04 September, 2009

THE JOY OF TEACHING - Laughing like we were still children

by, Janice Fletcher Ed.D

Remembering small encounters such as the 6 year old that called me Dr. Mrs. Fletcher after I became a doctor. Or the 12 year old girl that came to me with her business card in hand wanting an appointment with the principal to discuss strategies of how to market her babysitting skills at our school. There was the second grader that explained to the rest of the class that her fellow Spanish speaking classmate was talking in “cursive”. It was always fun to be introduced as “the president “of the school by the first graders. Some moments are cute, some are poignant, some are just plain funny. If they bring a faint smile or a belly whopping laugh, they are moments of joy.

Each year teachers are faced with the challenge of creating an atmosphere, environment, circumstances and lessons that will allow students to succeed. Most teachers find this endeavor exciting, fun and fulfilling, with laughter, smiles and humor the natural ingredients. Finding and capturing that joy is the essence of a long fulfilling career as a teacher.

Joy, according to Webster, is a very glad feeling; happiness; delight. A “very glad feeling” is a good indicator of the joy of teaching. There are so many of these moments during teaching, making this the most rewarding of professions. Every teacher could write a book about the funny things students say or do. Schools should share those experiences everyday; it’s a nice way to spread the joy.

There were the three cub scouts that donated their homemade birdhouse to the school for their environmental project. They explained that they weren’t strong enough to make a hole for the birds to enter so the birds would have to live on the outside.

James Barrie says, “Nothing is really work unless you would rather be doing something else.” Most teachers teach because that is what they’d “rather” be doing.. A teacher not teaching is a like a fish out of water. Teachers find themselves teaching wherever they are. Sometimes they are painstakingly teaching their spouse how to… or on vacations, it is the teacher in the group of tourists that will have the most questions and be taking notes. It is the really great teachers that use those notes in their lesson plans. I remember my teacher mother never answering questions like all the other moms. She would say “What do YOU think the answer is Janice?” There is great joy in it for generations of teachers have been drawn to it, are natural at it and find such fulfillment in it.

It is the laughter and joy in the profession that keeps teachers teaching year after year. When one experiences extreme joy they have a reaction called laughter. It is the result of overflowing joy and is defined by The American Heritage dictionary as, “Laughter: the act of laughing, the sound produced by laughing. The sounds and facial movement to express mirth”. Some people do it more than others. Some create laughter for others. Unfortunately, some people fail to experience the profound feeling of expressing mirth through laughter.

I recall the “class clown”, an eighth grader, who when I ordered him to sit down, he followed my direction, literally, and sat down exactly where he was standing, on the floor, across the room from his desk and chair. We had to laugh.

It is helpful for us to remember a moment, situation, an experience when we laughed the hardest. Recall the hurting stomach and cheek muscles as well as the overflowing laughter tears. How often is that happening in our lives? Do we have these moments in our classrooms? We know that the more FUN we make learning the more learning takes place.

We could chart these moments. Diets, finances, bad behavior, grades and weather are charted. What about our laughter quotient? Why? Because laughter is an essential part of life that is usually treated as an aside or an extra. Because when it slips from life, often times, sadly, it is not missed Because laughter is the manifestation of joy and if a teacher is not laughing, it is doubtful that the joy of teaching is being experienced and that students are learning as much as they are able.

A teacher that has captured the spirit of joy and laughter and expresses it through teaching will naturally create a joy of learning within his/her classroom. Humor and laughter greatly create many benefits in a classroom.

Historically, schools were not considered appropriate places for laughter. Remember the old adage of “Don’t smile at the students before Christmas?’ No laughter, not even smiles were permitted in classrooms. How unnatural that was. Laughter is not only a welcome addition to the classroom but a necessary one as well.

Laughter is instinctual. Fear, danger, surprise, stupidity, absurdity, disrespect, frustration, and even suspense, are all some of the causes of laughter, which are all natural emotions and things that are deeply rooted within our minds, just like instincts. Greville states: “Man is the only creature endowed with the power of laughter.”
Laughter occurs when energy is built-up, tension rises, then the situation changes, and there is no longer a need for the tension and finally laughter results as a release of the pent-up energy. I recall, as a child, during my piano recital I froze and couldn’t remember the next note. After two agonizingly long minutes I began to laugh and laugh and laugh.

Teachers deal with all the other emotions as they work with students. When a child comes into our classrooms fearful or in tears, they get attention. We react differently when faced with the emotion of laughter. Classrooms have been conducted with “a fear of laughter” attitude. Great literary works will cause us to laugh. It is a part of life that we have ignored in education. Laughter has always been a great barometer to measure the amount of joy in life.

Nietzsche suggests: “You must laugh ten times during the day, and be cheerful; otherwise your stomach, the fretter of affliction, will disturb you in the night.” My first year teaching, in a rural area we had pet day. Students were allowed to bring their pets to school for a visit. I walked into work to see that George and his “pet” horse were standing in the school lobby.

