Comedy is a massive business. Since 2015, the UK comedy scene has gone from strength to strength, breaking box office records and taking over TV, film and stage. Pre-COVID19, comedy had a stranglehold on the entertainment industry and didn't let go.
The Evening Standard reported that the Comedy sector is worth “£400m a year in the UK and many of the country’s top comedians are overtaking Premier League footballers in earning power, thanks to sell-out stadium tours, TV appearances, DVD sales and book deals1.”
That is some major wonga.
People like to laugh and smile — it makes us feel good. And we should exercise our funny bones more when we teach.
I am sure that many teaching academics would be absolutely horrified at what I am suggesting — smiling in the classroom? Enjoyment during lessons? Preposterous!
Before some of you get your monocles in a twist, there has been a lot of scientific research that tells us humour is good for us, even as leaders. It also explains why we live in a time that a stand-up comedian can command as much money as music superstar like Beyoncé.*
In this week’s blogpost I will look at:
3 reasons why humans love humour and why you need more funnies in your classrooms.
How being funny can make you MORE authoritative rather than less.
And most importantly,
3 comedy techniques that will make you a hit with your students without you losing your job.
Before I talk about why humour could be an important tool in your classroom arsenal, let’s try to answer the basics: why do we, human beings, like people with a sense of humour? From an evolutionary perspective, why do we find humour attractive?
Psychologist Shawn Achor believes that humour is a sign of one’s ‘cognitive fitness.’ Achor writes that humour shows that “your brain must be flexible, quick, and sharp to comprehend or create humour. The funniest people are those that can see a version of reality the rest of us might miss2.”
If you think of the greatest comedians, they can take the most depressing, horrible and sensitive subjects and they can make us laugh about it — that takes incredible brainpower. Here are a couple of advantages to having a good sense of humour.
Stress relief — whenever we laugh, we produce a chemical in our brain called dopamine. This hormone helps us to feel good and is a great tonic for our nervous system helping us to relax.
Boosts morale — when balanced with respect, humour can help you create a positive atmosphere in your class, making it a more pleasant place to work in. In times of stress such as exam periods or coursework deadlines, this can help keep your class’s spirits up.
Creates trust — ultimately having a good sense of humour shows that you are a human being and not an android. This enables people to trust you and helps build the rapport between you and all the other individuals in your class
You Can Be Funny and Still Be A Badass
I can see you. You're giving me that look Robert DeNiro does before he whacks a wiseguy.
Some of you are thinking that it is not possible to maintain the respect of your students and give them the giggles at the same time.
Well, I respectfully reject that line of thinking.
In a previous post, I explained that authority wasn’t just about your title. It was also about how you related to people, your character, your skills and abilities. This what is known as ‘Personal Authority’ and developing it is a vital part of your teaching toolkit.
Well, guess what?
Having a great sense of humour turbo-boosts your Personal Authority and can make you seem MORE powerful.
Best selling author, comedian and all-round boss lady Viv Groskop stated that charismatic people displayed a personality trait called “Happy High Status.” In her brilliant book How To Own The Room: Women and The Art of Public Speaking Viv said that charismatic people like Michelle Obama are at ‘ease’ in any situation.
I had the great pleasure of being her guest on her fantastic podcast “How To Own The Room: Mentors and Allies,” so if you want to hear that episode, click here!
She explained these people “had three qualities: they’re as interested in us as in themselves; they don’t take anything personally, and they have a knack for making everything seem easy and natural3.”
Using humour in the right situation, not only helps you de-stress but helps others around you too. Having a good sense of humour makes you seem confident and in control. Like James Bond or Black Widow, nothing ruffles your feathers and with a quip and a smile, you can defeat any enemy.
Use humour to channel your inner secret agent and stop yourself from being shaken and stirred.
3 Comedy Techniques for Classroom Management Mastery.
Let’s be clear: I am not asking any of you to become Chris Rock, Eddie Izzard or Tina Fey here: humour also has the huge potential to backfire too. If you do it the wrong way, you will lose some of that authority that you have worked so hard to create… and possibly your job. Here are 3 tips that will help you win over your classrooms.
1) Think Like a Late Night Talkshow Host
The late-night talk show host has an incredibly difficult job to do. Whether it is Graham Norton, Trevor Noah or Lily Singh, they have to juggle their rowdy audience, difficult guests and demanding producers all with a smile on their faces.
Kinda like being a teacher.
Great talk show hosts mix a sharp wit and assertiveness with empathy and emotional intelligence. They know how to talk to the grumpy film actor and the crazy rock star sometimes while they are both on the seated next to each other on the same couch!
Talk show hosts have an amazing knack to use humour to turn a negative into a positive and disarm even the most prickly interviewees.
Use your humour to expose awkward truths lightly or defuse tension. A well-placed joke can steer you away from an ugly situation brewing in the classroom. Remember, it’s difficult to be angry and happy at the same time so use humour to lighten the drama.
I once knew a teacher who was walking through the playground and tripped over in front of 500 secondary school children. Awkward.
