“Don’t smile until December,” a teacher warned me before I started my first year. I tried that on the first day, but it was too hard. My face is expressive. Kids know if I’m scared or nervous or happy or tired. I smiled the second day, too. As the days rolled by, I smiled more.
I realized that a smile was one of my greatest assets (despite my yellowing coffee-stained teeth). Smiles have a way of calming students. It can’t be fake. I’m not a politician plastering a grin onto every situation. I don’t want to be a Nurse Ratchet, offering a condescending smile in the midst of discipline.
See, smiling has a way of disarming people, preventing problems before they happen. Despite my propensity to smile, I didn’t joke around the first year. I have a sort-of witty sense of humor. I like irony. And I assumed kids wouldn’t get me (probably because I always felt, as a kid, like I wasn’t very funny.)
Then it happened. I let it slip in the first week of my second year of teaching. A student asked me if Sean Connery had ever played Superman. I smiled. “How embarrassing would it be if he played Superman? He would say, ‘I would like to shave the world’ and people would stare at him like he was crazy.” To my surprise, the class got it.
So, I started letting my humor show more often. I realized a few things about humor in the process:
- Like smiling, humor is a great preventative discipline strategy. As long as it isn’t cynical or at the stake of students, humor can alleviate boredom and provide a quick escape for kids.
- Humor requires critical, creative thinking. Exposing students to wit and irony is a great, informal way to model depth of thought.
- Humor helps build a classroom culture. If I believe that learning can be joyful, I need to be open to laughter as well. This means I need to be okay with students learning the boundaries of humor.
- Kids need to see that their teachers are human. Sharing humor is a great way to share our humanity.
- Humor is risky. It might not seem that way, but there’s always a vulnerability to it. So, when a teacher models humor appropriately, he or she can set a tone where positive risk-taking can occur.
So it has me thinking about education policy. I laugh more often when the environment is test-free. I smile more often when there isn’t a constant pressure for test scores. It sounds counter-intuitive, but places of humor often become places of learning. My concern is that test-driven, high-stakes environments often become humor-free zones.