by Gary Legates
There is an old adage which says, “When you have a class of new students, don’t smile at them until Christmas.” I could never abide by that adage, however, because I found that humor helped me build a better rapport with my students. Humor can be a tool in our toolbox to help solve problems and relate better to our students, as the following stories will show.
A few years ago, a friend of mine was student teaching. The student teachers had been told that if students became too noisy, they should say, “I can’t hear,” and that presumably would cause the students to become quiet. One day, my friend told a noisy class “I can’t hear.” From the back of the room, a student said, “You can’t see either. You are in bad shape.” With that, my friend burst out laughing and said, “You know, that is probably the stupidest thing I have ever said to you guys.” With that, everyone laughed, and he felt that he established a better rapport with those students.
In my own career, my school district had a policy that all students were to cover their books, and teachers were to enforce this policy. The school even placed a supply of covers in the back of all classrooms, but students were not always very interested or careful to cover their books. I knew that I had to figure out a creative method to enforce this policy which would not highlight the fact that I could not see to enforce the rule. So, I figured out a creative way of handling the situation. Of course, I never felt all over my students’ desks to see whether their books were covered. But during my walks around my classroom, if my hand happened to touch an uncovered book, I would immediately say, “What do I see here?” Then I would pick up the book, wave it wildly over my head and shout, “A naked book! A naked book! A naked book! A naked book!” Then I would put the book back on the desk, and in a stern voice say, “Put a cover on that book, and anyone else who has a naked book, dress it.” Students would scramble to cover their books and would try after that to keep them covered. I even heard students say to each other as they came into class, “I see a naked book!” The offending student would then cover it and go on with class. One day when I discovered a naked book and went through my normal routine, the owner of the book said, “Can I see that book?” I gave it to him. After looking intently at it for a moment, he gave a wolf whistle as if it were the most beautiful creature he had ever seen. At that, I burst out laughing and said, “Tom, that was funny. If you keep on like that, you will either be a millionaire or in jail by the time you are 20.” Then everyone laughed, and Tom covered his book.
During another occasion in a Latin I class, the students had learned the singular command form of the Latin verb “facio” which is “fac.” We laughed about how much this word sounded like an often-heard cuss word which should not be said in school. A little later during the same week, I announced to the seniors in the class that they should study especially hard for their mid-term exams, because their mid-term grades would be put on their college transcripts. When I said this, a girl who was not my best student said, “They will?” to which I said, “Yes, they will.” She sat there for a moment in stunned silence, and then in a worried voice said, “Oh fuck!” My students drew in their breaths and waited to see what would happen next. Now I knew that I couldn’t tolerate that kind of language in class. I also knew that that girl would never normally say something like that in class, and that she had only said it because she was concerned about the situation. So, I said to the class, “Don’t worry, Jenn was only practicing her commands.” Everyone laughed, and that was the end of the situation.