Teachers can’t tell jokes

Jerry Seinfeld

Not in your job description. (Photo credit: Thomas Hawk)

If you are a teacher, you can’t joke with your students.  Repeat: if you are a teacher, you can’t joke with your students.  Got it?


Specifically, there a few kinds of jokes that can’t happen in your classroom.


You can’t scold a student and then say it was a joke, like the  New York teacher who publicly berated a student for wearing a Romney-Ryan political t-shirt to school, and then said it was all a joke.  Either you scold a student because they broke school rules, or you don’t scold them.


You can’t let students manhandle, harass, and bully each other and then say it was horseplay, like this Washington teacher.  Is it part of the curriculum? Is it supervised wrestling in gym class or a scene in a play that everyone knows is just a play? If not, it’s probably not okay and you may be traumatizing the child.  It’s likely to get you sued or fired. (Or both.)


Humor and comedy in the classroom should be one of those upper-level skills that only master teachers get to use.  Because when you do it badly it can go so terribly, terribly wrong.


Thinking back, I don’t remember any of my best teachers joking around, ever.  They read us funny stories and showed us funny videos (or film strips, back then).  Sometimes we sang silly songs or danced funny dances like the hokey-pokey.  But they didn’t make jokes with us or try to get us to laugh at others’ expense.  What I remember them doing best was explaining things, showing us how to behave through example, gently steering us towards proper behavior, and generally being surrogate mothers and fathers for us.  I don’t remember them being classroom comedians.


So, to amend my earlier statement: You can’t joke with your students; you can be funny, but you can’t be a comedian.


In first grade the funniest thing I remember my teacher saying all year was that some kids thought the song in the teddy bear’s picnic video, where they say “watch them catch them unaware,” really said “watch them catch their underwear.”  That was hilarious.  As far as I remember that was the only hilarious thing she said all year, and I loved her.


In fourth grade, the science teacher made us laugh by telling us things we knew were false (“I’ve been lying to you this whole time. Molecules don’t exist.  We can’t see them because they’re not there.”) and making us come up with arguments to prove him wrong.  That was hilarious because the idea of the teacher lying was so avant-garde.  (The winning answer, by the way, was “If air molecules don’t exist, then when you fly a kite, what holds up the kite?”)  That teacher was funny, but when he joked like that, it was at his own expense.


Sad child.

Teasing the foreign kids: actually not as funny as you think. (Photo credit: apdk)

I had other teachers who joked around and it definitely wasn’t funny.  In eighth grade, the history teacher would pick on the Brazilian kids by saying that everyone in Brazil was poor and asking them if they lived in cardboard boxes in the old country.  I remember that I didn’t like the awkward, embarrassed way the Brazilian kids laughed when the teacher made those jokes.  I especially didn’t like the fact that while I knew the teacher was “joking,” other kids believed every word he said and then asked the Brazilian kids if it was true. (“Wait, you really lived in a cardboard box? What did you do when it rained?”)  But the teacher was very charismatic, and I was thirteen, so it was hard to articulate even to myself how much it bothered me.  It wasn’t until my one Puerto Rican classmate, in conversation on the bus, said “I don’t like that teacher because he picks on the Brazilian kids” that I realized that I, too, definitely didn’t like that teacher because he was a bully.  That teacher ended up getting fired, later, supposedly for making inappropriate sexual remarks to a fourteen-year-old girl.  He probably told his principal that he was just joking.


Unusual sarcasm notice

Unusual sarcasm notice (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In high school I had a lot of teachers who were sarcastic.  As a teacher now, myself, I can understand why.  Because sometimes sarcasm is the only good defense mechanism against typical teenage behaviors like whining.  (“I can’t do math!” “That’s why you’re in this class. If you already knew everything you would have tested out of this class.” The teacher’s rational answer is completely ignored by the whining student. “But I hate it! Why do we have to do math!” “Heaven forbid you should have to do math in math class.”)  Effective as it may be, the problem is that not all students understand sarcasm.  And not all of them can deal with it.  And usually you don’t know who can deal with sarcasm and who can’t until you’ve made an acerbic remark and the student who was supposed to have laughed and acquiesced whatever point you were trying to make instead reacts with confusion and hurt feelings, as if you were being aggressive. Which you were.


Teachers are supposed to teach students to be respectful, and the best way to do that is to model respectful (non-sarcastic) behavior themselves.


