As someone who tries to be funny all the time, I know it can be quite annoying – my children constantly tell me to stop making jokes. But I cannot help it. If there’s a laugh to be had, I feel I’m letting myself down by not pouncing; it’s like being thrown an underarm ball, and watching it sail over your head.
Not all jokes work, but – good or bad – they are usually remembered. And that is what teachers are trying to do, right? Impart information in a way that sticks.
When I visit students of all ages in schools to run humour-writing workshops, I have to make them laugh. The writing techniques I explore have often been covered already by amazing English teachers, but by dressing them up as jokes or illustrating them with some larking about, I help students to remember them. (I call this stealth teaching.)
I often explore humour-writing with my class using some fun techniques. It might take effort in the morning but when I talk about the art of “concealing the punchline” I clown about like a fop gentleman boxer. To illustrate the importance of rhythm in a piece of writing, I sing the Countdown clock ending, leaving off the last flourish, and standing there like a lemon. They laugh, and squirm at my awkwardness, but it makes the point about how these literary techniques work.
Of course, I have novelty on my side. I’m a new face, and keeping up the level of energy I do would be unrealistic on a daily basis.
So can teachers raise the humour bar? It’s tricky. I meet lots of teachers who, when chatting with me “off stage”, are a hoot. Then minutes later with their teaching hat pulled down a little too firmly, all larks disappear.
Perhaps it comes down to discipline. Some level of control needs to be maintained, and there’s a fine line between being regarded as a joker, or merely a joke. But I don’t think showing a sense of humour undermines someone’s authority. You’ve got to remain professional, but as long as bulletproof respect has been established early on, dropping the guard every now and then is a good thing.
One way to do this is by engaging in “banter”. While I hate the word and wouldn’t use it in class, sometimes a student will say something funny and I think it’s ok for a teacher to retort. A volley of back and forth with students is hugely appreciated – the trick is just not to worry if you come off second best. If the student ends up saying something hilarious and you don’t have a witty reply then congratulate them.
Many kids already think teachers are otherworldly beings and showing you are actually human can help win them over. Opening up to your class about a funny situation you found yourself in shows that you have a life outside school and you’re more than just a teaching automaton. The truth is, a bit of humour can be injected into the driest of subjects, but being yourself is paramount.
Many comedians – character acts aside – spend years on the circuit, trying to find their “comedy voice”. Often, however, this is simply the thing you do when you’re just being yourself. A teacher I know continues doggedly with the corniest one-liners. Only about one in 10 actually works – the rest just get weary groans – but the students love him because he’s being authentic.
Do bring out a party trick if you’ve got one. This can be anything from juggling, singing or an uncanny celebrity impression. Also, lead by example so if you’ve got a funny joke, write it down and share it with your class. Encourage them to share their writing, too. Don’t worry if comedy doesn’t work though, and nothing funny ever started with the phrase, “Here’s a great joke”.
A lot of comedy is centred around poking fun at familiar things we notice about life in a way that strikes a a chord with the audience. To show the importance of including “observations” in comic writing, I ask why – when looking for scissors – people always make a scissoring motion with their fingers. This usually gets a laugh and shows the value of this technique.
- Do you use comedy in your class? Tell us how via @GuardianTeach or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.