I cringed at what the teacher had done: laughed at a student. It’s fun sometimes to joke about students when they’re in on the joke.
“Hey. Korral,” I waved to the Korean intern English teacher whilst I filled my cup with water at the drinking fountain. “Please remember, don’t laugh at the students.” Whether it was because she was younger than me or she understood her mistake, she replied in the affirmative that she would not do it again. “I know, they say funny things sometimes, but you have to bite your tongue, literally, if needs be, because the students want to enjoy being in class. So joke, but don’t joke.”
The overhead screen was displaying dialogue between a boy and girl talking about the haircut that led to the boy wanting to wear a hat.
The question, as one would guess, was why did the boy wear a hat after his haircut? Some students couldn’t figure it out. I roughed up my dirty blond hair, and with a dab of water from my water cup, brought to life the just-woken-up-hair look.
“I just got a haircut. It’s a new style,” my hands waved over the hairdo. The students, as expected, laughed gleefully. “Hmm. Not sure why you’re laughing. You guys think it’s not a good style?” My eyebrows raised in mock startlement. “Oh. Then should I wear a hat instead?”
“Yeah, teacher. You wear hat. Big hat, teacher! Big, big hat!” Their laughter faded as their understanding of the concept grew. One student, because there’s almost always a clown who pounces on an opportunity to joke, tousled his own hair in imitation. “Teacher, I have same.”
“Oh,” I didn’t laugh because he’s a sensitive kid, more so than his peers, “you’re looking good.” This was why my smile and a thumbs up were as far as the limit would go before his tears came.
Suddenly, from the back of the room, Korral exploded in laughter. Though her outburst wasn’t meant as heartless, one by one, the bobble-head sized adolescent bodies turned in their chairs to stare at the unfathomable laughter. Was it laughter at the boy, Tom, their teacher, Brian, or all of us?
“Sorry,” her chortling and repeated word were muffled in embarrassment behind a quicky raised hand. Despite it being her country, her culture, and her home city, she simply didn’t know.
A girl, Shelly, looked up at me for an immediate response, as if my reaction would provide the absolute best way to socially view the situation. “Oh, she’s laughing at my hair. The teacher’s hair is strange-e,” I purposefully accented the last word like how most Koreans say it, to better connect with the students. I told them what they needed to hear and the next day, I told the other teacher what she needed to hear.
Laugh at Yourself
False self-deprecation is pretending to not know, but (most) students will know you are joking.
- “Two and two equals three, of course!” said with a knowing smile, will get the students to want to focus after laughing to “fix” the “mistake” the supposed expert teacher makes.
Do this only after you have established credibility.
Self-deprecation is making a real mistake, because we are human, and laughing about it instead of letting it become a disaster.
- “I don’t understand, the internet was working in the other room.” When replied to by a student saying the ethernet cable isn’t plugged in, you can either harumph with a snarl or chuckle with a grin.
Don’t do it on purpose, students will see right through pretention.
Laugh at the Content
Ridiculous text has a lot of potential to connect with students through joking.
- ‘Tasty arm’ as a lousy translation for ‘tasty ham’ can make for a funny explanation (after explaining that it should be ‘ham’) of “Shelly, she probably has a tasty arm, huh?”
If Shelly is sensitive about how her arms looks, it’s a bit of a no-no.
Ridiculous pictures are super easy to use for lightly making fun of yourself, and then others.
- The cat with bulging muscles is great fodder for pointing out that it looks like you. And after you established good rapport with students, you can say that it looks like an individual student.
Start with complimentary pictures to say that it looks like a particular student. Don’t look like you gave it much thought, it should be very much touch-and-go, indicative of a light-hearted rapport. For advance practice, you can say a complimentary character looks like a fellow (thick-skinned) teacher.
Outsmart the Clown
A student rattling on with an insult or joke—is a waste of time. So, utter a quip that other students can appreciate and laugh about. The goal is to have students laugh with you about the clown’s actions, rather than the clown himself, AKA, enforcing social behavior.
- “I don’t want to be here” and a loud sigh. Respond grinningly to the student with, “If I didn’t do classwork, I wouldn’t want to be here either.”
Make sure you know what is not insulting, not going to get you in trouble, and don’t use sarcasm. Also, tone is important, it should be at least a little light.
A student who distracts and whines doesn’t need a chair, or should be in the back.
- “Tom, let me see your chair, there’s something wrong with it,” and take the chair aside, to then say, “this chair is for a student who does their work.” Then, for added measure if the student keeps whining, “Ah, this sure is a nice chair to sit in.” And nod your head with hands clasped behind your back. The other option, for consistent distracting, is to simply have the student sitting in the back of the class, out of sight and out of mind of distractable students.
This can backfire if a: the student is aggressive enough or b: the student has ADD/ADHD. Otherwise, you have the class impressed, chuckling, and on your side in socially condemning bad behavior. Better done at the beginning of class for maximum effect. Nevertheless, give the chair back when appropriate.
Non-empathetic students will not laugh at your jokes most of the time, even if they really are good. Aim for building their empathy.
- “Well, I just don’t understand what’s happening here” is a phrase to start the motion. Follow it with, “Ha, guess I’m on my own, I don’t think anyone will know what to do, I don’t think anyone can help.” Said with a chuckle at the end will often get the students who have behavioral/emotional issues to act. Usually, they’ll just come over and help you with whatever needs assistance (technology, missing pen/pencil/textbook, having fallen down, unsure what page the class is on, etc.).
Those students help because they see beyond the fear of peer pressure and will want to show their capability.
Ready to help with a smiling laugh even if the students have a fake smile and/or fake laugh.
- “Ha,” is difficult to detect with certain students for whether they are enjoying or struggling with something. Asking students all the time, “Do you understand?” is annoying for all parties. “Shelly, you’re finished already!?” said with a smile will elicit a contented response that shows they enjoyed finishing quickly, or a fake laugh and obvious body language that shows struggling for you to then help.
It’s important here to be consistent in your response to either one. “Ha-all right, let’s see what you got” will keep other students from knowing whether there’s an issue. Show that either way, you’re enjoying seeing, or possibly helping with, their work.
Controlled, this will get the students to really connect with you. You’re more than just a teaching machine.
- Whatever the student joke is, as long as it’s class appropriate and is appropriately timed, you can laugh. Laughing uproariously is what some students aim for getting you to do. “Does this dress make me look fat?” asked the girl in the textbook’s dialogue. “Yes,” was the other girl’s reply. When the students in pairs practiced the robotic conversation, and a couple boys pretended to be very into it with mocking gestures, laugh. Laugh a lot. Let the students know it’s fun to have fun.
Make sure the joking is actually funny. This will guide the students toward sociable timeliness and what’s acceptable, especially when they really try and/or expect you to laugh at something inappropriate and you don’t.
Uncontrolled, well, you should try to avoid it.
- For students laughing a lot, on the other hand, don’t be apathetic. Even if the root was from meanly making fun of another student, it’s still wise to show empathy to the laughing student. With a smile, say, “Tom, if you need to go outside for a moment, that’s fine.” Or the more forceful, “Tom, go outside and come back when you’re ready. After class, we’re going to talk.”
Having a real laugh attack or fit of giggles, and you, the adult, won’t much mind. When you’re a pre-university student, it’s much more embarrassing. Don’t add to their embarrassment.
In the end, have fun with the class, but never at a student’s expense, even at the university and adult levels. So, how do you teach through using laughter to make the class enjoyable for you and your students?