Heard the one about the teacher who thought they were a comedian?

18th December 2009 at 00:00
Forget the wisecracking pupil at the back of the room; it seems it's the adult at the front who wants to be class clown - and some even go on to professional careers in showbiz. But is `edutainment' ever more than a bit of a laugh?

The unfunny teacher who constantly tries to be funny is arguably one of the most uncomfortable sights in education. At best they are met with a sea of blank faces. At worst, total humiliation beckons.

"There is nothing worse than a teacher trying to uncoolly get on your level," says Rob Rouse, a former geography teacher who is now an award- winning comedian. "When my own teachers tried to make us laugh, we usually just thought: `He's a bit of a dick'."

So humour in the classroom can be risky. Get it right, and the class will be putty in your hands; try too hard, and being a "bit of a dick" is as good as it's ever going to get.

But that does not mean teachers need to be entirely humourless. Teacher- turned-comedian Natalie Haynes was determined to prove that schools could benefit from a timely injection of humour. In a documentary for Teachers TV earlier this year, she tested the theory that humour can not only engage pupils, it can actually enhance learning.

As part of her experiment, she worked with two small groups of pupils from a London academy. With the first, she waded through a lesson on Roman emperors by rote. In the second, she peppered her delivery with jokes and funny asides. To her great annoyance, pupils from the "straight" session retained more information.

"I hadn't bargained on the boy genius messing things up," she says, referring to an extremely bright pupil in the serious group. "I felt so guilty delivering such a boring lesson. All our souls were crushed by it. I remember teachers like that at my own school who just stood up and droned. It wasn't much fun."

But it has not stopped Ms Haynes from seeing parallels between successful teachers and comics. Both need to have a sense of authority, be quick witted and think on their feet, she argues. They must also know their subject and never show the slightest whiff of fear.

"The comedian Lee Evans is remarkable because he's not at all physically imposing," says Ms Haynes. "In fact, he's very self-deprecating and is willing to play the beta male to your alpha male. That is quite unusual - most successful comics, or teachers for that matter, stand tall and assert their authority."

She remembers unleashing hell on a supply teacher during her school days, who looked and acted like she didn't know what she was doing. "It gives me no pride in saying I totally destroyed her. Most people say they are more afraid of public speaking than they are of dying, but teachers do it every day."

However, even the most consummate of public speakers needs a modicum of hush to perform well. When she was a teacher in east London, Shazia Mirza tried to be funny in class just so that she could be heard over the din.

"I told jokes to the kids about everyday life and tried to integrate that into teaching chemistry and biology," says the former science teacher. "You can imagine how interesting that was to the kids."

For the past eight years, she has enjoyed greater success on the comedy circuit. Post-911, she performed her act in a hijab, before coming out with the infamous line: "My name is Shazia Mirza - at least, that's what it says on my pilot's licence."

That one deadpan joke seemed to capture and define a moment (as well as her career), but Ms Mirza's pupils proved to be an altogether tougher audience.

"My jokes were met with: `Miss, what are you on about?', `You're so boring' and `Is this meant to be funny `cos I'm depressed!'"

Ms Mirza thinks she was a good teacher when she put her mind to it, but was exhausted by the demands of the job. "I just wanted to sleep, but that was never possible in the middle of a chemical experiment. I started getting bags under my eyes at the age of 24 and knew I had to leave."

Not everyone rushes for the door at the first sign of comedic success, however - a few teachers brave both classroom and the stage. Matt Turner is a full time ICT teacher at Mill Hill School in Ripley, Derbyshire, but performs comedy gigs at least one night a week when school work or parents' evenings don't get in the way.

He started comedy as a hobby two and a half years ago and it has snowballed. "It's like a second job now," he says. "I got quite good and won some awards and now I'm semi-professional." He also runs courses for aspiring comics called Friends of the Mirth.

"One of the rules of comedy is: talk about what you know, so a fair bit of my act comes from the job. Everyone can relate to school jokes because everyone's been there."

Mr Turner has always used humour in the classroom to defuse volatile situations or prevent them from happening in the first place. As such, he rarely has to shout in class.

