Teachers use humor in classroom to improve experience


Illustration Credit: Dianne Caravela

Upper School teachers Philip de Sa e Silva, Jon Peterson, Aaron Shuler, and Pam Starkey all use humor as part of their teaching method. “Humor and songs lighten the mood and allow kids to take more risks than they would otherwise,” Starkey said.

Sophie Jaro, Opinions Editor

Laughter can signal a student’s understanding of a concept just as much as traditional tests and papers. By creating an environment that is analytical, memorable, and relatable, the many humorous teachers at St. Paul Academy and Summit School provide their students with a more thorough understanding of content, love of learning, and feeling of belonging. These teachers apply the same intellect that prepared them to be instructors to side-splitting scholastic quips and connections.

Humor demonstrates an understanding of the abstract and an ability to see irony. Upper School English teacher and occasional stand-up comedian Philip de Sa e Silva provides an example of  an incongruity he mentions to with his American Literature class when they read The Scarlet Letter.  In the following passage, the “weirdo Puritan children” as de Sa e Silva calls them, talk about Hester, who is walking with Pearl: “Behold, verily, there is the woman of the scarlet letter; and, of a truth, moreover, there is the likeness of the scarlet letter running along by her side! Come, therefore, and let us fling mud at them!”

“I think that is so funny because you have these children talking about throwing mud at someone, which is super undignified, but they are doing it in the most formal, absurd language,” de Sa e Silva explained.

Upper School history teacher Aaron Shuler finds and shares particular amusement in the correlation between strong leadership and the healthy hair of American leaders.

“When I am talking about the history of presidential flow, when James K. Polk is James K. Flow, I think hopefully students will remember that and remember something about him,” Shuler explains. “ I talk about how terrible John Tyler was as a president, and how it might have been because he had terrible flow. It was stringy and he didn’t use conditioner. Lack of flow is lack of leadership.”

[Humor] makes receiving a message easier than if the teacher is totally distant from you.”

— Upper School Biology teacher Ned Heckman

Another popular subject of hair care analysis in history class is Martin van Buren, dubbed “Martin van Muttonchop” by the U.S. history teachers. In class, Shuler emphasizes the link between the bold sideburns and fearlessly original political campaigning of “van Muttonchop.”

“Van Buren also attempted to bridge the emerging sectional divide between the North and the South through the Democratic Party’s outreach to the common man, much like his muttonchops tried to unite with each other through his horseshoe haircut,” Shuler said.

To laugh at the flow of American leaders requires understanding of the context of the correlation, in this case their presidential accomplishments.

“There are some things you teach that you find funny and you hope your students will find funny. It is your job as a teacher to give the context and the background for why it is funny,” Shuler said.

Humor also builds bridges between teachers and students. According to research from Southern Illinois University, a teacher’s use of humor is positively associated with student perceptions that the instructor had a positive attitude toward them, wants them to succeed, and displays genuine concern for them.

“My humor is really self-deprecating. Being a teenager is a time when you are really self-conscious. So if you can see someone else being self-conscious, especially a teacher, then you can more openly talk about really intense unfamiliar ideas. It makes receiving the message easier than if the teacher is totally distant from you,” Upper School science teacher Ned Heckman said.

Creating a joyful environment for learning and connection can be either spontaneous or planned. Often, teachers find that a planned lesson can lead to impromptu jokes in class.

If one class laughs, I’ll probably try the same story on another class. it works about half the time.”

— Upper School English teacher Haseena Hamzawala

“I never really plan funny things. But if one class laughs, I’ll probably try the same story on another class. It works half of the time,” Upper School English teacher Haseena Hamzawala said.

From science to English to math, comedy presents itself in the curriculum. A math problem with a linear equation is more “straightforward” than a higher polynomial, and organic chemistry is difficult as those who study it have “alkynes” of trouble.

“It seems that there are often unintentional puns that happen in the classroom. It’s the unintended humor and a good laugh that keep you in the moment,” Upper School science teacher Karissa Baker said.

Other teachers have experience in improv and stand-up comedy, two practices that can lend skills to delivery of both lectures and jokes.

Both de Sa e Silva and Heckman participate in improv in their free time, and Upper School Director of Debate Tom Fones has family in the stand-up comedy business.

“My son is a comedian. He got it from me, rather than the other way around,” Fones said.

Humor facilitates the creation of an environment where students are not afraid to fail. Trial and error is valuable for the learning process.

“Humor and songs lighten the mood and allow kids to take more risks than they would otherwise,” Upper School Spanish teacher Pam Starkey said.

Working in the Spanish classroom for seventeen years, Starkey has developed a foolproof system of lively humor, song, facial expressions, and voice tones to cultivate a convivial classroom environment where students feel unafraid to make mistakes experimenting with a foreign language.

“Science has proven that when you laugh, you open up pathways of the brain, so more of the brain is engaged,” Starkey said.

Humor is one of many is creative tools available to teachers. All the teachers who use humor work together to create a happy environment at SPA.  

“I just enjoy my students, and I enjoy a good laugh, and I definitely appreciate anyone with a good sense of humor,” Baker said.

When used genuinely, humor builds bridges between teachers and students, students and concepts, and concepts and memory. Successful humor can be dry or zany, but is always a realistic reflection of what the teacher finds amusing.

“For me, it is not necessarily about trying to be funny, but it is more about just as a teacher trying to be myself. So, if humor is part of who you are, it makes sense to show it in class. I don’t think it is necessary; I just think teachers should behave generally as they are and respond honestly to the things they are talking about in class,” de Sa e Silva said.