I spent a lot of time those first few months talking to the middle school director who had years of experience in this strange world and an amazing rapport with the students. He taught me great deal in those chats and I'll be forever grateful.
One of the most important things he taught me is the serious value of humor. He told me about a study that had asked students about the qualities they appreciated most in their teachers. I forget the numbers, but an extremely high number--I believe it was somewhere between 70%-90%--identified humor.
I had been so busy trying to keep order and ensure learning that I had not ever taken the time to try to develop or demonstrate a sense of humor with them. I started to work on that and found that he was right. When working with adolescents a sense of humor is critical! Not only in terms of connecting with the kids, but because there are many times that you will be frustrated and discouraged and a sense of humor is all that will keep you going. Humor can also help defuse tense moments for the kids. I've found that if they make a high stakes mistake, or something goes wrong during an important rehearsal, my laughter and a quick joke will generally soothe and relax them far more than all the talks or reassurances in the world.
Over the years, I've found that not all humor is equal with most adolescents. Of course there are exceptions and I'm speaking in generalities here, but my experience is that three kinds of humor work particularly well with them: 1) Dry, deadpan humor 2) Sarcasm 3) Self-deprecating humor.
Let me quickly add that sarcasm doesn't mean rudeness, and I'm not talking about sarcasm being used in a way to belittle, demean, or mock a child. That is unconscionable and I want to make that clear at the outset.
You have to remember that one of the highest priorities for adolescents is not to look lame. This is a compelling, driving force. It's why they always try so hard to look cool, to not show overt, outward emotion. To do so makes you vulnerable to being thought lame.
So, if you go in and tell a joke you think is hilarious and you are belly-laughing, they will mostly look at you like you are incredibly lame. They just don't respond well to this sort of overt manifestation of feelings. It makes them feel vulnerable for you and it makes them worry that if they laugh, they will look as lame as you. So they roll their eyes and pretend to think it's lame--even if they think it's funny.
You have to be subtle. If you laugh too hard, or think you are funny, they will not. The trick to humor with this age is to make it subtle enough that they have to think about it, and wonder if you meant to be funny or not. That's why dry humor works so well with them. It's subtle and makes them think. It also provides protection for them because they don't feel forced to respond--and therefore be vulnerable to being thought lame. They can respond at their own level.
I think I'll do a whole different post on sarcasm because there are a lot of cautions and provisos I think are important to remember.
But the other other form of humor that works very well is self-deprecation. Remember that these kids live in a world where they are basically controlled in every way by adults. They have very little autonomy. Frankly, that's as it should be in many ways, but it's still frustrating.
Think how much you enjoy hearing someone with a lot of power over you show some self-deprecation. I remember that the first President Bush had a quick and self-deprecating sense of humor that endeared him to many, even his political opponents.
If I poke gentle fun at my weight or the length of my nose or my sweater vests, my students generally love it. If I reference my amazing athletic skills or talk about being a battle rapper they eat it up. Especially if it's done in a very deadpan way.
I think it makes me seem more approachable and a bit more human, less like a distant, powerful being who can give them demerits or a bad grade if they step out of line. The truth is, parents and teachers have enormous power to make adolescents happy or miserable. Self-deprecation is a bit of sugar that helps that medicine go down.
Every year in February, the bleakest month of teaching, I let my students do a parody of a teacher. They take a Broadway showtune and then change the lyrics to make a sort of Saturday Night Live-style spoof of a teacher. I preview the content and there are rules to help them not be too mean or personal. This is easily their favorite thing we do all year. I'm convinced that part of that is because it's fun and they get to be creative and think out of the box--but more than that, I think there is a sort of transgressive thrill they feel about being able to make fun of an omnipotent teacher.
There's another advantage as well, with self-deprecating humor, and it can work well with more hostile crowds of students: when you make fun of something, you effectively neutralize any criticism of that thing.
I had a professor who taught theatre education classes. He had a strategy he used when he had to do an activity he felt was important, but that the kids would think was stupid. He'd say, "Now we're going to play the stupid name game." Immediately he had removed their ability to not participate. They couldn't say, 'This is stupid," because he had pre-empted them. This works like a charm.
One caveat: in being self-deprecating, it's important not to go too far and be self-critical or demonstrate a low self-concept. We don't want students to get down on themselves, or model for them being obsessed with one's flaws. Generally, I've found it best not to joke about anything that really bothers me about myself. It can upset the more sensitive students and almost hurt their feelings in your behalf. It's important to keep things light, and also, to use any kind of humor with care and moderation.
One final thought about humor: I've learned that if I have any doubt at all about whether a particular joke or line is a good idea, it's generally not. So I filter pretty carefully what I say and do. Humor has a lot of power, so in some cases, it's best to not go for the joke rather than risk hurting someone's feelings at a vulnerable time.