Sense of Humor
When I was in my first years of teaching I did what I like to tell myself most baby teachers did when confronted with discipline problems. If I was conducting a fascinating discussion on the correct punctuation of introductory adverb phrases and I noticed a kid in the corner writing something on the arm of the kid sitting next to him, I might have ignored the behavior at first, especially if I was on a grammatical roll.
But then, as was always the case, the kid with the scribbled on arm would retaliate and some friend on the other side of the room would point out the conflict to the kid sitting next to him, and on and on. You know the story. So I might have said something devastating like “Okay people, this is important, and you’re going to need to know it when you get into Mr. Fagin’s class.” If, for some reason, that riposte didn’t phase my recalcitrant corner dwellers, I might have launched immediately into disciplinarian mode. “Alright, if you people don’t settle down, we can all do this as homework!”
Of course, that petulant outburst might leave the rest of my students – you know, the ones who looked forward to the daily comma drills - confused, or even outraged. The class would usually deteriorate from there and I would spend a restless night trying to figure out how I could win them back by making tomorrow’s grammar lesson even more relevant.
It takes confidence to confront the specific evil doer in the corner before the behavior metastasizes to the whole room. Even at the end of my career I found myself resorting to the same old “some-of-you-people-are-doing-such-and-such” gambit. It wasn’t any more effective.
I feel like I have just been to confession. However, I rationalize that penitent feeling away by reminding myself I learned this generalized name calling technique by sitting through faculty meetings and by trying to make sense out of district wide administrative directives initiated to address some specific problem but which invariably ended up in district wide fiats that only ended up confusing or alienating those of us who were plugging away in our classrooms, dutifully following all the other proclamations already in place.
I had an assistant principal once whose unhappy assignment it was to keep order in the parking lots. When confronted by the problem that some of the faculty members put their parking stickers on the wrong side of their rear view mirrors, he convened an emergency faculty meeting to correct the problem.
He walked into the meeting brandishing a rear view mirror he had procured just for the occasion. I can only assume he got it from the auto shop. That was back in the days when schools had auto shops. Either that or in his zeal for order he ripped it off his car. It took him awhile to position himself and the mirror correctly for the demonstration, but after about fifteen minutes the vast majority of the staff walked out of that meeting looking at parking stickers and assistant principals with new eyes.
This was the same AP who, when weekly forms for discipline, attendance, ineligibility, and the like were not being handed in by everyone with the kind of regularity that a smoothly running school demands, convened yet another emergency meeting. At retirement get-togethers we still talk about the forms we were asked to fill out if we had no forms to fill out for any given week. The No Form Form became a reliable source of conversation at faculty parties that year and for years to come.
There was the year when a number of older faculty members were grousing about the latest round of faculty meetings to rewrite philosophies and objectives and standards and all those other things that faculties are always rewriting. I’m not sure exactly what our goal was, but I do remember that it involved lots of butcher paper. Instead of dealing with the individual grousers (full disclosure here demands that I was prominent in that group), our principal dug deep into contingency funds and bought a dozen copies of WHO MOVED THE CHEESE for all of us to read. The idea was that we would take turns reading the book and pass our copy on to the next staff member in line.
WHO MOVED THE CHEESE was a best seller a few years ago. It was especially popular among people in the business community. If I were a cynical person, I would suggest that its popularity was due in no small part to the fact that it could be read during the average plane ride and the tedium of print was broken up with an occasional illustration of frustrated mice looking for misplaced pieces of cheddar.
The faculty all took turns reading the book and certainly got the point the book was trying to make. Paradigms are shifting. We have to look to new places for solutions to old problems. We have to “think outside the box,” to use a phrase that has become meaningless through overuse, kind of like power point presentations.
Of course, we never reconvened as a faculty to talk about the little book. We just read it, rolled our eyes, and went to more faculty meetings with butcher paper and long submarine sandwiches and potato chips for lunch. I noticed that one of the football coaches, obviously not grasping the idea that the long subs were supposed to be shared by the various committees, scarfed an entire sandwich for himself, leaving at least one group hungry. I didn’t worry about it though, content in the knowledge that the misunderstanding would be cleared up at our next faculty meeting.
