Tomorrow is my fourteenth first day of school as a teacher.
I was thinking back to my early years of teaching. My first evaluation as a student teacher said that I smiled too much: “It might give the students the idea that you are a pushover” according to the my mentor for the semester. A year later, when I started my first teaching job in an urban high school, a colleague suggested that I refrain from smiling until December. “That’s ridiculous,” replied another teacher who was sipping coffee at the next table. “She should at least wait until March.”
I love to laugh. I am not particularly funny myself, but I love silliness in others. Not orchestrated silliness, but genuine, uncensored goofiness. Maybe that is why I have chosen a career teaching middle school.
There is science to back up my love of laughter. Studies show that people who are positive thinkers have more vigorous immune systems resulting in fewer and shorter illnesses. There are also educational benefits of humor – improved attention, retention, and motivation as well as a sense of context.
But what I really love and value are the connections laughter creates. Laughter communicates to society around us. It disarms people, lessens aggression, and creates closeness by sending the message that we are here to play, not fight. But just as positive humor has positive results, negative humor can be divisive and demoralizing. In order to use humor as social glue, students have to watch models of appropriate humor and be given opportunities to practice it successfully just as we offer opportunities to practice writing and scientific method.
You don’t have to turn into a stand-up comedian. I am not a particularly funny person, but I am in a roomful of 8th graders five days a week. Something funny is bound to happen. I don’t ignore or suppress it. We laughed when Mrs. Honeyman knocked the phone off the wall making an unbelievable amount of noise during a state achievement test. We laughed when one of my students asked us “Do I look like a milkman or a robot, because I was going for a milkman.” And once you develop a pattern of good-natured, healthy laughter, kids will feel comfortable with themselves and their environment, and then the really funny stuff comes out.
Perhaps the most interesting argument for laughter that I have read recently is that laughter may be one key to future success. Research shows that the most effective managers in business use humor twice as much as average managers. And even though we lecture our kids about how the “real world” expects them to be punctual, responsible, and reliable, the most common reason people are fired is because they can’t work with their colleagues.
Our students are headed for a global world in which they will have to learn to seek common ground instead of differences, connections instead of divides. Laughter is universal. Every culture on the planet represents internal happiness with a smile. Deaf and blind children smile at the same age as those who see and hear. Laughter is clearly a primal function and removing it from the classroom removes a bit of our own humanity. That seems dangerous considering that the world we are sending our students into requires that they not only be good learners but also good human beings.
As we move into an age when computers can do any automated skill, humans and schools must cultivate those abilities that are uniquely… well, human. And what is more human than a big belly laugh?
I hope all the teachers starting school in the next few weeks get to smile all year long.