Instead, he tries to foster a community feel in his lessons, which means pupils are able to speak up. As long as it doesn't disrupt the lesson and is not malicious, funny comments are fair game, he adds. But he stops short of making jokes for the sake of it.

"I think that is a terrible mistake," Mr Turner says. "Teachers are there to do a job, not to polish their own egos. Learning outcomes are the most important thing - everything else is secondary - but you can learn in a way that is fun."

Most would agree that fun has its place in the classroom. Even Sir Alan Steer, the Government's behaviour "tsar", recommended that teachers liven up their lessons by playing Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and other quiz games in a report earlier this year. He argued that such techniques would help to capture the attention of disruptive pupils.

But there has also been a backlash against the trend towards "edutainment" - the idea that pupils can only learn when they are enjoying themselves - in schools.

Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent, says there is an important distinction between humour that indirectly emerges from what is being taught, and that which is used to bypass intellectual challenges.

"Humour is a great way to communicate ideas as long as you have some solid ideas to communicate," he says. "It's one of many communication tools that can be used by teachers, but I would worry if it starts to infantilise pupils or becomes a way of avoiding challenging content."

Elements of maths or physics will be taxing and there is no getting around it, he adds. "There is a temptation to bypass difficult problems by turning it into something abstract or some sort of game - I've been tempted myself. But you are left feeling like you have got away with it, rather than being convinced that any real learning took place."

For Dr Harry Witchel, senior lecturer in physiology at the Brighton and Sussex Medical School, humour can certainly improve the relationship between students and their teachers. It can also "arouse" pupils, or stop them falling asleep, he says. But he warns that there will be a downside if pupils get over-excited.

"If humour pushes pupils beyond the optimum level of arousal, they might remember that strong emotion, but they won't necessarily remember the bit that matters, the content," he says.

Dr Witchel compares the fine line teachers have to walk with the dilemma facing advertisers. An advert needs to be "sticky" or memorable, but it is more important that the consumer remembers the actual product as opposed to the ad.

Like certain adverts that are so bad they are good (Ferrero Rocher's "ambassador's reception" ads, for example), the funniest teachers don't mean to be funny, says Mr Rouse. Like his male teacher who wore trousers that were far too tight for him. Or Mr Brownsword, the PE teacher, who told pupils: "You'll remember my name by the colour and the weapon."

Inevitably perhaps, the 11-year-old boys had a much more puerile way of remembering his name. "He was a brilliant man," says Mr Rouse. "He knew he had a silly name and he confronted it. It was hilarious, but we really respected him."

Adults could learn a lot from children, he adds. They are inherently funny, often because they say what grown-ups think but never voice. As such, Mr Rouse found it difficult telling pupils off, especially when they misbehaved in an amusing or intelligent way.

"Some of the disruptive kids would act up because they were bored or bright or because they didn't really want to know about urban sector development models."

Having a sense of humour helped at such moments. Without it, Mr Rouse says he wouldn't have been able to teach. And without teaching, he would never have broken into comedy. "It gave me the ability to stand in front of a group of strangers and hold their attention, with or without the occasional heckle," he says.

Instead of trying to be funny, Mr Rouse attempted to recreate or embody his own favourite teachers - intelligent, sharp and entertaining members of staff who had a passion for their subject.

"They were interesting people who would not just follow the drill as if they were robots. Those who had charisma made it look easy." Not that he always found it so simple. "Learning to teach was the hardest thing I've ever had to do," he says.

Stepping out in front of thousands of drunken festivalgoers pales into insignificance next to 30 sober 15-year-olds, Mr Rouse confirms. And the pupils will require no alcohol to tell you exactly what they think. Normally, that you are not quite as funny as you thought

So they think they are funny?

  • Greg Davies taught English and drama for 15 years before turning to comedy full-time. Famed for his imposing stature (he is 6'8"), he went on to become one third of the sketch group We Are Klang. More recently, he played the "psychotic" head of sixth-form, Mr Gilbert, in E4's The Inbetweeners.
  • Nick Hancock was a PE teacher before turning his hand to comedy, acting and presenting television shows, including They Think It's All Over.
  • Dermot Morgan was a school teacher in Ireland before becoming a comedian and actor. He went on to achieve international renown as Father Ted Crilly in Channel 4's Father Ted.

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