In point of fact, using humor in the classroom is one of the easiest ways I know to become a beloved and effective teacher. But it requires skill. It is like dancing barefoot in a mine field that is littered with pit traps for trapping tigers. See how I linked the title to my opening paragraph there? Kids in the classroom don’t… unless you make it funny. Sometimes they want you to fall in the tiger trap on purpose even though there are punji sticks at the bottom. They want to see what the consequences of the mistake really are so they are not surprised when they immediately make that same mistake.
So, let me tell you about a few of those tiger traps and how to navigate through them.
Yes, one of the unfortunate truths about humor in the classroom is that nothing is funnier to middle school and high school kids than references to sticky brown stuff. (If that last statement made you snicker, then you know that it even goes beyond school.) And it can be a devastating thing on fragile, fledgling egos in a school environment where boys will invariably stick a half-eaten chocolate bar in a back pocket on a hot day even though they are wearing khaki-colored jeans. Over-reacting to a sudden fragrance from one of a number of volatile digestive systems packed into the same small classroom can completely empty the room and imperil the teacher’s job. (Principals don’t appreciate unauthorized leaving of the classroom… so teachers need to quickly learn how to calm-and-continue in an unusually gassy environment.) Of course, the girl leading the lemming rush out of the classroom under gas attack is usually the one who dealt it. But you can’t point that out without crushing some young flower’s petals of self-image. It is necessary to lay down fences of regulation at the beginning of the school year to regulate exactly how brown and sticky a bathroom joke can actually be before it traps you in eternal detention.
There is the kind of humor that numerous comedians use as their fall-back style, that Don Rickles-esque “Your mama’s so fat that satellites can see her from space”sort of humor. It is also a highly tiger-trappy sort of humor to use in the classroom. Students don’t perform well after being the butt of slappy-face-style put-downs. You don’t want to remind the kid in the back row of how he mixed up the words “pied” and “peed” in last week’s read-aloud right before taking the State science test that will determine his educational future and your next evaluation. So how do you resist the urge to tell the snooty little cheerleader that just told you her mom is going to get you fired that she’s got a tail of toilet paper hanging down from the back of her skirt… when she actually does… and the football player she most idolizes is watching every move she makes with that big, tart and trippy tongue of hers? You take pity on them, and remember that if you break them down into tears in front of their peers you are doing the same thing to them that Bully Bob Beegshout did to you back in high school. Self-deprecating humor is far more effective at defusing a confrontation. You get them to laugh at themselves by making them see themselves in the story you just told on yourself. You can often make them laugh themselves right out of the bad behavior that way. (Oh, and I didn’t point out the toilet paper, but you can wait until someone else inevitably does and karma can balance the universe in that way.)
So, now that I have rolled well past the 500-word goal and still haven’t used up the whole list of tiger traps, I suppose it is time to reveal there will be a follow-up to this post.