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Posted at 11:30 AM ET, 03/03/2012

Why school should be funnier

This was written by Mark Phillips, professor emeritus of secondary education at San Francisco State University. This was written for his blog on Edutopia, and he also publishes a monthly column on education for the Marin Independent Journal.

By Mark Phillips

When I first began teaching high school I had two students who sat near the front of the room and quietly laughed each day at the beginning of class. An “informer” told me that they were making bets regarding how often I’d nervously straighten my tie as class began. I could have admonished them for their laughter, but I thought this was very funny. So I straightened my tie about 20 times in a row at the start of the next class.  After their initially stunned expressions, they figured out what was going on and the three of us cracked up. They continued to tease me through the whole semester. Decades later, I still remember their names.

I take teaching very seriously. The work we do as educators is important. But I also wish so much of it wasn’t so humorless.  In fact, teachers and administrators who lack a sense of humor should find another profession. That’s a fairly harsh and rigid position, but teaching and leading in schools without a sense of humor is detrimental for both the educators and the students.

By a sense of humor, I don’t mean the ability to tell jokes or include humorous anecdotes in one’s lessons. That’s not a bad thing and makes for a more entertaining class (particularly if they’re funny!). But some great joke tellers who are also pretty humorless. Rather, I mean an ability to see absurdity in the class, school meetings, and in oneself, and be able to laugh at it all. 

Schools and classrooms are rife with absurdity.  Think about the crazily optimistic idea that a high school teacher can reach each of 100 plus students every day, 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 most waitresses. Someone should create a sitcome called “A Principal’s Life”  about an administrator who tries to promote student achievement, lead a group of diverse and outspoken teachers, keep parents happy, and surmount all budgetary and political challenges — all while leaping tall buildings in a single bound.

Being able to survive and thrive in these contexts depends on the ability to detach, see the absurdity, not take oneself too seriously, not personalize, not become defensive and, as much as possible, laugh with some degree of frequency.

Being detached doesn’t mean not caring. The best definition of detachment I’ve ever heard, from anthropologist educator Angeles Arrien, is “the ability to care deeply from an objective place.”

What this is really about is reframing, changing the emotional viewpoint in which a situation is experienced and placing it in a different frame. It's like viewing the situation through a different lens. Instead of seeing a situation as threatening or the student as a problem, we see the humor in what otherwise appears to be a humorless situation. Imagine what the world might be like if our political leaders could do this.

This can also help with student interactions.  A student in a high school class I was observing never did her math homework. Of course every teacher, as well as her parents, was continually on her case with warnings about the likely dire consequences. This obviously was working very well!  I suggested a different approach. The next day the teacher said to the student: “No homework. I’m so relieved. Nothing seems predictable in my life any more, so I am glad I can at least count on one student to come through predictably for me every day.” It was said with a wink and a smile. The student laughed. It didn’t lead to a miracle turn around, but it helped begin creating a bond between the teacher and the student that enabled the teacher to get to first base in helping the student deal with the problem.

There are some books that talk about humor in the classroom but not many that get beyond fun exercises or what feel to me like gimmicks. One of the best is Using Humor to Maximize Learning , by Mary Kay Morrison. Laugh and Learn , by Doni Tamblyn, can also be helpful. . The Humor Project website, though not focused on education, often has helpful articles.  .

As Morrison reminds us, humor also has a very positive effect on our mental and physiological states, inducing endorphins, creating more relaxation and ease.

Yet, like most of us, I sometimes lose my sense of humor when I need it the most, being too hurt or too defensive to see the absurdity of the moment and change the frame. A student in my university class challenged me one day.

“We’re tired of your arrogant pronouncements, ” she yelled. If I hadn’t felt defensive I might have said, “Well you and my wife both agree on that!” Instead, I yelled back “WE?! Who, you and the mouse in your pocket?!  Speak for yourself!”  I apologized, reconnected with the student, and also spent time with the class talking about how I clearly blew it.

But this also served to remind me that not expecting perfection in any of our teaching helps us keep perspective and maintain a sense of humor.

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