A version of this essay originally appeared in Middle Ground magazine in October, 2008.
Don’t smile until after Christmas. I’ve always been puzzled when I overhear talk of this informal policy when it comes to dealing with students. Some teachers feel like they must convey a position of unyielding authority throughout the first several months of the school year. Even more unfortunate are those educators who continue in the wrong profession—not enjoying their line of work, thus unlikely to display overt happiness or joy. Regardless of the reasons for failing to display humanity in the classroom—in the form of spontaneous laughter, gentle joking with students, or smiles abounding—it is sad and even detrimental for students to be stuck in these environments.
Admittedly, it is difficult to assess school culture and its effect on students, enthusiasm for academic subjects, attitudes, and other qualitative measures. But these indicators of student learning, growth, and development are more important than the endless string of numbers describing school academic indices in this age of testing and accountability. Brain research proves that influential, long-term knowledge retention is linked to positive emotions. The way students feel when at school is critical when determining the effectiveness of teaching and learning, a counterpoint to traditionalists who criticize progressive educators and their penchant for being too touchy-feely.
Laughter, smiles, and other positive emotions are wonderful elements of our humanity. When teachers model these qualities, it is likely a sign of enthusiasm for their subject, and this excitement is likely to rub off on students. Good teaching and learning engages feelings, according to Eric Jensen, author of Teaching with the Brain in Mind. Jensen cites dozens of studies in his work that establish the importance of emotion in relation to learning, capturing student attention, and memory.
In what type of classroom are student emotions more likely to be tapped, triggered, or engaged, thus likely to result in more effective teaching and learning? Is it in a classroom with straight-rows of desks, much lecturing, low levels of banter, and little interaction between students and teacher? Or is it in a classroom full of spontaneity, laughter, and a sparkle in the instructor’s eye when elaborating on a familiar, exciting topic?
I remember milling about in Mr. Larry Wolfe’s classroom, lucky to be a member of the Wolfepack Village. Mr. Wolfe devised a way for eight and nine-year-olds to claim ownership in this “mini-town,” acting as tax collectors, mayors, wood workers, and bankers. I remember Mr. Wolfe assisting us with challenging tasks like balancing our checkbooks, leading sing-a-longs while strumming his acoustic guitar, and being brought to tears as he read us Where the Red Fern Grows. Palpable excitement surged through the room most days as we bustled about, unaware that we were learning so much in the way of academic and social skills.
In 8th grade, Mrs. Lewis brought in candles (probably outlawed these days) and spooky music for our ghost story readings. We got into it. In 10th grade biology, Mr. Browne always had a glint in his eye when introducing a new topic, such as behaviorism—we ended up training rats during class for several weeks. We got into that, too.
As a teacher, I strive to recreate the feelings like the ones I experienced in these classrooms for my own students, knowing that, perhaps, they’ll be as turned on to language arts and, more generally, learning. I don’t fear detrimental consequences if I laugh during the opening month of school. If laughter and spontaneity explode in my classroom due to joyful engagement with subject, I am ecstatic.
I’m not proposing a learning environment in which a teacher shouldn’t ever be stern or serious. Just the other day, a student blurted out an insensitive remark and others laughed. I frowned, pausing in the lesson to explain that these types of comments will not be tolerated, asking the students to think about being in somebody else’s shoes. Of course we can’t exude happiness and passion every day. But if we are able to display humanity and enthusiasm, research backs up claims that students are likely to learn more effectively. This isn’t even mentioning long-term—and hard to measure—benefits of students getting excited about a given subject, because he or she has seen his or her mentor do the same.
According to Parker Palmer, author of The Courage to Teach, great, inspirational teachers may differ in their instructional methods—some may rely on lecture, cooperative learning, or creative chaos, amongst other techniques, but they do not differ much in their enthusiasm for subject and willingness to expose their humanity, thus likely to trigger positive emotions in students.
When hiring teachers, administrators should do their best to go beyond basis content knowledge, and gauge the candidate’s passion for his or her subject. But enthusiasm for subject matter won’t necessarily translate to poignant learning experiences for students. The passion, coupled with an openness to explore the tricky job of triggering student attention and emotion, can result in transformative learning experiences for teacher and student. We need to get to the point where laughter and excitement in the classroom shouldn’t be contained in elementary school settings, but celebrated and practiced through middle and high schools as well.
What emotions do you associate with your most effective learning experiences? To what extent should learning be “fun” for students? Do you have any anecdotes to back up assertions in this piece?