Joking aside, humour can be a helpful tool

28th June 2013 at 01:00
Engage your class with comic rhymes or wordplay and banish stress by using witty repartee to defuse tense situations

In any survey asking "What do you like about your teacher?", a sense of humour is always up there in the top five qualities. It is not the telling of jokes necessarily, it is more the awareness and ability to know when to lighten up, to see things in a humorous light and to initiate healthy laughter. It is not just about being popular; these techniques can be valuable for managing the behaviour of students and reducing the teacher's tension, too.

Inherent in a sense of humour is a teacher's ability to see the funny side of something in a way that does not hurt. This can be done through repartee, dry wit, incongruous words (a technique well developed by the English writer and poet Michael Rosen), the appropriate bon mot, or a note of irony or farce.

I recall an episode when one of my grade 5 art students (aged 10-11), frustrated at not being able to get the textile pattern right, blurted out the words "Holy shit". I swiftly replied: "What denomination?" He looked nonplussed for a few seconds and then grinned. I followed up with: "Look, I know this isn't an easy activity. How can I help?" We refocused on the task and a little later had a quiet chat about "language probity".

Similarly, when any of my students too easily says "Jesus Christ!" or "God almighty!" or "Oh God!" in a fit of low-level pique or frustration, quick as a flash, I ask, "Where? Where?" In another example, a boy said "Jesus Christ" in response to a direction I had given and I replied: "Thanks for the compliment but you've got the wrong person." It defused the situation and we later had a quiet talk about his words, away from his audience. Most students do not realise how easily they use "Jesus" or "God" as an unreflective epithet. The repartee, employed without malice, helps children to think.

You have to be wary of tipping over into sarcasm. While sarcasm can wound and requires no skill, humour can be temporarily uplifting; it can reframe - and even heal - tension.

It is not just about reacting, though. You can be proactive with humour to prevent problems. Certainly, children always respond well to Roald Dahl's humour and rhymes as well as the ditties penned by the brilliant Spike Milligan. When I have taught English to older children, I have had a lot of fun with spoonerisms such as "Sleudian frip", "sin twister", "Sing a song of sixpence, a rocketful of pie", "sporks and foons" and so on.

Teachers should be aware that humour is as beneficial to their own behaviour as it is to that of their students. Humour can help us see stressful situations in a more positive light, or at least a less pessimistic one. In the early 20th century, Freud made the point that humour can enable us to cope with stressful and anxiety-arousing situations. Charles Burford, meanwhile, who researched the place of humour in school cultures in the Journal of Educational Administration article "Humour of principals and its impact on teachers and the school", concluded that humour and laughter play significant roles in the coping strategies of teachers and students alike.

The psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, who was interned in Nazi concentration camps during the Second World War, said that "even there one could have a sense of humour. only for a few seconds or minutes. it was another of the soul's weapons in the fight for self-preservation".

A school environment, and teaching itself, can be stressful for all involved. A sense of humour - and judicious expressions of humour - can give everyone a temporary respite from such stress, defusing frustrated behaviour from students and allowing teachers to relax and be more controlled and considered in dealing with their class.

Dr Bill Rogers is an Australian education expert and author of You Know the Fair Rule and The Essential Guide to Managing Teacher Stress.

In short

  • A sense of humour in a teacher always goes down well with students - it can be a useful tool for behaviour management as well as making you a popular educator.
  • The use of repartee and dry wit can defuse situations where students are misbehaving and enable you to go back and deal with the issue later, in a quiet and controlled manner.
  • You can be proactive as well as reactionary - keeping the humour levels up can ensure that students are engaged and in a positive frame of mind.
  • You have to be careful not to slip into sarcasm, as that can be damaging.
    • Humour also helps the teacher to control their own behaviour, especially in terms of reducing stress.


      Burford, C. (1987) "Humour of principals and its impact on teachers and the school", Journal of Educational Administration, 251: 29-54.

      Frankl, V.E. (1963) Man's Search for Meaning (Simon and Schuster).

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