Although he was only in eighth grade, Miguel was six feet tall and boasted muscles you’d see on a man in his mid-twenties. At school, he stirred up trouble and made no qualms about whom and what he disliked—and Ms. Stevens (his math teacher) happened to be one name on a long black list.
This is how Brian Mendler begins his book, Strategies for Successful Management. It’s also how we’re going to segue into how you can start harnessing the power of humor and use it to engage students and manage their behavior.
Back to Ms. Stevens and Miguel.
During class one day, Ms. Stevens asked the students to take out their notebooks and a pen so that they could take notes. Miguel refused. Instead, he crossed his arms and said, “I ain’t gonna do what you say you skinny, ugly (enter expletive).”
At this point, Ms. Stevens had a few options. She could write Miguel up (as she had already done 58 times), kick him out of class, do nothing, cry, yell or scream back. This time, Ms. Stevens chose none of the above. Why? Because they don’t work. Instead, she calmly walked up to Miguel, looked into his eyes, smiled and exclaimed, “You think I’m skinny? That’s the best news I’ve heard all year! Hang on everyone; I need to call my husband.”
The class erupted with laughter as Ms. Stevens pulled out her cell phone, dialed her husband, put him on speaker phone and shared the “good news.” For the first time in a year, Miguel was speechless. After a moment, he smiled and congratulated her. Then he pulled out his notebook and pen and started taking notes.
Humor is often seen as unsophisticated, unnecessary and something that undermines the seriousness of education. Laughter may be tolerated to some extent, but it’s not, at least generally speaking, nurtured in the classroom. But humor has significant benefits that can not only diffuse unnecessary confrontations, but give you an “out” when you make a mistake. Remember when you misspelled something on the whiteboard or forgot what day it was? Relax. Turn these mistakes into teachable moments for both you and the students. Before you dub yourself the king or queen of comedy, however, here are 5 dos and don’ts to consider.
Do amuse yourself & don’t sweat it when your joke falls flat
If you prefer subtle humor, chances are that it’s going to fly under the radar of most students—at least at first. Eventually they’ll catch on, but in the meantime, amuse yourself and carry on. Positivity is contagious. If you’re enjoying yourself, there’s a good chance that your students will too.
Don’t use humor to get a student out of a bad mood
Doing this means that you’ll be calling attention to the student’s behavior and singling her out. Unless you encounter a resistant student, someone you cannot get through to no matter what you try, always avoid singling him or her out.
Do use self-deprecating humor
Poke fun at your own mistakes—not your students’. Self-deprecating humor breaks down hierarchy and shows that you’re not afraid to make mistakes. Again, you should always avoid singling out a student unless you’ve exhausted all other approaches.
Don’t use unrelated humor—or at least keep it to a minimum
Distractions are detrimental to the process of learning, so skip—or at least minimize—the stuff that’s not directly related to academic content.
Do make intentional mistakes—and when you make unintentional mistakes, encourage students to laugh at them
We’ve said it before, but mistakes are an integral part of learning because they yield teachable moments. Embrace your mistakes and encourage your students to embrace (rather than hide) theirs, too.
To help you transform your classroom into a fresh, positive environment, check out our Bucket Filling guide. Inside, you'll find more creative ways to nurture kindness and respect in your students and their learning environment.