Laughter is the shortest distance between two people. —Victor Borge
My seventh graders were coming back into the classroom from lunch to the accompaniment of an upbeat jazz tune on my snazzy new cassette player. One of the students came through the doorway and stopped; he tapped his foot and started “playing the trumpet” along with the jazz quintet. I immediately grabbed a “stand-up bass” and closed my eyes as I got into the groove. When I opened my eyes, we had our own quintet at the front of the room, playing with abandon as the song concluded with a flourish. The rest of the kids were laughing, dancing, or (for those of a more serious bent) shaking their heads in bewilderment. The “musicians” (a couple of whom were actually in the school jazz band) were all laughing and giving each other high fives after our rendition of a jazz tune, the title of which I have long forgotten. But I still remember the moment; I can still vividly picture the scene two-and-a-half decades later.
Teachers often ask me how they can raise the energy levels of their classrooms. I tell them the energy is already there, waiting to be tapped. In my book From Seatwork to Feetwork I explain that the problem often is that in teacher-centered classrooms, the information flow often moves from the teacher like window-washing cleaner with the bottle set on “spray.” Students spend their time listening (or smiling at the teacher while traveling to some remote location in their minds), while real and appropriate humor may be as rare as green fescue on our lawn in August. The energy is there—in that classroom—waiting for the bell to ring or a fire drill, at which moment the students’ brains broadcast, “We take you now to your regularly scheduled program.” That program, of course, lies outside the four walls of the classroom.
There are two types of classroom humor: appropriate (people laughing with everyone else, as we all did in my classroom for the impromptu jazz concert on that long-ago afternoon) and inappropriate, that which “humiliates, ridicules, or alienates” (Powell and Kusuma-Powell, 2010, p. 27). When students laugh at classmates, someone is hurt, and the positive energy evaporates quickly, along with the credibility of a teacher who lets it happen, then lets it go. Sarcasm will bring both smiles and personal pain (not a good balance), and falls in the category of “Things that demotivate kids.” Keep the humor appropriate and it will raise energy levels—including yours as a teacher. Inappropriate humor will serve as a submersible pump, draining the energy from the room.
I have heard veteran teachers give this piece of well-meaning but off-the-mark advice to those new to the profession: “Don’t smile until Christmas!” My experience is that teachers who follow this advice won’t smile after Christmas, either. They may not be there after Christmas, having discovered that being in a room without smiles day after day keeps the doctor—or the psychiatrist—close. The smiles should commence on day one of school, or on the phone with parents prior to that first contact with kids.
Hattie and Yates (2014) report that “genuine smiling is among the most powerful tools a teacher can use to advantage.” Students are nothing if not perceptive, however, and a teacher whose smile seems forced or faked will find herself at a disadvantage when it comes to credibility. “Smiling that occurs too frequently, is badly timed, goes on for too long, or involves obvious deliberation, runs risk of being perceived in a negative frame” (p. 265). When I am in high-functioning and high-energy classrooms, the smiles are as frequent and relaxed as they are genuine. The smiles come easy in classrooms where students feel comfortable in their relationships, confident in their abilities, and cooperative and collaborative—not competitive—in their habits.
My experience is that students respond well to teachers willing to laugh at themselves and their foibles. (They may laugh at the word foibles.) Teachers who are not willing to laugh at themselves publicly can’t expect students to laugh at—and laugh off—their own foibles or their own mistakes. I know teachers who will make a running gag out of something they did or a mistake they made, mixing laughter and humility in the process. A seminar participant once told me about a teacher who could not find her glasses; they were on her head. She laughed along with the entire class, and every once in a while she would pat the top of her head to make sure they were still there, ready for retrieval—producing, as intended, more laughter at her expense—and raising the energy level in the process. The writer William Arthur Ward said, “To make mistakes is human; to stumble is commonplace; to be able to laugh at yourself is maturity.” It also bonds you to your students.
Speaking of mistakes: Just as we need to build in time for laughter, we need to build in time for failure—and lighten up on what I call rightanswermania. Our culture of testing makes students, as they get older at least, look on mistakes as something bad, as something to be avoided. Modern businesses don’t see mistakes as mistakes; they see each error or failure as just one more necessary iteration. (Do I hear 2.0, anyone?) Life is not a multiple-choice test, where the answer sits right there, waiting to be found (and perhaps waiting for you to get the glasses off your head). Basketball shares something with life in general: It is messy. The coach wants players to make mistakes and make them early on, where they can be identified and turned to the team’s advantage. Mistakes are the lifeblood of improvement.
In classrooms, however, students are often afraid to make mistakes and to fail. Magiera (2017), recommends teachers provide more opportunities for students to experience failure. “When we over-scaffold for our kids to make sure they are constantly experiencing success, never allowing them to feel moments of failure, we rob them of this opportunity to learn from mistakes and iterate” (p. 49). Many a coach has told me he or she learns far more from mistakes than from success, but many a teacher says, “Well, you made a mistake; better luck next time. Don’t feel too bad about it.” Let’s train students not to feel bad about them at all. I agree with Magiera, who says we ought to encourage and celebrate mistakes as necessary iterations on the continuous-improvement highway. As we’ve seen, teachers can help by talking about their own mistakes, and even laughing about them.
For those teachers who wonder if there is any energy in their classrooms, I encourage them to scratch the surface with a smile, a bit of appropriate humor, and frequent laughter. Laughter is there for the doing, and energy is there—just below the surface—for the tapping. Be willing to lighten up on the making of mistakes. Provide and thus encourage a plethora of smiles. Be willing to laugh at yourself while making every effort to make sure you and your students take the time to smile and laugh together in a classroom climate safe for a little toe tapping and even a jazz “quintet.” Better to end the day tapping your toes in delight, rather than scratching your head in befuddlement only to locate your glasses.
Hattie, J. & Yates, G. (2014). Visible learning and the science of how we learn. New York: Routledge.
Magiera, J. (2017). Courageous edventures: Navigating obstacles to discover classroom innovation. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Powell, W. & Kusuma-Powell, O. (2010). Becoming an emotionally intelligent teacher. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.