I remember a few teachers who, by their nature, were funny, but they weren’t trying to be comedians.  One was the high school science teacher who was so exuberant that he would burst into peals of laughter at least once a class.  He wasn’t trying to make us laugh, he just seemed to be genuinely fascinated and amused by chemical reactions. When he burst into giggles when the chemical in the test tube changed colors, everyone else did too.  He was funny because he thought chemistry was funny, but he wasn’t trying to make us laugh.


Frank Perdue founder of Perdue Farms was a Sal...

Frank Perdue, founder of Perdue Farms, chicken man. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I do remember one teacher who made jokes all the time and got away with it.  He was a substitute teacher and we called him “the Chicken Man” because had a bald, wrinkly head and looked like Frank Perdue.  His preferred brand of humor was bad puns.  Every time he substituted a class, he would make at least one groan-worthy pun about being “out standing in your field” or “bear arms.”  (“What do you call it when somebody clones themselves and then pushes the clone down the stairs at the back of a theater?  An off-scene clone fall!”  Get it?  Off-scene clone fall sounds like obscene phone call.  Seriously.)  And I venture to guess that Mr. Bad Pun Substitute Chicken Man, for all the groans and rolled eyes he provoked when he visited our classrooms, wouldn’t have inspired much respect if he were a regular classroom teacher. Perhaps he knew that, and that’s why he enjoyed being a sub.


What do you think?  Did you ever have a teacher who successfully joked around with students without making anyone feel bad?  Is it ever okay to use sarcasm on teenagers?



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Confessions of a “bad teacher”

English: A special education teacher assists o...

A special education teacher assists one of her students. Image via Wikipedia

Last summer a fun if silly movie called Bad Teacher was released in the U.S.  I believe a good chunk of that movie’s audience was teachers, (and the other good chunk of it students) because most of us secretly fear being labeled a bad teacher.  Underperforming.  Unsatisfactory.  A recent opinion article in the New York Times by William Johnson shows us what that’s like.

Johnson is a special-ed teacher who works with students with severe learning difficulties and emotional problems. His students are some of the most difficult to reach and the least likely to perform well on standardized tests. He is in his third year of teaching, which to me says that the adrenaline rush of being a new teacher has worn off and he is just about at that point where he is trying to decide whether he really wants to do this for another 20 or 30 years. (I am at just that point myself.) He was classified as unsatisfactory by his principal at the end of last school year and transferred to a different school, for reasons that, according to his description, had to do with not being able to satisfactorily follow conflicting instructions from conflicting administrators.

A few highlights from the article:

In my three years with the city schools, I’ve seen a teacher with 10 years of experience become convinced, after just a few observations, that he was a terrible teacher. A few months later, he quit teaching altogether. I collaborated with another teacher who sought psychiatric care for insomnia after a particularly intense round of observations. I myself transferred to a new school after being rated “unsatisfactory.”

These anecdotes don’t surprise me.  One has to have pretty thick skin to be a teacher.  I don’t think the point of this passage is that teachers are fragile emotional humans with real feelings who need to be treated better (although that may be true for some) or even that teachers in general are being unfairly evaluated or ill-treated by the New York department of ed.  The point is that teachers care about their teaching, their students, and their evaluations.  It does remind me of the characterization of the greedy union teacher who puts in minimal effort and is paid handsomely for 10 months of work (with healthcare! and benefits! and summers off!), a specter that is so often conjured up by pundits during debates about educational spending and teacher salaries.  That lazy, mooching-off-the-state-and-hiding-behind-the-union goodfornothing is not the same teacher who become very distressed about a bad evaluation and decides it would be better for everyone if he quit teaching.  It’s not the teacher who is losing sleep at night about evaluations.

I don’t just want to get better; like most teachers I know, I’m a bit of a perfectionist. I have to be. Dozens and dozens of teenagers scrutinize my language, clothing and posture all day long, all week long. If I’m off my game, the students tell me. They comment on my taste in neckties, my facial hair, the quality of my lessons. All of us teachers are evaluated all day long, already. It’s one of the most exhausting aspects of our job.

Ain’t that the truth.  You haven’t truly felt self-conscious until you’ve tried to teach a difficult lesson to 28 high-schoolers.

The writer goes on to state that the self-consciousness that goes with being evaluated by an administrator is the worst of all, because one will do whatever is necessary to please the administrator and keep the job, even at the expense of students’ learning.  And yet…

Given all the support in the world, even the best teacher can’t force his students to learn. Students aren’t simply passive vessels, waiting to absorb information from their teachers and regurgitate it through high-stakes assessments. They make choices about what they will and won’t learn. I know I did.

