Crazy times in the house of fun

8th March 1996 at 00:00
For many teachers, the workload at school has become a joke. So, asks Alan Combes, why aren't we laughing?

Last autumn the American director of The Humour Project, Joel Goodman, gave a presentation at Leeds Civic Hall on humour "as a lifeskill". Very Californian, many of us thought, but after swallowing our West Coast aversion, the question was: how could we use humour in running schools more effectively?

One of Goodman's examples was the style of management at South West Airlines. He said it is highly profitable compared with other American domestic flight companies: "Staff are quite zany. You're likely to find them in overhead luggage containers when you board. When they do the in-flight presentation on emergency regulations, they've developed an alternative routine which has the passengers falling about."

If a flight arrives late, Goodman told us, South West offers free air miles to passengers with, for example, the biggest hole in their socks. "Humour is part of the fabric of that organisation."

Well, I'm not sure I'd want to find the deputy head secreted in my staffroom locker of a morning, or whether I should go through the fire drill wearing a frogman's outfit, but I get his drift.

To Goodman, humour is a business and he directs it from his head office in Saratoga Springs, New York state, where he provides workshops and on-site consultations for middle and senior managers, largely in health and education. His visit to Britain coincided with the news that those of us who've got jobs are working longer hours and harder than ever. "It can't go on like this, " he said. But if it did, managers should "make work a better place to be."

Goodman's central tenet is that good managers create strategies which incorporate a smile or a laugh. It is essential to good mental health. Successful American companies like Ben Jerry's Ice Cream make use of visual aids - badges with apposite messages, cards and cartoons posted about the workplace.

Although such devices are probably alien to British culture, they may have their uses. After a series of dreary Wednesday morning faculty meetings, one of our deputy heads brought in a tiny contraption which emitted a vulgar noise in the middle of yet another pregnant pause. It may have been a ridiculous thing to do, but at least it caused a laugh and change of atmosphere.

Pupils can remind us that humour works in the classroom. They often refer to teachers as "a good laugh", but that's a label I've always treated cautiously, wondering whether it just meant we are too easy on them. But perhaps pupils are simply saying they prefer to be greeted by a smiling face and they appreciate a teacher who helps them relax.

As for badges, I recall early in my teaching career wearing a different one each day on my lapel. The pupils loved them and they made good conversation-openers, but then a senior teacher took agin them. Now, as the pressures of work mount, I see colleagues worn down and worried. When humour is most needed, it seems least accessible. That has to be wrong.

Instead of allowing the nation's teachers to suffocate beneath a tidal wave of Individual Education Plans, the Government would be better advised to create Individual Laughter Plans for every teacher. This plan might even include one of Joel Goodman's recommended humour strategies which is to "Think of the public personality who most makes you laugh and regard that person as your internal humour ally". This means you should think of this person whenever you are faced with a stern, stress-inducing situation and ask yourself how they would make fun of it.

Schools today seems to be in such a permanent state of siege, that every teacher's face seems to say: "I haven't got time to laugh". But a sense of humour is also a sense of proportion. Not being afraid of laughter is a good starting point for any teacher. If you are uneasy with it, pupils will sense this and are more likely to use humour to challenge your control.

In some situations it is even possible to build light-hearted moments or activities into the learning structure. What's wrong with a new tutor group starting each day with a joke? Photocopied cartoons may decorate a noticeboard and encourage discussion of what makes people laugh.

But these are devices rather than attitude changes. If there is a true sense of democracy in the classroom, if the students are made to feel valued as individuals and acknowledged as unique characters, humour will flow quite naturally. The same can be said for staffrooms.

Good management appreciates staff as individuals as well as members of a team. This can include encouraging them to put on a comic performance (maybe for pupils), or accentuating the funny side of school rather than the negative. I've even heard of staff organising a "Fantasy Tutor Group" competition along the lines of Fantasy Football League. What about a "Nightmare Tutor Group" too?

But, of course, you don't have time for this frivolity. And if that is truly how you feel, getting some humour into your life is all the more important. Laughing together is good for corporate health but is also a useful weapon; bad ideas are best laughed out of court.

Alan Combes teaches at Pindar School, Scarborough

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