings a sense of pleasure and appreciation and creates a common, positive emotional experience that the students share with each other and the teacher.
Elias says that teachers who use humor typically:
▪ Laugh at themselves — when they do something silly or wrong, they mention it and laugh at it;
▪ Use voice inflections, exaggerated facial expressions and movements, hilarious personal stories, and ridiculous examples;
▪ Add humorous items to tests, homework or class assignments;
▪ Keep humorous quotes on the bulletin board;
▪ Keep a cartoon file, use cartoons in presentation, especially when introducing a new concept or wrapping a concept;
▪ Ask students to try to build humor into occasional writing assignments — that will start a conversation about what it funny, how they know something is funny, why different people find some things funny but some things are funny to almost everyone;
▪ Have a funny hat day, or mismatched socks day, or some other funny dress-up time.
Humor has a time and place in the classroom. No one is suggesting that teachers become standup comics, but those who embrace and promote humor in the classroom propagate a welcoming environment and sow the seeds of emotional intelligence.
Being able to manage emotions and defuse tense situations, motivate others and think creatively and critically, are all life skills.
So go ahead. Joke, laugh, dance, sing, shout. Whether you are at home with your own children, or in front of a group of students. It helps kids stay focused on the lesson, and sometimes it even helps them remember ideas and motivates them. Teach from the top of your desk, tap dance while you give instructions, speak in an English accent, or sing the answers to a homework assignment.
And remember: Never trust an atom — they make up everything.
Laurie Futterman ARNP is a former heart transplant coordinator at Jackson Memorial Medical Center. She now chairs the science department and teaches gifted middle school science at David Lawrence Jr. K-8 Center. She has three children and lives in North Miami.