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How (and Why) to Use Humor in the Classroom

By Dave Stuart Jr.

Laughter is not just laughter. It's the most fundamental sign of safety and connection.

— Daniel Coyle, The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups

Have you ever had one of those awkward moments where you tell your students a joke or share with them something that you think is funny, only to have them stare at you like you're dumb?

If your answer is no, then you can stop reading because you're better than me. Go read a blog by someone who is more consistently funny please. 🙂

This school year alone, I've had at least a dozen of these moments. It happens to me plenty. I want you to picture awkwardness, to feel it in your bones — that is what it feels like.

The thing is, I still try to laugh with my students and to get them laughing. Why? Because I love them and because humor is a key ingredient to great teaching.

Why humor is a key ingredient to great teaching

As David Sousa explains in How the Brain Learns, injecting humor into your classroom gives various physiological benefits to your students.

  • Laughter adds oxygen to the bloodstream, which is good for the brain.
  • Laughter causes the release of endorphins, which give kids a feeling of euphoria. (Which means humor is a kind of drug. But a legal one. And you can give it to kids. And it's not evil.)
  • Humor also, according to Sousa's research, “decreases stress, modulates pain, decreases blood pressure, relaxes muscle tension, and boosts immune defenses” (p. 73).

But humor is also motivational in that it can help us establish the five key beliefs in our kids.

Consider:

  • When we're capably humorous (as I confessed, I'm still working on this), it demonstrates a form of competence to our kids. Competence is one of the Cs in the CCP of credibility. It shows the students, “Hey, this person knows stuff. She is good at things.”
  • When people laugh together, it enhances their sense of belonging with the group. This sense of belonging makes it easier for our students to align their identities with the kind of work we ask them to do in the classroom.
  • Humor dampens hostility and aggression — two things that can very quickly blow up your classroom management plan or mess up these senses in your students that you Care (the other C in CCP).

And finally, there are cognitive benefits. As professor Daniela Jeder discusses in the journal Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences (pdf here), in addition to humor's motivational benefits, it also:

  • “maintains attention,”
  • “arouses curiosity of pupils” (that's the value belief, by the way),
  • “requests thinking,”
  • “develops critical thinking,”
  • “develops the skill of nuanced communication,”
  • “eliminates boredom,” and
  • “has a role in socialization.”

And there's one last thing: joy. Laughter cultivates the joy that should come when we're with other people doing something good. And every day that we get to be in a class with our kids and try to learn something that's tough — that's a beautiful thing. That's a situation where joy can live. Laughter helps increase the frequency of those moments of mutual joy in the classroom.

Beautiful. Okay, but what about people who aren't funny?

But, Dave, I'm not funny!

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know. Your students have been emailing me telling me the same thing.

Listen: humor, like anything, is a learnable skill. Here are five ways to up your funny game:

  1. Read this book by David Nihill. I've read some of it, and it's awesome. And if you read the subtitle and think, “Well, c'mon though — I'm not a public speaker, Dave,” then my answer is, “Wrong! You are. You're a teacher. We speak to the public every day.”
  2. When kids ask on a quiz if they can get extra credit for doing something extra, say, “No, but you can get a unicorn.” And then actually have some kid draw unicorns on the papers of the kids who do the extra thing. Trust me — someone will volunteer to do this unicorn drawing.
  3. Study and apply this video, which unpacks two areas for humor improvement: content and delivery.
  4. Speaking of content and delivery, re-read Erik Palmer's classic, Well Spoken. I know you've already read it once (right?), but you should read it again, this time from the perspective of, “How can I be funnier?” It'll make you a better teacher, and a funnier teacher, and a more effective teacher of speaking.
  5. Beware the pitfalls of humor. It's possible for humor to hurt what you're trying to do in your classroom. Which leads us to…

And here's the warning label

All the literature on humor in the classroom warns against certain kinds of humor, particularly sarcasm.

Now if you're like a good chunk of my smart, witty readership, that probably makes you think, “Dave, c'mon now — sarcasm is fine as long as everyone gets it.”

Is it, though? And I ask this as someone who has gone through heavily sarcastic periods of life.

More next time.

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