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Steve Haberlin is a Ph.D student at the University of South Florida, where he also works as a teaching assistant, supervising and teaching pre-service teachers. Steve holds a master's degree in...
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Humor in the Classroom: No Joking Matter

I’d like to take a moment to write about an often-ignored topic in teaching. Likely, it’s not covered in professional development or faculty meetings or college coursework, but I believe it is, nonetheless, a vital, living, breathing component of the classroom, which can transform learning and uplift students and teachers.

Humor. It’s present in some classrooms, dreadfully absent in others. It comes natural to some teachers, difficult for others.

Believe it or not, humor in the classroom has been researched considerably. While the results of humor on student learning is mixed, scholars do point out that there are benefits. However, like any tool, humor can be misconstrued, misused, abused. Therefore, I plan to cover the positive usage of humor with students. Here are three reasons to consider “upping” the humor level in your classroom:

Reason 1: Easing the Tension

Let’s face it. School can be stressful. The demands of testing, curriculum, school events. Behavior problems. Students might be facing stressful issues at home. In her book, Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom, bell hooks devotes an entire chapter to the notion of humor. She notes that humor can ease the tension associated with engaging in lessons around issues of racism, politics, and other touchy subjects. “Humor can provide a needed break from serious, intense material and discussion.” Likewise, the National Education Association has suggested that humor can ease tensions and create the kind of environment conducive to learning. Humor, the organization reports, can bring positive feelings to the classroom. Wrote one teacher on the NEA’s Facebook page, “I will do almost anything to get the class rolling with laughter—voice inflections, exaggerated facial expressions and movements, hilarious personal stories, (of which I have way too many), ridiculous examples…and I encourage my students to do the same.”

Reason 2: Bring Content to Life

Dr. Maryellen Weimer writes that humor can help students remember material they learn. Research backs up the idea that humor positively affects levels of interest and attention. Thus, increasing engagement through humor might make the lesson more impactful. The NEA also states that teachers bring lessons to life through parody, games, and comical voices. Wrote one teacher: “whenever I can I use puns, anecdotes, or whatever humorous things I can think of to make lessons more fun, more relevant, and more effective. We laugh every day and it makes being in a school a little more fun.”

Reason 3: Placing Yourself (the Teacher) in a Positive Life

If we’re honest, teaching is a selling game. If students view you favorably and they are “sold on you,” then they are willing to work harder, listen, and be more cooperative in class. Humor portrays you in a favorable light. In fact, for college professors, the use of humor has translated to more positive evaluations by students. However, what’s important to note is that these benefits come from the use of “positive” humor.

Weimer says to think of using humor in the classroom as laughing together, as opposed to laughing at students. Also, teachers should use humor that comfortably fits who they are and what they teach—don’t try to force it and be something you’re not. It might help to remember that while I highly recommend humor in teaching, it’s not a necessary component for learning (though, personally I do believe it helps).

The teachers and professors who have had the greatest impact on me have certainly been those that used humor at least to some extent. They laughed at themselves, at the content, with the students. They loved teaching and learning but they didn’t take themselves too seriously. As a result, the students didn’t either.


Steve Haberlin is a graduate assistant and Ph.D. student at the University of South Florida and an educator with 10 years of experience.