Jokes are verbal accounts or visual acts that make us laugh in some way, from a titter to a belly laugh. What have jokes got to do with communication and education?
Joking denotes humour; a good sense of humour is highly valued in social interaction. Jokes can put staff in education at ease in formal situations such as presentations and meetings. Used correctly they diffuse tension and refocus attention.
Similarly, in the classroom they can be used to good effect. In my teacher training days, in an inner city school, I sometimes pulled out a joke book to help inattentive students to engage in various lessons. For instance, a few of the boys in the class detested writing and handwriting lessons specifically were an anathema to them. One particular pupil, who even in year 1 thought himself a bit of a ‘gangster’, with his handsome looks, cologne and swagger, was known for refusing to write, until one handwriting lesson I wrote a few jokes on the board for the class to copy. As I read out each paragraph, this boy was soon doubled over with laughter as he realised, they were jokes, such as, “What goes, ‘Ha! Ha! Bonk!? A man laughing his head off!” He completed his handwriting task, laughing out loud every now and again. Attempting to recovering his street cred, he exclaimed that he only wrote them down because they were funny but not to expect him to ever do any writing again. Still, he laughed about it again when I recounted the story at parents evening, and gave his parents and I a way-in to discussing with him why it was so important to be able to write things down and to write legibly.
Despite the benefits, there are times when jokes can be problematic. Both staff and students with social understanding difficulties, for example those on the autism spectrum may struggle to understand jokes. Jokes, which are sophisticated, rather than obvious and not dependent on slapstick, are heavily reliant on the listener being able to read between the lines to infer the implied meaning. Often there is a play on words, use of idioms or sarcasm which may go over their heads. The implication of not being able to work out when someone is joking can be far reaching. Joking, bantering – bants – are such an important feature of social life amongst students and staff. Many students in such situations end up in arguments or even fights with their classmates and can find it difficult to make or keep friends because they might misinterpret their peers’ intentions and take jokes seriously.
Could this also be evident amongst staff, hopefully without the physical fights?
Joking and bantering between students and staff can lead to enjoyable lessons and interactions but need to be carefully handled. Staff need to be aware of those students who might not understand jokes. For instance, a teacher might joke, “No matter how much you push the envelope, it will still be stationery!” Most students might loudly exclaim, “Oh Sir/Miss!” and some might laugh but the student with the communication difficulty may either feel completely lost and excluded or laugh along, often too loud and for a bit longer than the other students. It is likely this response is intended to mask them feeling just as lost as if they sat silently; however, it often draws attention to them just the same. In such cases teachers and support staff could either keep their interaction with these students to literal language or explain when they are joking. This might seem to defeat the object of joking, in that explaining a joke often kills it, causing other students to at least groan exaggeratedly.
Nevertheless, the student with the communication difficulty might gradually learn about this style of communication. As they progress, staff should be prepared for painful times when the student described tries to joke, often falling short of landing the punch line correctly or having no punch line at all, leaving everyone non-plussed. The teacher would do well to have some compassionate comments to diffuse the situation so that the student is not ridiculed by the class. It can be an uphill struggle as the student learns to identify private jokes, practical jokes and when the joke is on them. Speech and language therapists often work on recognising and interpreting jokes successfully, but can telling jokes and being funny be developed? Eventually the student might come to tolerate a groan from the teacher or the rest of the class as they accept that their joke was not seen as funny at all. Indeed, this can be an on-going humorous situation if handled correctly and the student can eventually laugh at their efforts along with the rest of the class. What would be the ethical approach to a staff member presenting with the serious lack of a sense of humour which impacts on interaction in the education setting?