Starting as a new supply teacher this year, I spent a lot of time in and out of different schools for the first term.
Part of the preparation is to read through school policies. This is helpful for managing the day ahead, and establishing some background information about the school and its pupils.
While all schools have at least subtle differences in their policies on learning, environment, managing behaviour, marking and so on, one element seemed to be the same in almost every policy I read: "Use humour as a tool for teaching and learning."
This seems an excellent idea, and the theory behind using humour is often explained in the school policies. It will say something along the lines of: “Using humour helps to break down barriers between people and establishes positive relationships.”
Sharing a joke or funny story
At a glance, this is a great idea, and makes perfect sense. Humour can take away certain stressors of life.
A bad day is often made more enjoyable by sharing a joke or funny story with others. Being lighthearted about certain situations is helpful in lifting the mood.
In school, getting to know individual children on a personal level and enjoying their sense of humour is wonderful.
Laughter definitely helps to forge those positive relationships between teacher and pupil.
Making a joke that goes down well with a class is a great experience. And making a group of kids laugh helps to reveal your non-teacher personality, hopefully convincing the children that you too are human.
Falling on your face
I’m sure we would all love to laugh through our days. Who wouldn’t want to spend the day cracking jokes with all the children in our classes?
But is it always that easy to use humour effectively in school?
Humour is a subjective concept. There’s a whole spectrum of what people find funny. For instance, I’m sure lots of children would find it funny if their teacher fell over at the front of the classroom, but I can’t imagine any teachers doing this intentionally to break down barriers.
Others find sarcasm humorous. But sarcasm isn’t always easy for adults to understand, let alone children.
Telling shaggy-dog stories can be funny, but some children find sequencing events difficult to follow, so getting to a punchline and then understanding why everything leading up to this causes a laugh is a tough process.
No joking matter
There are also particular situations that occur during the school day, where making a joke is the last thing you would consider.
It’s understandable that you could laugh off certain low-level misbehaviour, such as a child talking to a friend when you’re teaching. But, if it happens four or five times, it’s then harder to see the funny side.
Then there’s the pressures of everyday teaching, which leaves little time for us to be humorous.
If you have a billion things on your mind – lesson observation, a bag for life that's full of marking, a staff meeting or lesson planning – then breaking down barriers through humour might not be top of your list.
Not a quick win
The use of humour seems to be a quick win, in theory. But, all the same, there is something slightly difficult to understand about its place within a school policy. Surely that takes away the spontaneity of humour altogether.
Shouldn't humour be a judgement call, rather than something to enforce?
There is no conformity to being funny. It often depends on the company we are in and how we are feeling.
Some teachers may find it comes naturally to them to use humour as a tool for learning, while others may simply feel that it’s yet another hoop to jump through.
Alex Waite is a supply teacher in South London