Which is why high-stakes assessment should not be the sole measure of a teacher’s worth, or a student’s learning.

He does have a point about the best way to measure student learning. I don’t know the any teacher who thinks standardized tests should be the end-all and be-all in student evaluation. Which, in a way, is too bad, because that would be relatively easy and cheap to implement. But it’s not a reality in a world with good test-takers and bad test-takers, ELL students, kids with dyslexia, behavioral problems, physical disabilities, learning disabilities, or horrendous home situations.
Similarly, two evaluations per year is not the best way to gauge teacher skill. Johnson doesn’t say exactly what the evaluation system at his school was, but he makes it clear that he felt the feedback to be arbitrary, confusing, and difficult to follow. Although he doesn’t come right out and say it, perhaps the biggest complaint about the evaluation system that labeled him unsatisfactory was that (he felt that) nobody worked with him to improve his teaching skill. He apparently did his best to follow the recommendations given to him by his superiors, “to show I was a good soldier,” and when he was given a negative review and reassigned at the end of the year, it came as a shock to him.

Despite all the critical depiction of the New York evaluation system, the author’s final point is not that the system is broken or unfair.  He closes by stating that in order to truly measure student learning, all students need to have access to the same resources.  The same quality facilities, the same textbooks, the same technology (and the same kinds of teachers?)  If they are not given equal access to resources, not everyone can succeed.  Which is something to keep in mind when towns, cities, school committees, and lawmakers discuss when and how to cut teachers, and resources, in response to a budget shortfall or underperforming students.

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How many hours do teachers work?

Once again, a post inspired by an opinion commentator on the news. (Gotta stop listening to those guys while I’m trying to correct exams!)

The topic at hand was teacher salaries. The assertion was made that teachers work only 7 hours per day. That struck me as odd… I wasn’t sure that I had ever met a teacher who arrived 5 minutes before the first bell in the morning and abandoned the premises exactly at 2:30 PM. But it’s like that old saying that everyone you see at the gym is more in-shape than you. (Because if you see them at the gym a lot, it means they spend a lot of time there, meaning they’re probably more fit.) It looks like all your co-workers work long hours, because you only notice the ones who stay late. The ones who leave exactly on time are tearing out of there before you notice them.

I decided to do a little experiment. I’d count the cars in the teachers’ parking lot when I arrived in the morning, and again during school hours when everyone was present, and then again throughout the afternoon and evening. I would do it on a day when I happened to be arriving early and staying late. It would be a pretty good indication of how many people were leaving, and when.

The results:

Parking Lot Sunset

A beautiful sunset that the owners of these cars didn't see because they were still in their classrooms. Parking Lot Sunset (Photo credit: millerm217)

6:40 AM: The school has been open for 10 minutes. There are three cars in the teachers’ parking lot (not including my own.)
7 AM: There are 20 cars in the teachers’ parking lot, and more arriving all the time. Most people plan to get to school between 7 and 7:15, to compete for the good parking spots and time at the copier before first period.
7:20 AM: According to the teachers’ contract, we are supposed to arrive at 7:20. The first bell rings then, signaling that the students who arrived early to eat breakfast in the cafeteria can flood the hallways. They have 10 minutes to go to their lockers and get to their first class before it starts at 7:30.
7:25 AM: Counting the cars in the lot from a window, I spot 54. I can’t see the entire lot, but I know that it holds 80. And on any given school day almost all of those spots are filled. In the winter, when many of the spaces are filled by snowbanks, you run the risk of not getting a spot if you arrive after 7:20.  Right now, every spot I can see is filled, so the teachers must all be here.

2 PM: The students are dismissed. Teachers have to stay until 2:30, but even if we didn’t, I don’t know of any teacher in his or her right mind who would try to leave at the same time as the students. These are high-school drivers who have had their licenses for just months, if that. We have the local police in our parking lot at least once a week because of fender-benders in the student section.

2:30 PM: The parking lot still looks full. One or two cars may have left.

3:45 PM: There are still 22 cars in the parking lot. Folks must be sticking around for a meeting we’ve been “highly encouraged” to attend at 4.

5 PM: There are still 8 cars in the parking lot.

7 PM: I’m getting out of here. And there are still two other cars, besides my own. I wonder what these folks are doing that compels them to skip dinner?

