His palms were sweaty as he looked up from the textbook. It was just before class. He was beyond nervous. One teacher, with a plastic smile on top of unsuccessfully veiled nervousness, starts a strained conversation. He starts to feel his uneasiness growing. It’s too the point where he has to stand up and break away. Not understanding half of what this teacher is saying is making things worse; He stands without any idea of how to get out of the situation and decides to quickly make it for the bathroom without a word. The teacher with a big daft grin shouts out, “Are you a ninja?” The smile remains but the others in the room look puzzled and unsure about any kind of response.
I have written both on pedagogical and comedic themes. I had yet to combine the two until now. I wanted to convey the problematic nature of comedy in an ESL classroom. I am quite specific; however, these ideas should be thought about in any classroom. I teach in Japan, so my experience relates to the system here.
Now If we look at humor with a broad perspective, then we know it’s good as a pedagogical tool. It relieves stress and anxiety, students enjoy the class atmosphere with a tasteful joke, the teacher seems approachable and friendly, and most of all, the students feel comfortable. Humor is a hard thing to master and can easily alienate the student teacher relationship in seconds.
My fictionalized example highlights a problem that has plagued many ESL classrooms. When teachers carry a stereotypical view of a culture, some may relay a disrespectful message in the joke. I have said it before in earlier posts, but I’ll say it again: Humor is based on culture. People laugh at jokes because they see something that is true to their culture. This is why, in the ESL industry, foreign jokes don’t go over well.
Avoid sarcasm at all cost unless you know how to use it really well! Sarcasm has to be one of the hardest things to teach and understand with the correct social context. I have seen it misused by many inexperienced teachers and seen many students left offended.
To successfully use humor in the ESL classroom teachers have to earn respect and trust first. That is done by showing that teachers care for the students but also by honoring the students’ culture. The humor has to serve a purpose too. If you crack a joke because you notice your students are very nervous then it has a high chance of being funny and useful. I find that making jokes for sole self-enjoyment do just that: end up being only funny to you.
I may not be an expert on it but I know what works and doesn’t work. If teachers are unsure then play it safe and don’t crack a joke. We teachers have to be able to read our students feelings and use humor sparingly when the time is right. I know I have over used it at times and could tell that my students were tired of it. So learn from reactions. I know I have.
Do you have any experience to share with good and bad classroom humor? Maybe as a student’s or teacher’s perspective? Please put them in the comments.