Not long ago, a serious student named Jacob (age 13) approached me during a writing assignment and quietly whispered, “Mr. D, I just need a little more paper to finish my essay.” I looked around at my desk, the expression of a concerned scientist or a confused private investigator on my face. I tried my best Spock eyebrow.
“Are you sure?” I asked, looking earnestly at him. Of course, he wasn’t sure what to say.
“Um, yes,” he ventured.
“Okay then,” I said, reaching for a sheet of paper on my desk. I then proceeded to carefully tear a tiny square from its corner. I handed the near microscopic piece to Jacob. “Will this be little enough?” I asked.
“I think I need a whole sheet,” he said, grinning.
I looked cautiously concerned and said, “Well, I’m sure you know what you’re doing.”
Jacob was caught off guard by this exchange, but he was also tickled. In fact, it fueled his participation for the remainder of the period and brought his stress levels down. He is a very serious student who is concerned with performing well on everything. In my classroom, however, Jacob isn’t afraid to make a mistake. He knows it’s going to be okay.
In more than 20 years of teaching students ranging from as young as 12 to as old as 70, I have found one thing to be verifiably true: Humor positively impacts the learning environment.
When I hand back papers, I sometimes offer a congratulatory fist bump to students. They always return the bump. Sometimes, especially with quieter kids, I react in silent pain to the bump, as if my knuckles were just bruised. I cringe and hold my hand, nursing the disfigured appendage. The quiet student who “caused” the injury is always (and I mean always) smiling at this point.
“What did you do to your hand, Mr. D?” students ask.
“Alexa broke it when we fist-bumped,” I say. “I guess she really liked her grade.”
Then come the smiles and chuckles, especially from Alexa, and the period is off to a positive start—again. This cycle continues throughout the year.
Using humor requires a commitment on my part, whether my day is going well or not. The students must be my first priority. A safe learning environment is absolutely vital for students of all ages. Humor can help create this safe place of learning, but safety is dependent upon trust. The kids have to trust that I use humor to increase their attentiveness, lighten their moods, build relationships and establish a positive learning environment. Even if a student didn’t do well on an assignment, using humor can subtly let him know I believe he can do better next time and that I’m here to help. I never use laughter to belittle or single out a student.
Don’t ask me the science behind why humor works or why kids love it, but research shows that it does, and they do. According to University of Oklahoma Communication Professor John Banas, “When instructors use positive and appropriate humor, students report feeling the classroom is a more interesting and relaxed environment, and they report more motivation to learn and more enjoyment of the course” (Communication Currents, February 2011).
And while most students welcome humor as a show of familiarity and approval, some will ask you—either verbally or nonverbally—not to joke with or tease them. Always honor this request. Humor in the classroom must always uphold student dignity. Otherwise, it’s just not safe—or funny.
Donohue is a middle school English and social studies teacher in Monroe, Washington. He also teaches college courses in English, public speaking and education.