This could have been incredibly embarrassing but he kicked out his legs and make it into a breakdance move turning it from embarrassment to a triumph earning their respect and getting fistbumps as he went to the staffroom.
As a teacher, you need to “read the room” and understand who your learners are. Different ages and cultures respond to different types of humour but remember we are in a place of work and we are bound to a set of professional standards.
Keep it clean folks, and keep the “Line Manager Test” to hand: if my manager was in the classroom, would I be happy to say this sentence? If not, then bin it
2) Improvise Like a Stand Up Comedian
It is said that improv comedy is the hardest type to do in the business. It’s just you, a mic and an impatient crowd. No script, no rehearsal, no do-overs. If you are not tickling their funny bones quickly, you are going to bomb harder than the US military.
Great improv comedians like Amy Poehler, Jim Carrey and Jason Sudekis have the ability to ‘slow time down’ and become ultra-observant. In the moment, they are able to ask questions that allow them to bend reality for laughs.
I know that you have your lessons planned to the nanosecond but make sure to create blocks of time where you can engage with your class and ask those ‘why’ questions. Set the basic parameters of what you want to teach but allow yourself to go down some rabbit holes.
Experiment a little.
Throw out left-field ideas that your class can discuss and don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t know something. Allow your students to become ‘classroom conspiracists’ and allow them to question your lesson. If they are asking questions, they are engaging.
If you have any budding comedians who may disrupt your lessons, rather than battle them, get to know them better and for future lessons see if they can add something to what you are teaching.
As mentioned earlier, your potential comedians can be very sharp and if you learn to work with their talents, not only are you stopping the disruption but you will be building a relationship with them that will give you greater influence.
Lighthearted, friendly banter is NOT the enemy of your classrooms. The students are trying to let you in on the joke. Use this force to your advantage rather than have it used against you.
The key is to be light, open and willing to stay in the moment. If you can do this you have won half the battle.
3) Be Kind Like an Old School Game Show Host
When I was growing up, Saturday Night TV was a big deal and the absolute king of family television was the late great Sir Bruce Forsyth (1928 - 2017).
From his catchphrase “nice to see you, to see you nice” to his huge grin, he was the consummate professional and made the audience feel like part of the family. Here’s what we can learn from Brucie.
Keep it light and short — Bruce was the master of the 10-second joke. Joke, punchline, finish. You must do the same. If you launch into a full-blown Netflix one hour special, you will not get any brownie points with your employers and your students won’t get any work done.
Context is key — be inclusive. Bruce would take the time to know his guests complimenting them on their appearance and taking interest in where they were from. Especially if you are a diverse class, please remember what one group will find funny, another group may find it offensive. I have seen people throw punches over a bad joke about their football team. Be especially sensitive and get to learn your learners' likes and dislikes over time
Be kind - Use humour to uplift people not roast them. As well as Bruce Forsyth, there are many great comedians that are absolute masters at this style of comedy such as Ellen Degeneres and James Corden. Their humour made people feel good about themselves and made everyone feel more positive.
If you use your humour to demean, embarrass or humiliate your students you are destroying the teacher-student relationship and creating enemies. This is a surefire way to lose your classroom.
Humour is all about positivity — even if you don’t use it, sometimes it is all about smiling and taking things in your stride. Next time something goes wrong in your class, rather than get irritated, smile, take a deep breath and keep on going — it shows confidence.
I know that we are all different. I know that some people are naturally more funny than others. The aim of this blogpost is not to make you a stand-up comedian but to help you realise that allowing humour into your classroom, can make it a better place.
Even if you don’t feel comfortable using humour in your teaching, the reality is that some of your students will have more enhanced comedic chops than others.
That’s why having a ‘sense’ of humour is key: if you try to completely eradicate it from your classroom, this force will be turned on you, causing disruptions and even flashpoint situations.
The same rules apply to your students too. If they are respectful, keep it short and they are kind, why not let a bit of humour in your class? You may find that by letting them express themselves, they may become better behaved too.
If your students go too far, then setting the appropriate boundaries before the lesson, will help you deal with any nastiness. More on that later.
Thank you for reading the blog! There are so many other tips and tricks that I can give you. If you are hungry for more, subscribe below to get the latest updates and goodies from the AHT website. Go on, scratch that Behaviour Management itch.
Karl from actionheroteacher.com
*Well, that was pre-COVID19 - but Netflix comedy specials are not going out of fashion anytime soon!
1. Alix O'Neil. 2015. Edinburgh Fringe: why up-and-coming comedians are making serious bucks. Evening Standard [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.standard.co.uk/lifestyle/esmagazine/edinburgh-fringe-why-up-and-coming-comedians-are-making-serious-bucks-a2488811.html [Accessed 14 May 2020.
2. Achor, S., 2013. Before Happiness: Five Actionable Strategies to Create a Positive Path to Success. 1st ed. United Kingdom: Virgin Books. Page 208
3. Groskop, V., 2018. How to Own the Room: Women and the Art of Brilliant Speaking. 1st ed. UK: Bantam Press. Page 33