News Detail

The Art of Teaching: Part 4

By Mr. Ben Walter
Part 4 - Know Other Things - Using Humor
If asked why I decided to major in classics over political science in college, I'd say it was my teachers. They were brilliant, humane, and eccentric--for example, the Greek professor who threw a chair (dramatically) to solidify to a flagging pupil the difference between the active and passive voice. When teachers are interesting and humorous people, they lighten the mental onus of learning. My Latin teachers made Latin--a notoriously "irrelevant" college major--a very relevant one. Perhaps one could say there are no useless subjects, no tedious subjects, just useless teachers and tedious teachers.
Highet writes, "...To hope to stimulate young and active minds, teachers in schools and colleges must see more, think more, and understand more than the average man and woman in the society in which they live" (49).
A lofty aim--and an example of Highet's inspirational ideals at their most daunting! These qualities of a teacher, interest and humor, are firmly in the territory of the "art" of teaching; it's impossible to quantify a person's humor quotient. Nor is "the art of being funny" easily taught and trying too hard at a joke is counterproductive. And so it would seem that Highet is stating the obvious (we all like engaging teachers), but not the helpful. As if you were to say to an aspiring musician that concert pianists have the quality of quick fingers. Well yes, but is that quality a gift, or a skill, or both, and is it attainable?
Fortunately, Highet goes on to explain himself in more concrete terms. His advice to teachers boils down to this: don't settle! Keep learning and learn widely. Know what is happening in your own field, but more than that, keep up with the news, keep up with hobbies, with leisure reading, with pop culture. Teachers are a kind of bridge from childhood to maturity, and thus should know and access where students are coming from and where they need to go. If a teacher knows a lot about a lot, he and his subject will hold a fascination for students who usually assume that adult minds are stagnated and ossified.
In the realm of humor, Highet suggests spicing up lessons with occasional anecdotes to show that you are a real human being, and that this subject has made an impact on your life outside the classroom.1 Another tip for teachers is to let students (appropriately) provide the humor. If a student says something funny--and they often can be genuinely funny--let the class laugh and join in heartily. A couple minutes of laughter together will make the other forty-eight minutes of class more productive and congenial than otherwise. In fact, building a give-and-take rapport with students creates a unity between the teacher and the class. It is one of the most vital and difficult tasks of teaching. Highet quotes an old teacher who said, "I consider a day's teaching wasted if we do not all have one hearty laugh" (55). I'd add a word of caution against forced merriment. Students, like adults, enjoy natural, spontaneous fun and steady, productive work. 
Highet's words can be taken more broadly as well. Having a moment of real laughter in a meeting can really begin some productive bargaining. Reading widely or learning a new language--just for the fun of it--may help you choose stocks. 
Ultimately, leaders (whether teacher, parent, boss, or coach) who are interesting and humorous can often create effective teams and cover for their other natural inadequacies. If we are all on the same side, pulling towards the same goal, a pleasant joke along the way makes the work seem easy. 

Stay tuned for Part 4: "Abilities of A Good Teacher"

1As a caveat: Highet wrote his book in a culture of academic rigor and stiff formality. He would likely have been appalled by teachers who hammed it up in class or spent the period discussing the latest television shows with their pupils.

Mountain Range


Jackson Hole Classical Academy
P.O. Box 7466
Jackson, WY 83002
Enrollment Inquiries:
Polly Friess
(307) 690-8396
All Other Inquiries:
School Office
(307) 201-5040
Subscribe to our Newsletters:
Click Here


© 2020 Jackson Hole Classical Academy. All Rights Reserved.

Nondiscrimination Policy: Jackson Hole Classical Academy admits students of any gender, race, color, and national or ethnic origin to all the rights, privileges, programs and activities generally accorded or made available to students. Jackson Hole Classical Academy does not discriminate on the basis of gender, race, color, national or ethnic origin in the administration of its educational policies, admissions policies, tuition assistance, athletic, arts or other school administrated programs.