Teaching with humour is no joke

A sense of fun goes a long way for learning, says Jo Brighouse - but tell that to Ofsted

Jo Brighouse

Something really weird happened during our last Ofsted inspection. At the end of my lesson observation the inspector said: "I like your sense of humour with the children. It is really good to see a teacher having a joke with them."

I didn't know whether to share my favourite Ofsted joke with him or see if we could have him stuffed and framed as a rare example of Ofsted with a smile on its face. Anyone who is familiar with its work knows that the words "Ofsted" and "sense of humour" are as synonymous as McDonald's and veganism.

The inspectorate's mantra of driving up standards through challenging poor performance is hardly a laughing matter and the new boss Sir Michael Wilshaw does not look like a man you would take to the pantomime.

In fact, such is their reputation that normally you would be as tempted to have a laugh with an inspector in the room as you would be to make terrorist jokes with a US immigration officer. However, I think severe sleep deprivation and general hysteria made me forget myself and soon we were laughing our way through decimals and percentages oblivious to the clipboard in the corner (one bonus of teaching primary-aged children is that your lamest attempts at humour are automatically hilarious).

I'm sure previous generations of teachers used to have fun. For example, when my dad's school was inspected, the inspectors were full of admiration for a cake a Chinese parent had sent in, delighting in the close links it showed between school and parents, and blissfully unaware that the Chinese writing actually said "bugger off, Ofsted".

But no one in teaching mentions a sense of humour these days. We used to have one in our school but it has been more or less swept away under a tidal wave of lesson observations and endless requests for spreadsheets. Anyway, to laugh away your problems with colleagues requires time to talk to them and we mostly spend our lunchtimes frantically marking or having meetings about assessment.

Irony is also out the door, which became apparent when Ofsted's anti-bullying week was announced in a staff meeting and nobody so much as raised an eyebrow.

This, in short, makes the job more earnest, more arduous and ultimately a bit depressing. Nearly all the teachers I know have a good sense of humour and an ability to laugh at themselves, but they are generally too browbeaten to do much of either.

Educational theorists and psychologists have done plenty of research into the link between humour and learning. You can't move in a Waterstones education section for books highlighting the proven link between laughter and learning. I don't claim to understand the science but I think the general idea is that if you are relaxed and having fun you are more likely to pick stuff up.

Surely this theory is no different for teachers? Teachers laden down with paperwork and with their head's menacing demand to "get the levels up or else" ringing in their ears are unlikely to be entering the classroom with a spring in their step. We are too exhausted for awe and wonder. You need space to be creative, and this space is rapidly being filled with spreadsheets.

Ofsted seems to have missed this point. Like the wind in the fable it thinks the only way to get the man's coat off is to blow harder. Even the language it uses - for example, "drive" up standards - speaks all stick and no carrot. Yes, it advocates fun and inspiring lessons but it is buried in deep with detailed assessment, planning and other enervating tasks. If Ofsted put more emphasis on making teaching fun for the children maybe heads would be less afraid to cut back on paperwork and give the teachers more space to breathe in the classroom.

Oh, and my favourite Ofsted joke?

Q: Why should all Ofsted inspectors be buried 6ft underground?

A: Because deep down they are nice people.

Jo Brighouse teaches at a primary school in the Midlands.

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Jo Brighouse

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