* * *
Believe me. You don’t survive scenarios like that for very long without a sense of humor.
We had a teacher in our department once who was not blessed with a particularly expansive wit. Watching her from a distance it was clear she was just barely holding on. She had lessons to plan, papers to grade, parents to call, attendance to fill out, attendance referrals to complete, discipline referrals to write, hall duty to perform, study hall to oversee once a week, department meetings, team meetings, parent conferences, back to school nights, school plays, football games, basketball games, forensics meets on weekends, Key Club to help sponsor, and the list just keeps on going.
I remember the fateful department meeting when we all learned the district was changing its email server and we would have to learn a new protocol for accessing our inbox or something like that. She stood up, eyes streaming tears, dropped her books and papers on the floor, threw up her arms in despair and ran sobbing from the room. One of our female department members went out into the hall to comfort her and she eventually returned, redfaced and resigned. I wasn’t about to go after her. I thought her tearful departure, if made permanent, would be one of the best things that could have happened to our department at the time.
My older colleagues and I hardly ever burst into tears. We had been through enough protocol changes in our careers to realize the underlying truth to all of these district mandates--the truth, in Bill Murray’s words, that “It just doesn’t matter!” Poor what’s her name. She just didn’t get it. We all realized if we just waited around long enough without moving on the protocol shift, the District would set up an inservice. We oldtimers had learned to wait, as it were, for the movie.
When I talk about a sense of humor as not only an essential element of great teaching but as the one element you cannot do without, I am not referring to regaling your students with jokes and papering your classrooms with funny Garfield posters. Your students are not the prime beneficiary of your sense of humor; you are. It is the one thing that keeps you afloat, that keeps you “passing the open windows.”
Did you ever notice that almost all existential novels or movies take place in prisons, hospitals, theatres of war, or school rooms? There is always some outsider confronting the impersonality of the bureaucracy in charge always embodied by some evil manipulative nurse, or warden, or teacher. The rules are at once inaccessible and inescapable. The hero eventually deals with the absurd situation by finding meaning in the meaninglessness. Of course, all of this discovering is conducted with a certain amount of amusement if not downright hilarity. As a 35 year veteran of the public school classroom, that perfectly describes the situation in a public school classroom. You have to learn to laugh to keep from going crazy.
The group think that necessarily drives large school districts demands an appreciation of irony. After Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold dressed up in trenchcoats and proceeded to murder some dozen of their classmates, the principal at my school reacted by banning trenchcoats! I had one perfectly sane, but poverty-stricken, young man whose proudest possession was a trenchcoat that looked just like Keanu Reeves’ in THE MATRIX. It was also the only winter coat he owned. One day he was accosted by an over zealous parent in the parking lot who had him sent to the principal’s office. His coat was confiscated and he was left to freeze his ass off on the way home. You can react to that situation either by laughing it off or by going slowly insane.
My best practice, to use a term all the rage nowadays, vis a vis humor in the classroom, was to let students in on the joke and create a kind of us against the system ethos. For instance, students were not allowed to come into the academic area during lunch and instead had to scramble to find tables in a commons area too small to hold them all. Social Studies teachers, most of them ex-jocks who enjoyed flexing their disciplinary muscles, patrolled the double doors leading into the Social Studies/Language Arts Suite. Even students who wanted to talk to a teacher about an assignment weren’t allowed in. My wife and I, partly because we preferred hanging out with kids to hanging out with teachers and partly because we couldn’t abide the silly rule, helped students sneak into our area and eat their lunches in our classrooms. The principal reprimanded us repeatedly for such a horrible breach of professionalism and we dutifully repented. Then the next day we would sneak the kids back into the room. We figured that firing us for eating lunch with our students would look bad in the local papers.
One day three kids snuck into our room, each armed with a top of the line HP calculator. One of the kids, a brilliant senior named Isaak Winkler, had composed a sonata for HP calculator and programmed the three calculators to “play” the music. It was one of the more remarkable days of my career: three young prodigies, defying the powers that be, eating their lunch, listening to the original composition, with scowling Social Studies types walking by the scene shaking their collective heads in disapproval. Now that is funny. It is also disrespectful, but some rules and some rule makers deserve nothing less.
