Even introverted teachers can manipulate their body language, use a range of facial expressions, and adjust their volume and tone. Adding humour to that mix is the icing on the cake – personality wise. A short quip can slice through even intense situations. Many a beginning teacher struggling with a challenging behavioural issue has been rescued by an experienced teacher who arrived on the scene to defuse the situation by cracking a joke. A stand-off can be de-escalated instantly, even with a lame ‘dad’ joke.
As a behaviour management technique, humour does not seek to induce fits of laughter.
Applying humour as a tactic can be thought of in 3 unique ways. First, there is simple light-heartedness; not taking everything so seriously. For example, you may have witnessed a teacher who ‘lost their mind’ after hearing a child swear. Ignoring the wider environment within which the child exists (he or she may live in a world where aggression and swearing is normalised), many teachers seem to be overly sensitive to swearing. When a student uses a swear word, these teachers unleash a public torrent of rage – a combination of panic, offence and seething anger. They believe they should react this way but don’t stop to ask themselves why. Partly this is because they are simply doing what other teachers do (or what they think other teachers do), and partly because they have never considered in advance what they plan on doing in such situations. Their natural reaction is to respond as if a student was abusing them directly. There are a few problems with this reaction, however. How do other students fair in this situation? Not well. Does it prevent future swearing any more than any other behaviour management techniques? No.
Hint: Students prefer teachers with a sense of humour and who add a sense of fun to the lesson (Davidson, 1999; Woolfolk et al., 2006). Humour should not be abusive or harmful in any way and belittling sarcasm should be avoided (Spitalli, 2005).
What could the teacher do alternatively? What options are there? What does a professional, strategic, effective approach look like? What do you think the world’s best teacher would do? One possible path is to use a bit of humour for now, and delay the remainder of the response, ‘Alex, you’re not a pirate so don’t speak like one please, if you are a pirate, I want some gold coins on my desk – are you a pirate and where are your gold coins? We’ll have a quick chat at the end of the lesson.’. Sounds really silly right? But it works and the class breathes a sigh of relief when the expected angry tirade is replaced with a lame joke – the lesson continues unabated.
Let’s ask some rhetorical questions about this example. Was the teacher stressed or out of control? Did the situation escalate? Was the learning of other students affected? Did the student seamlessly get back on task without feeling devastated, embarrassed and intimidated? Did the student’s opinion of the teacher improve or decrease? The teacher’s silly joke sidestepped a potential conflict that could have led to the involvement of senior staff, parent meetings, suspensions and another step towards teacher burnout. But in fact, the exact opposite happened, and the teacher’s reaction actually enhanced the student-teacher relationship. This is the best chance the teacher has of reducing the risk of repeated offending – why? Students behave better for teachers they like, especially challenging students who often cling to 1 ‘chosen’ teacher.
As you can see, humour does not require the teacher to be a laugh-out-loud comedian. Few teachers have the ability to regularly ‘crack jokes’ that make students laugh. As a behaviour management technique, humour does not seek to induce fits of laughter. Students should not be rolling around on the floor laughing – that would in fact be distracting. The best type of teacher-humour is mellow – the goal is an eye-roll. You know your humour has been effective when students say things like ‘that is so not funny Sir’ or ‘you have the worst jokes ever Miss’ – this is code for ‘you are my favourite teacher’ and ‘we have enough rapport that I feel that I can tell you that your jokes suck’ and ‘I really like being in this class as you make it fun’.
Of course, using humour does not mean a lackadaisical or laissez-faire approach to behaviour management. The teacher sets rules, explains expectations and follows through on consequences on each and every occasion – students are not permitted to run amok by any means. What a teacher can do however, is turn humour on and off as needed. A quick joke can be easily followed by a stern, low-volume instruction such as ‘back to your seat please, Captain Jack’.
Hint: Rapport is ‘credit in the bank’. Save it for a rainy day and spend it when needed.
Earlier you read that there are 3 categories of classroom humour. We have discussed the main type – general light-heartedness. Second, there are actual jokes. These are usually stock-standard responses that teachers collect over their career (and steal from other teachers – which is perfectly acceptable). Obviously, a word of warning here – jokes need to be age, teacher and situationally appropriate. A funny jibe from one teacher might be considered very inappropriate from another. Here is a classic example: a student asks, ‘Can I go to the toilet’, the teacher replies, ‘not in here, it smells’. That response is probably not suitable for lower grades or some students with special needs, but certainly okay for high school students when said in the right way – eye-rolling will ensue. Repeat jokes as often as you like – the more often the better. They keep the general mood light and can give you and your class an inside joke that helps build rapport.
The third type of humour is to be done very, very carefully and only after you know your students quite well. It is when you playfully make fun of a student. When done lightly and carefully, without embarrassing the student or causing offence, it can solidify a relationship while pointing out undesirable behaviour. A good way to approach this is to actually complement a student. For example, ‘Peter, I know you’re a fashionista, but I will be donating your very expensive looking gangster hat to the homeless shelter if you wear it inside again’.
Hint: Teachers talk a lot – probably more than any other profession. You will occasionally say things that you wish you could take back. When this happens, and it will, privately apologise at some point. Simply say, ‘sorry Miranda, I should not have said that – very unprofessional of me even as a joke’. Students will respect you for treating them like adults and they are extremely forgiving.
Again, be very cautious when using humour and in particular this final type – you will get a feel for when it is appropriate and when you have a good enough relationship to pull it off. You don’t want to be called to the principal’s office because an irate parent has called to complain that you upset their son or daughter. Finally, if this type of humour is not ‘your thing’ and doesn’t suit your personality, school, teaching style or current level of confidence, then don’t even go there – there are a myriad of other techniques available to you that are just as effective.
Humour is the number 1 tactic for de-escalating very intense situations such as stand-offs. Fully embroiled in the moment, a teacher may mistakenly feel that a stand-off is as serious as the Cuban missile crisis – their career, reputation and everything they have worked for is on the line. On reflection, this is not the case and teachers have better things to do such as helping other students to learn – probably their most important task in actual fact. Becoming entangled in a battle of wills over something that is otherwise trivial (such as a student refusing to move) is a lose-lose-lose situation (for the ‘offending’ student, other students and yourself). Carefully chosen words and a but of humour goes a long way to resolving these types of situations. Like water off a duck’s back, shake off a student’s challenge by responding with humour – then, go back to what you are paid to do – teach!
Hint: Humour to a teacher is like a wrench to a plumber – an essential tool used each and every day – something you don’t want to leave home without.
Davidson, A. L. (1999). Negotiating social differences: Youths’ assessments of educators’ strategies. Urban Education, 34(3), 338–369.
Woolfolk Hoy, A., & Weinstein, C. S. (2006). Student and teacher perspectives on classroom management. In C. M. Evertson & C. S. Weinstein (Eds.), Handbook of classroom management: Research, practice, and contemporary issues (pp. 181-219). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Spitalli, S. J. (2005). The dont's of school discipline. Education digest: Essential readings condensed for quick review, 70(5): 28–31.
Adam Green is an advisor to government, a registered teacher, an instructional designer and a #1 best selling author. He is completing a Doctor of Education and was previously head of department for one of the country’s largest SAER (students at educational risk) schools. Adam is managing director of ITAC, an accredited training provider for thousands of teacher aides every year.
Source: Behaviour Management Skills and Strategies for the Modern Classroom: 100+ research-based strategies for both novice and experienced practitioners.
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