What do you get when you cross a teacher with an elephant?… A teacher you can never forget!

(First in a continuing series) I love to laugh, especially those big ones where your belly shakes and your eyes tear up. There have been many studies verifying the therapeutic value of laughing in developing well-being and reducing stress. Laughter and humor are basic elements of the human condition, and it has motivated me to think about the role of such a powerful element in the classroom. I know that I use humor all the time in class because it helps me be a better teacher!

When we think about our favorite instructors and consider what made them so memorable to us – we might find that many of them were funny?  Teachers who use wit and humor in their classrooms are often seen as more interesting and authentic. Humor can even help to foster the student-teacher relationship, which in turn creates a positive and welcoming classroom environment. When meeting with a new group of students, a well-placed joke or quip can go a long way towards setting the tone for the rest of the term. The best thing about the use of humor in the classroom is that even if your joke bombs, it still accomplishes the goal of appearing light-hearted – as long as you can laugh at yourself. Self-deprecating humor can be effective in demonstrating that a faculty member is fun and approachable.

Certainly we all enjoy having fun, and my humor, even if bad, does usually increase the fun quotient. But beyond the fun factor, humor can be an effective way to engage students and activate learning. A recent NEA Survey included the following powerful role that humor provides them in the classroom:

  • Create a Comfortable Learning Environment   When teachers share a laugh or a smile with students, they help students feel more comfortable and open to learning. Using humor brings enthusiasm, positive feelings, and optimism to the classroom.“Because I know that a good laugh eases tension, increases creativity, … I will do almost anything to get the class rolling with laughter — voice inflections, exaggerated facial expressions and movements, hilarious personal stories (of which I have way too many), ridiculous examples…and I encourage my students to do the same.”  — Kaywin Cottle, Speech Communications teacher (NEA Facebook)
  • Lighten the mood and reduce the tension Even if you’re not naturally funny, you still can lighten things up a bit. “In Health class, we learned the cerebellum is responsible for balance and coordination. When I trip over their backpacks, I might make a joke that my cerebellum is taking a nap.” –Deirdre Sexton (NEA Facebook)
  • Engaging the student  Every teacher’s goal is to be effective in the classroom and help students learn. Educators want their students to be eager and engaged. Humor has the power to fuel that engagement.
  • Maximizes Learning Fire Up Their Brains…. During her research on learning and humor, educator-researcher Mary Kay Morrison looked at brain scans that showed high levels of activity in multiple areas of the brain when humor was used in conversation and instruction. “We’re finding humor actually lights up more of the brain than many other functions in a classroom,” says Morrison, author of Using Humor to Maximize Learning. “In other words, if you’re listening just auditorily in a classroom, one small part of the brain lights up, but humor maximizes learning and strengthens memories.”
  • Being at ease The key thing to remember is to do what’s comfortable for you. Not only will it make you more approachable, it will also help put students more at ease in your classroom.

 I use storytelling as a main part of my classroom delivery, a subject of a later blog posting, but the humor, no matter how corny serves a variety of positive functions beyond simply making people laugh. Humor builds group (as in class) cohesion. People respond more positively to each other when humor is present. It brings them together. Humor can facilitate cohesion by softening criticism. I work hard in class to stimulate discussion and interaction, helping students take the risk of expressing their point of view. It is much easier to do so when the mood is inviting and less threatening.

Research also establishes that humor helps individuals cope with stress. It relaxes them. But not all the functions of humor are positive. Humor used divisively or to disparage others weakens group cohesion. Humor has negative impacts when it is used as a means of control. For example, given the power dynamic in the classroom, it is highly inappropriate for instructors to target students by making fun of their ignorance or beliefs.

Not every instructor feels comfortable being funny and I would never suggest they add jokes to their lectures. But you can quote funny stories from other people or use materials that contain humor to accomplish similar advantages. And whatever else you say about humor, whether you agree with me or not, you have to admit that there is nothing like a hearty laugh!


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