There is precious little data generated about the effectiveness of humor in the classroom. In fact, a survey of professional literature on the subject conducted by Israel Magazine-on-Web showed humor has no measurable effect on learning, other than reduced anxiety. However two separate studies (again this is reported in Israel Magazine-on-Web, November 2000), one in a psychology class and another in a statistics class, used control groups who received lectures laced with humor compared to groups who received lectures stripped of humor. The humor recipients scored higher on content tests in each instance.
But here is where it gets interesting. The conductor of the experiments, Tel Aviv University professor Avner Ziv, went on to quantify the optimum amount of humor to be used during any classroom session. He concluded the optimal amount of humor was, at most, three or four instances per hour. So for humor to garner its maximum benefit it should only be utilized to underscore key concepts.
That’s why it is imperative for a teacher to have a sense of humor. You can bet that if an administrator got ahold of Professor Ziv’s conclusions there would be a top down fiat mandating the number of times students should or shouldn’t laugh during a given hour. It would inevitably become part of an evaluation form and certain teachers would be written up for being too funny.
The biggest impediment to using humor to make life in a public school tolerable is Administrators who invariably ask the same question of every new thing they see or hear: “Can we get sued over this?” or “Will this cause a phone call from an irate parent?”
I was always getting called into some administrator’s office only to be greeted by a stern faced parent with a list of grievances. Be forewarned if you are reading this with the idea that you will start using humor as a survival mechanism, you too will be a frequent visitor to some administrator’s office. If you want to accomplish something worthwhile in your classroom, you have to follow the golden rule: YOU GET A LOT MORE ACCOMPLISHED BY SAYING I’M SORRY THAN BY ASKING PERMISSION.
My favorite example of that rule happened during my first year sponsoring the school newspaper. During the first semester of that year Colorado had passed legislation to allow for the sale of state LOTTO tickets. It was all the rage. A Denver Post columnist, Woody Paige, had heard LOTTO tickets were being sold illegally to underaged kids, so he called me up and asked if I would get some of my under eighteen year old students to go do some investigative reporting with him on a Saturday. I jumped at the chance. Giving my kids that kind of experience was what teaching newspaper was all about.
I chose five kids and was careful to get permission slips from all the parents. On the following Saturday my students were able to illegally purchase LOTTO tickets at every venue they tried. They were thrilled by what they were uncovering. They were also impressed by Woody’s diligent note taking and serious approach to the whole thing.
The next day Woody’s piece appeared in The Denver Post, explaining how a bunch of intrepid and underaged reporters from Green Mountain High School had delivered the goods. My principal could not have been happier and he came down with the article in hand and congratulated my students personally. I was understandably proud of the job I was doing as a newspaper sponsor.
The next day, however, a lawyer from the State LOTTO Commission paid my principal a visit informing him that the school was probably going to be indicted for a class 4 felony, contributing to the delinquency of minors. The principal stormed up to my classroom, ushered me down to his office, and introduced me to the grim looking legal type waiting for my arrival. I showed the guy the permission slips. I assured him none of the LOTTO tickets we purchased paid anything, so we didn’t make any money. He still was trying hard to scare me into never using my students in such a way again. I’m proud to say I laughed at the guy and told him if he was trying to intimidate me it wasn’t working and instead of wasting his time scolding us for our investigation, he should be getting angry at the people in the state commission who were responsible for oversight. He left in a huff. My principal looked at me and asked “What kind of newspaper are you trying to run here, The Village Voice?” I smiled and said we have to model ourselves on something. That was the end of that little episode, but it still makes me happy just to think about it. Those are the kinds of moments that make all the bureaucratic crap you have to put up with worth the effort.
My first teaching job was at Marycrest High School, a catholic girl’s school run by the Sisters of Loretto. It was a pretty grim place. The school building was constructed of cinderblocks and stretched down Federal Boulevard like a concrete bunker. I had to punch a time clock and submit weekly lesson plans which no one ever looked at. Sister Joan was a lot like Meryl Streep in Doubt. The faculty consisted of older nuns, three rather young and rebellious female teachers and two males other than me. My starting salary was a whopping $6300 a year.
