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.
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.
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.
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?