Monday, July 16, 2018

Teaching Funny

Can you teach funny?

Isn't language great? How did you read that sentence? Did did you read it asking if you can be funny when you teach? Or did you read it asking if you can teach someone how to be funny? How wonderfully those two questions connect to each other. One of the Big How To Teach lessons right now is Build Relationships. Connect with the kids. Have them enjoy being in class. This skews very closely to what some have called "edutainment".* Edutainment isn't what we do. The ratio of education to entertainment illustrated in that word is 3:8. Which illustrates what people think of when they hear the term. So let's not edutain, huh? We can be entertaining in class, but we're not there to entertain. Kids don't need a comedy routine to work hard and want to be at school. They're smarter than that.

Obvious Statement Alert- A good way to build relationships is to be funny. People like funny people, for the most part. I've got twitter mentions that say otherwise. (Int- Doug's Brain: Or maybe I'm just not funny. Could be that. Shut up, get back down into that box where I put you.) In class, laughter is a huge benefit. It's hard to not want to be where you are when you're laughing. It doesn't cut through everything and it doesn't solve every problem. I'd never suggest that. Laughter is a social lubricant. It makes other things easier. I hesitate to call it a tool though. Because teachers love tools. Teacher also love being taught how to use tools. If we label laughter or humor as an educational tool before you know it there will be some guy with a colorful bow tie standing in front of your staff professionally developing you on how to be Funny For Students. And just thinking about that makes me want to jab a whole drawer full of kitchen utensils into my eyes while listening to Creed give me a live, intimate concert.

"But Doug, aren't you The Weird Teacher? That's your Thing. You run professional developments called Teaching the Weird Way, don't you?" Why yes, hypothetical reader who knows a surprising amount about my professional development sessions. I do do that. Notice- It's not called "How To Be Funny." Weird, in my context, doesn't mean funny. It means, well, weird. Odd. Strange. Left of center. Slantwise and sideways and crossways. Unnormal. That will sometimes be funny, but the funny is a side effect of how I communicate, it's not the goal in the classroom. I would never subject a room of professionals to any kind of "Here's how to be funny" seminar. That's asking for a chair to be thrown at my head.

Trying, openly, to be funny for your students so they like you or want to be in your room- that's pandering. And kids are too savvy for that. They will see through your cutting room floor MadTV bit in less time than it takes for you to remember that MadTV was a thing. No, not the show with Jim Carey and Homey D. Clown, that was In Living Color.** Don't be Try Hard™. Be yourself. To answer one of the questions this started with- I have no idea if you can teach someone to be funny. I think you can teach timing to some extent, you can teach joke construction. But if you Try Hard™ you end up at Lt. Hauk. Don't be Lt. Hauk.

We all know there's more to funny in the classroom than timing and joke construction. Most of the time the stuff that's funny in a classroom isn't even "jokes". It's much closer to improv. Were I to design a teacher training curriculum I would include one semester of Acting 101 and a semester of Improv. Some of the introverts reading this just swallowed their tongues. But that's what we do all the time, all day. It's all tap dancing, yes and-ing, and playing off what we're given. We should train for that. My classroom is funny, but it's not because I'm up there doing bits. It's because I'm silly, I make myself laugh, and that gives the kids permission to do the same. Have you ever tried to tell someone not in education about something funny that happened in your classroom? They look at you like you're describing the dream you had last night and slowly inch towards someone else, anyone else. Teaching is alllll inside jokes. I would bet that by the end of each year you and your students have two dozen shared jokes that, to an observer, sound utterly mad. For example, my students and I last year were correcting some writing and the sample said "Put this phrase in the proper order - Wooden squeaky gate." We swapped wooden and squeaky and that would have been the end of it. Except I've got my mouth set to /run/ and said off-handedly, "You know, Squeaky Wooden Gate was the name of the band I was in in college." For literally the rest of the year kids were finding album and song titles in random things we did in class. Two promised to form a real band, name it Squeaky Wooden Gate, and dedicate their first album to me. I demanded royalties. They agreed, mostly because I didn't let them Google what royalties are.

This, by the way, also means that their ears are perked up more often and they're listening harder because they want in on the fun. Doesn't mean they want to chime in, but they wanna get it. It's important to make sure that happens to. We're not laughing at the kids. And not every joke is for the kids anyway, sometimes I say stuff just to tickle my brain. References that, in five years when they finally see Monty Python and the Holy Grail, will make them wonder for half a second why they knew that joke was coming.

This, I think, means I teach funny. My students would describe me as a funny teacher. But what they're actually describing is our room is fun. Our room is silly. I let things slide that others might not, and I encourage tripping down those side roads of conversation to see what we can see. Do I think I'm funny? Yeah, I do. I better, my second book is exclusively supposed to be funny about teaching. Not everyone agreed. Which is cool, humor is subjective. But writing a funny book is not the same as being a teacher, funny or otherwise.

I'm keeping that dude's dollar though.

Were I to try to teach a teacher to be funny, I'd approach it like I approach most other classroom soft skills- I start with "Be who you are. Unless you're an asshole. Then get out of the classroom." Be Who You Are covers a lot. Don't try to teach like anyone else. I don't encourage my student teachers to try and set the same tone I do. They wouldn't be able to. Not because I'm amazing and they aren't, but because my brain works differently than their brains. Plus, if you tell student teachers (or teacher teachers) "Try to be funny, then the kids will build a relationship with you easier" they'll immediately go Full Lt Hauk. Don't be like Lt. Hauk.

This relates directly back to my last post about Teacher Voice. Don't try to be anyone in your classroom but who you are, and let your kids be who they are. A funny teacher is nowhere because we aren't in this alone. We're not on stage with a brick wall behind us and a paying audience in front of us, there to laugh. We're all in this together. Don't think about which teachers are funny or silly or weird. Think about which rooms allow humanity to thrive. That's where you'll find the funny.

*Total aside- the Brazilian thrash metal band Sepultura called a song on their Nation album "Sepulnation". When asked about it in an interview, one of the members explained, "We think you can put Sepul- in front of just about anything and make it cooler." So every time I read edu- used as a straight-faced prefix I think about Brazilian thrash metal doing the same thing.

**For you youths who have no idea what I'm talking about, back in the BeforeTimes TV shows were on only at specific times and you had to watch them at that time or they were gone, we thought, forever. In Living Color was a sketch comedy show, like that YouTuber you think is funny, but with writers and a whole cast and production value. Hit up the YouTubes. Also- I have no idea if it holds up and there's probably a ton of what 2018 would call Problematic material that was still offensive when it came out, it through. Times change.

If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written three books about teaching- He’s the Weird TeacherTHE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome), and the just released A Classroom Of One. I’ve also written one novel- The Unforgiving Road. You should check them out, I’m even better in long form. I’m also on the tweets @TheWeirdTeacher.


  1. Thank you for encouraging each teacher to be who they are and when teachers allows students to do the same a great magic happens. I know your students love your class.

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