To make matters worse, the teachers in the English Department had to follow the Nebraska Curriculum which asked freshman students to read things like Tristam Shandy as a “fun” introduction to Gulliver’s Travels. After taking the curriculum home that first night and reading through it, I don’t think I had ever been so depressed before or since. I wanted to teach fun stuff just like I did when I played school on my back porch in Estes Park, but no, this was a no nonsense approach to instruction.
I plowed through the curriculum that first nine weeks and pretended I bought into it hook, line, and sinker. I discovered the school owned enough copies of Animal Farm that I could use it in my freshmen classes and I quickly substituted that work for the fun and frolic of Tristam Shandy. Things were going okay, but my classes were pretty deadly.
At the end of that first nine week grading period I was beginning to doubt my vocation when I saw Kathleen Bischoff, my department chair, skipping down the halls after turning in her grades throwing ungraded papers hither and yon to celebrate the upcoming weekend. She saw me struggling at my desk and flitted into my room, walked up to my desk and said, “Ya know, you are taking all of this way too seriously. Nobody pays any attention to that curriculum, so what are you worried about? Do what you want to do. You’re not going to ruin anybody!”
“Oh, and another thing you need to realize. Teaching is the only job where anything you don’t get done by the end of the year you get to throw away.”
I joined her in her lark down the hall and my life has been better ever since.
Not too long ago I found myself in a video my son produced for his sister’s wedding. The video involved numbers of comments by friends and family. I remember all of my comments, but one struck me as particularly profound. I said that when two people were in love it was kind of like they were in on a private joke the rest of the world wasn’t privy to. I firmly believe you can see that glimmer of humor in the eyes of a married couple, the knowledge they are in on the joke and no one else is. That is precisely the kind of environment that should characterize a classroom.
You have to give kids the illusion that all of this stuff they are being asked to do is fun and you have to make them believe the unlucky slobs who are not in the classroom are missing out on some great times. Now I know that probably alienates other teachers and certainly turns off administrators, but their opinions don’t count. All that counts is what goes on inside the classroom.
There are little things you can do to create this atmosphere. Taken individually, these little things seem silly and insignificant, but taken as a whole they seem to work.
I used to make my seniors in Composition for the College Bound (a serious sounding class if there ever was one) line up in two rows, one for boys and one for girls, whenever we went to the library to do research. They would be required to hold hands and skip to the library. Weird, yes. But it pointed out the built in artificiality of high school research projects and gave the whole project a nice ironic feel.
Depending on how Draconian our administration was at any given time, we would be required at times to issue hall passes for students out of class. I always had a hard time with that particular directive because I usually taught college-bound seniors who could be trusted not to wreak any havoc in the halls, but I had to play along or get written-up. I finally found a solution to my dilemma and used an old Macintosh SE 20 hard drive as my pass. It was an irreverent way to make a statement without getting in trouble and my students thought they were being subversive whenever they went to the bathroom.
I called quizzes “reality checks;” multiple choice tests became “multiple guess;” we would loosen up for class by sitting on the floor in a circle for a rousing game of categories; I would write irreverent choices on Bible as Literature multiple guess tests; I would show off the wall movies whenever I thought certain kids were taking things too seriously; we would “waste” entire class periods playing improvisation games.
There were times when I would write parodies of poets and poems as permission slips:
“I have borrowed your students
Who you were probably wanting to teach today.
They were so talented.
And so bright.”
Believe me, for an English teacher a parody of William Carlos Williams is a guaranteed knee slapper.
I used to be the secretary for our faculty liaison committee. Every week I would publish uncapitalized notes e. e. cummings style dripping with sarcasm and inside jokes. I kept it up until a few of my more serious colleagues complained about my irreverence.
As a defense against the above mentioned colleagues, I would write Elizabethan Sonnets during faculty meetings to keep from going crazy and running madly from the room.
Whenever a colleague had a birthday and it was my turn to get the cake and cookies, I would always pen a sonnet to mark the occasion.
None of this is meant as a cookbook of recipes to inject humor into your classroom. It is just a collection of pleasant memories that helped keep me afloat for some thirty-five years. Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.