The Magazine Reader’s Digest has for decades had a section called “Laughter is the Best Medicine”. Looking at life’s situations with a sense of humor and laughter provides perspective and helps keep things in balance when life seems unfair. We have many of those moments teaching, don’t we? Life seems unfair? Humor and laughter are a source of power, healing and survival. We often forget this when we are caught up in the troubles and trauma of life in the classroom. The actor/ comedian Bill Cosby said,” If you can find humor in anything, you can survive it.” When one feels like losing control, allow a little “humor time”. By finding what’s funny in a situation, upsets won’t seem as important as they once did.

“Humor time” can be added to lesson plans. It follows the concept of show and tell, a historical activity for the very young students. Students have an opportunity to share, show and tell about their life. But teachers cease this practice in the later grades. It is one of things that people do very often as an adult. Listen to the conversations at parties. They contained elements of show and tell! “The other day I was on my new boat or… The funniest thing happened to me when I was… Lesson plans can include appropriate times to share funny moments. Students are just like adults, only smaller. If they have some news or funny story they will share it whether there is an appropriate time or not. Be an effective teacher, and reap the benefits of the joy and laughter it produces.

Humor also gives a sense of power. There are many things in life that we have no control over and can’t change. One can either let that fact become a frustration or use a sense of humor to minimize any difficult situation. Humor has the power to turn any situation around.
Students and teachers alike will find needs for coping skills. Laughter is one of the best coping skills.

As a principal, I was faced with a parent outraged that their child had been mistreated at the bus stop. As the parent screamed the tension rose. My coping skills and patience were reaching their limit. I invited the “mistreated” student in to “tell the story”. Shannon explained that she wasn’t mad at her friend for hitting her with her bookbag and bruising her arm, that she had done the same to her the week before. Our laughter over the explanation ended the animosity.

Gail Sheehy notes in her best seller, Pathfinders , “that the ability to see humor in a situation was one of the four coping devices that, people who overcame life’s crises, used as a protection against change and uncertainty.” When you are dealing with a difficult, student, parent or fellow employee, using humor in difficult times can be one of the smartest ways of coping. No, this does not give you permission to make fun of your principal next time you have a difference of opinion.

Humor can be used to establish rapport, an essential tool for successful teaching. Humor knows no cultural boundaries. It is true that one doesn’t have to speak the same language to laugh together. Laughter also helps “break the ice” in a group. It is one of the forms of communication that everyone can relate to. It’s not necessary to be a stand-up comedian in the classroom. But, the sharing of laughter will increase the level of communication.

During an ESOL class the students were learning the concept of silverware. After ten frustrating minutes of showing the students knives and forks and the Indian student responding by sticking her hand in the teacher’s face, it was discovered that the student’s culture used their fingers as silverware. The class laughed in understanding.

Educators need to remember that, humor relieves tension. Humor dispels anger and aggression in ourselves and others. Think about the number of squabbles and fights in schools! It helps to use humor when dealing with an angry child. Teachers have found lower scores on aggression for students viewing a humorous videotape.

Humor also increases learning and retention. Because laughter stimulates both sides of the brain, people get the message quicker and remember it longer. Humor can also be used as a “diagnostic tool”. If teachers pay attention to when and at what students joke around about, what is bothering them becomes apparent. Humor is an important and overlooked tool in education.

George Burns said “you can’t help getting older, but you can help getting old. Chronologically, the clock is going to keep on ticking for all of us, but if we take a lick of humor, we can prevent a hardening of the attitudes. If we savor humor, humor can be a lifesaver.” Teachers and their careers, ultimately students, can be “saved” by embracing the attitude of humor as a necessary, logical and easy addition for successful learning experiences.

There are a group of executives in India that have started a laughing club. After learning all the benefits of laughter from physical, to emotional they began gathering a few at a time outside during lunch. They began to “ha ha and he he” to one another until the laughter overtook them and they stood around belly laughing for about ten minutes as laughing is a contagious condition. They then walk back into work refreshed and tension free. The group is growing.

The individual teacher has the ability to create a joyful teaching experience. The attitudes and laughter are within a person, not an article, curriculum guide or textbook. Teacher and students alike will benefit from the addition of smiles, chuckles, giggles and big whopping belly laughs.

Wilfreed T. Grenfell says: “Real joy comes not from ease or riches or from the praise of men, but from doing something worthwhile.”

Teachers don’t have an easy job and certainly don’t get rich. The praise is far and few between. Real joy is realized by knowing the worth of the teaching profession is unparalleled in its importance for the future.

It is important that to find joy in work. Teachers are some of the most blessed souls on earth to be given the joy of teaching children. If one could relearn from children how to be happy and free in our attitudes and laughter, it would be a lesson well learned and a career worthy of praise.

Someone recently suggested a way to approach life that sounds quite joyful. It is: “Dance like no one is looking; work like you don’t need the money; love as though you’ve never been hurt.” One could conclude that we should add, laugh as though we were still children.

Source Courtesy: Queensland Teaching Magazine, Australia 1999