'It’s often forgotten: humour is a brilliant way of mastering classroom management'

Deployed correctly – and without too much horseplay – humour can be a key weapon in the successful teacher’s arsenal

Thomas Rogers

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Last week, Tom Bennett, writing for TES, was bemoaning the lack of focus on classroom craft, particularly at ITT level. I would argue that there is a neglect of the nuts and bolts of teaching at all levels. There seems to be a distinct trend towards talking about student progress, how students can make more progress and developing tools to ensure progress, whether that be feedback stamps, progress trackers or DIRT marking resources. Social media is awash with brilliant ideas on how to incorporate these things into classroom practice.

However, notably, it’s rarer to find much on teaching technique being shared. And I don’t mean growth mindset slogans plastered over sunsets or soundbites from educational consultants. I mean real advice, guidance and instruction on how to build a genuine and deep classroom learning environment using assertiveness, planning for behaviour and classroom routines. It would seem there is a tendency to overlook the simple things as being too simple to discuss. It seems the preference is to spend time discussing complex ways to assess and manage a curriculum.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t help the teacher who is suffering a crisis of confidence, as they endure a torrid time with a particular class or a number of classes. I was speaking to one the other day: an NQT left to flounder and panic by her senior leadership team and offered little in terms of genuine support or additional training. With some simple yet effective help, this teacher could turn things around very quickly.

One of the most popular stories on TES at the moment relates to how to manage low-level disruption. This surely tells us something. The profession is crying out for a back-to-basics approach.

I believe that one of the least talked about aspects of classroom management is the use of humour. It's hugely underrated. In 2009, Helga Kotthoff, of the University of Freiburg in Germany, claimed that the ability to make others laugh confers a degree of control which dominant people exploit to show they are in charge. She said: “"For example, doctors sometimes use humour to comfort patients but also to silence them if, for example, the patient displays too much knowledge of a medical condition.”

Now, what’s interesting about this is it ties in with plenty of research that suggests humour is the most effective mode of social control. So, what’s to stop it being one of the most effective forms of classroom control?

'It's not a popularity contest'

By saying this, I’m certainly not suggesting we want to “control” and manipulate individual students – absolutely not – nor that we should train teachers on how to make jokes *lol*. However, the classroom itself, as an evolving entity, does require control, manipulation and careful nurturing. Humour, used in the right way, can be absolutely transformative. 

The question is, when to use it and when not to.

DO create rapport with individual students by creating ongoing laughs. Remember, people don’t remember what you say, but how you make them feel. Make a student feel important and valued by finding out what they are interested in, whether that be a football team or a particular band, and start some gentle banter around the subject. Return to this time and again.

DON’T make jokes at a student’s expense. Some new teachers are conned by the Department for Education teacher training adverts which suggest “banter” is “what teaching is all about”; that being constantly on the lookout for laughs is what popular teachers do. But this isn’t a popularity contest.

DO use gentle humour to diffuse situations. My old boss was great at this. He could literally diffuse a child’s rage within minutes with a simple anecdote. Even if it wasn’t particularly funny, the fact that he was laughing made the student laugh. Once you get the endorphins going, move back to the more serious stuff of what you want from the student.

DON’T use humour at the wrong time. I’ve done this before. All the students are taking a test, in silence. You say or do something. It creates a distraction. Time is wasted. Note to self: this is not a stand-up comedy set, it’s a classroom where students are meant to learn.

DON’T try to be someone you’re not. If you prefer dry and sardonic wit, go with that. If you are slapstick and bold, go with that. Whatever you are, go with it and embrace it. Don’t try and be like the “super-cool” teacher in the next room where there are constant roars of laughter.

This last one is perhaps the most important when it comes to deploying humour in the classroom: just be yourself.

Tom Rogers runs rogershistory.com and tweets at @RogersHistory

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Thomas Rogers

Thomas Rogers is a history teacher

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