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My goals for 2011-2012

English: Picture I made for my goals article

Image via Wikipedia

Last year, I attempted to leave school no later than 3:30 every day.  I failed miserably.  In fact, unless I had some sort of doctor’s or dentist’s appointment scheduled, I don’t think I left the school at (or earlier than) 3:30 at all.  If I was lucky I left at 4:30 and got home in time for dinner.

I haven’t given up on that goal, and I still have it in my sights for this upcoming school year.  However I am going for a few practical goals as well:

  • Spend less time grading.  Preparing, giving, and correcting tests is incredibly time consuming, but I think I may be able to cut down on some of it this year by a) using the same tests as last year and b) not giving tests to four classes on the same day.  Last year I taught four sections of the same level so I had to test them all at once.  This year I have 3, 1 and 1 so I think I will be able to test different groups on different day and thus, finish grading quicker and get tests back to them quicker.  Fingers crossed.
  • Have fewer nasty grading-time surprises.  Now that I am fairly familiar with the way my school grades, I am hoping there will be fewer technology fails, phantom grades and wasted time actually putting the grades into the computer.
  • Spend more of my after-school time on things I like.  This goes hand-in-hand with the above goals because I like planning classes and being creative, and I don’t like grading exams and wrestling with the grading software.  I also say “spend more time on things I like” because, well, I have pretty much shot my chances of leaving school at a reasonable hour before school even started.  I agreed to advice an activity this year.  And it is a very time-consuming, labor intensive activity, for both the students and the adviser.  Typical teacher that I am, I am taking on even more this year.  But that’s okay.  It’s an activity that I like, with kids that I like, and I get paid a stipend.  And there’s no testing or grading involved!

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Movie Review: Bad Teacher

Bad Teacher

The movie poster for Bad Teacher. Image via Wikipedia

Much of the audience of this blog is teachers.  This question is directed at you.  Even if you don’t like Cameon Diaz or Justin Timberlake (or Jason Segel, although I don’t know why you wouldn’t, the guy’s talented), even if you don’t like movies, how did you react when you saw the trailer for Bad Teacher?  You laughed.  You wanted to see it.  Admit it.

As teachers, we deal with the constant fear of being labeled a “bad teacher.”  We feel that even though we put in long hours, and even though if we were paid an hourly wage it would fall somewhere below minimum wage and slightly higher than slave labor, even though we go to countless student events and beam with pride as if they were all our own flesh and blood children (and sometimes they are, yikes!)… we feel unappreciated by society.  We have the constant nagging fear that no matter how many hours and tears we put in, our students will fail the standardized test, or our school will be underfunded and we’ll get axed, or a single inopportune moment in the classroom will lead to a bad review that will haunt our careers for years.  And that’s why this Cameron Diaz movie makes us cackle with glee.  Because no matter how horrible, unappreciated and ineffective we may feel at the end of the day, we can point to Diaz’ character and say “at least I’m not as bad as that teacher!”

Or at least, I hope we can.  I hope you can, because if you can’t, and you’re reading this blog for some teaching tips, I’m not sure if anything I write could help you.

But I digress.  Just how bad is the teacher in Bad Teacher?  And just how bad is the movie?

Cameron Diaz’ character does just about everything a bad teacher could do except hit her students or sleep with them.  She comes to class hungover and sleeps all day.  She plays movies every day instead of teaching.  She curses, she’s sarcastic, she facilitates cheating on standardized tests…  She views her time in her middle school classroom as an opportunity to recover from her real job, cruising the bars hoping to pick up a rich man who will support her so she doesn’t have to teach anymore.  And in that quest she goes up against a rival teacher (Lucy Punch) to win the heart of a moneyed colleague (Justin Timberlake) while rejecting and trampling the heart of the cute and sarcastic gym teacher (Jason Segel).  Hilarious hijinks ensue.

Truthfully, the movie is not that hilarious.  Most of the best moments can be seen in the trailer, and in fact, many of the jokes are really funnier in the trailer than they are in the movie itself.  Jason Segel is good, Cameron Diaz is alright, Justin Timberlake is annoying and Lucy Punch is a caricature.  Phyllis Smith is good in a supporting role but not enough to save the movie.  But, let’s face it, you’re not going to go to Bad Teacher for the gripping plot or the great acting.  You’re going to go because it’s summer, and the school year is over for you, and you can switch gears to focusing on your summer job for 8 weeks without having to worry about whether or not you’re a bad teacher.


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Minor classroom improvements

Evaporative Cooling Rain Window

Evaporative cooling rain window. A feasible improvement for the school classroom? Image by Jeremy Levine Design via Flickr

A while back there were 6-foot snowbanks in the school parking lot. Now the temperature is looking to be above 80 degrees every day for the rest of the school year. While designed with the best of intentions, most school buildings around aren’t built to handle temperatures above a balmy 70 degrees F, the rationale being that you’re not in them for the 6 hottest weeks of the year.

Despite that optimism, we are in the classroom for quite a few school days yet, and sharing that room with 25 sweating teenagers is not fun for any of us.  I find myself telling them, in that downtime between after passing in a test and while waiting for the final bell to ring, “Everyone relax.  The louder we talk, the more warm air escapes our mouths, and the hotter it gets in here.  Just chill.”  I’m usually met with a comment about how the act of breathing will also raise the classroom temperature, quickly followed by the suggestion of a breath-holding contest for the next five minutes.

One of my students told me I should get a window air conditioning unit. “It wouldn’t even be that heavy! I’d help you carry it in here!” Mentally I wondered if I could itemize it as a teaching expense on my taxes.

The time has come to get creative about classroom temperature regulation. I’ve come up with the following ideas:

1. Get students out of the classroom and into the air conditioned computer lab as much as possible. Here’s that incentive to integrate technology into the curriculum!

2. Get a large indoor/outdoor thermometer which I deceptively set to display 10 degrees lower than it actually is. Subliminal intervention. Deceptive? Yes. Effective? One can only hope.

3. Make a home-made swamp cooler.

4. Do some sort of science themed unit that involves playing with ice cubes. Every day. For the next 3 weeks.

What would you do?

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I can’t, I’m teaching

class party

Excuse me, kids, I have to take this phone call. Image by woodleywonderworks via Flickr

A friend of mine faces the following conundrum.  She is an elementary school teacher looking for a new job in a different district.  Right now she’s applying for, and interviewing for, teaching positions in several places.  A typical exchange with a perspective employer goes like this:

9 AM: Somebody from the perspective school district calls.  My friend doesn’t answer because she’s teaching. Her policy is not to answer her personal phone when children are present.

12:15 PM: My friend calls back during her lunch break.  The administrator is not available because he’s on his lunch break.  My friend leaves a voicemail apologizing for having missed his call, explaining that she can’t talk during the school day because she’s working, and that she is available to talk after 3:30 PM when her school day ends.

Next day:  The administrator calls back at 10 AM. Repeat the cycle.  My friend has never been able to get an administrator on the phone at 3:30 PM. Finally my friend either picks up or calls back in her 5 minute break between classes and gets the administrator on the line so they can schedule a time for her in-person interview.  Success?  No.  The employer wants to pre-screen all candidates with a 15 minute phone interview.  The administrator starts firing off questions and my friend has to gently explain that right now is not a good time to talk because 25 children are filing into her classroom.  The administrator does not want to do the phone interview at 3:30 PM when the school day is over, because that’s when the school day is over and the administrator wants to go home.  Never mind the expectation for administrators in most school districts is that they stay at school for an hour after students leave.  My friend has had administrators ask to call her at 5:30 in the morning or wait 2 weeks for the interview so they can catch her on a half day.  One potential employer was so steamed that she would not talk on his third attempt to reach her that he cited her inability to take time from class as inflexibility and decided not to pursue the interview further.

My friend is second-guessing herself and her “no personal phone calls during class” policy. Is there a more polite way to tell them she can’t talk?

My question would be, what school administrator in his or her right mind would view unwillingness to leave 25 elementary-school students unsupervised for 15 minutes for a personal phone call as a positive attribute?

The answer: not an administrator I’d want to work for.  So maybe it all works out for the best.

On a related note, up at the high school, I’m trying to decide whether to attend graduation this year.  I’d love to, of course, but it’s the same time as a good friend’s wedding shower.  There will be graduations every year, but,with luck, my friend will not get married every year.  After logging weeks and weeks of 12-and 13-our work days, I want to cap it all off seeing the fruits of my labors graduate as mature young men and women.  But after logging weeks and weeks of 12- and 13-hour work days, I’m ready to do something for my personal life.  I think I’ve made my decision.

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