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Question

Dear Mitch, 

We live in Georgia and our school year just started. You probably know this but in Georgia we start a month or so earlier then they do up north.  I'm writing about our son. He is in high school, and this year he has a new math teacher.  Not just new for him but new to our school.  Well, all I hear about is what a joker this teacher is, and its not just my son saying it but I've spoken to other mothers and they say the same thing, that their kids come home every day talking about how humorous the math teacher is and sometimes if you push them they'll tell stories and repeat all the big laughs and jokes.  It's gotten to a point where I never hear a thing about any of the math work they supposed to be learning, just how funny it is and how everybody laughs the whole time and how they look forward to their math period every day because they're getting to sit in on another show from the comedian!

Now, I spoke to the principal and the superintendent and someone I know on the hiring committee and they all swear up and down that this fellow has great references and letters of recommendation and a couple of years experience teaching in the Midwest somewhere. 

Fine, so he knows his math.  But what do you think of all the comedy stuff?  Don't you think it's a waste of time and teaches disrespect for school if he's got the students rolling out of their seats instead of sitting up for serious learning?

And how are the other teachers supposed to compete?  Now all of a sudden I hear that a lot of the other teachers are boring compared to Mr. Funnyman!

Shouldn't he stop with the nonsense and get serious at least to set an example? 

Mrs. B.

State of Georgia, U.S.A.

Answer

Dear Mrs. B., 

At the risk of seeming abrupt, even dismissive of your concerns, I'm going to tell you my impression straightaway:  Though I've never met the man you describe (I'm assuming here, because you were wise enough not to give me his name, and I cannot think of any teachers I know who are beginning their first year in Georgia after teaching in the Midwest), you gave such a clear description of his approach and how it concerns you that I almost feel as though I know the teacher personally.  And I like him. 

If  I were the betting type (I'm not), and you were the betting type (none of my business) I would be confident in betting that if I were to check back in with you in a few months I would find that the teacher has won you over.  Perhaps you will never come to appreciate his style, as that is a personal matter and a parent may or may not like a particular teacher's manner of teaching, but that is immaterial.  Other than behaviors which are clearly inappropriate for a teacher, which is something I think we WOULD agree upon, so I won't waste your time spelling out unacceptable practices, there is a wide range of in-class 'behavior' that teachers may exhibit when teaching a class.   Parents are often surprised to observe a lesson in an uncommon or untraditional style, but I give this fact zero import.  What matters is the effectiveness of the teacher.  Would you rather have a very serious teacher who never entertains your child, in a subject that many students do not find as engaging as they could and should?  Perhaps you would – but, if we ignore the idiosyncrasies of personality, which teacher would you prefer – one that manages to get the students to score average-to-above-average on Georgia's state-wide assessments, OR the teacher who gets the kids to score so high that people start asking what strange factor could possibly account for this oddity?

Again, to be clear, I am not saying which personality is attached to either result.  I'm simply presenting the issue of what's material here:  Results.  Effectiveness. 

But, if I were the type to place a bet...

Why do I think this way? 

A few years ago, when I was the Director of Mathematics for a k-12 school in New York, we had a faculty meeting with guest lecturers from Harvard University's Graduate Program in Education, called 'Project Zero'.  As you may know, I happen to be a 'Project Zero' alum, and I was aware that whatever information these professors would relate would be well-documented, well-researched, and backed up by specific studies.  One of the main points they discussed was from a recent study to determine which parts of an entire semester's lecture series college students recalled most vividly.

If memory serves me, hundreds of students from various universities were surveyed and tested in a range of subjects in which they were enrolled or had already completed.

The results were unanimous:  Of the students who recalled anything at all, there was one thing all of them recalled:  THEIR PROFESSOR'S 'JOKES'. 

I recall a stunned audience (all right, maybe just surprised, but they were uncharacteristically quiet for longer than I could recall previously seeing).  Old, young, new teachers, veteran teachers, teachers of primary years, high school instructors-- everyone seemed confused by this news.  And most interesting to me was this:  The Harvard professors reporting it to the faculty of my school seemed to find it just as surprising and unsettling as the listeners.

But there was one particular aspect to the interaction that surprised me even more:  The finding seemed to be reported and received as "bad news", or at least unsettling news, even sobering news.  After all, that's what the students recalled?  What about the 'material' the teacher was supposed to have conveyed? 

I am just as likely to be surprised by information reported by new studies of educational issues as anyone in the field.  That day, however, was an exception.  There are things that every teacher figures out and knows to be fact, and for me it turned out to be the subject of what students recall.  When it comes to this particular issue, incidentally, I believe most adults are not much different;  like most adults, I've attended my share of dinner parties and social functions, and when I think of the ones that came and went more than two or three years ago, I would find it a challenge to recall the names of the people I was introduced to, hard to recall what type of food was served or whatever current events people discussed, but if I were asked to stand up tomorrow and tell whatever jokes I may know, I would probably include whatever jokes people shared with me at those functions, despite the fact that years have passed.

And other adults have reported the same phenomenon to me.  They remember enough of a joke they liked to add it to their collection forever. 

Back to the fact that it was reported and received as 'bad news'.  It is not 'bad', nor is it 'good'.  It is a fact, and as facts go, it is neutral.  Negative ('bad news'), for example, might be the fact that someone you were fond of was severely injured in an accident.

When given a fact, one can ignore it, attempt to disprove it, have an emotional reaction to it, or USE it to help people.  Why shouldn't teachers be expected to — even required to -- use whatever creativity they have for their desire to teach effectively and devise ways to tie humor to the important information they are already expected to communicate.  If jokes seem to stick, this is helpful information.  Let's use it.  There is no subject that does not provide opportunities to entertain.  The world and life moves too quickly to avoid any effective tool that one can find. And the good news?  It's one of the few effective tools that school districts don't have to consider when working on their annual budget -- laughter is free. 

Regarding any teacher new to the community, before judging him/her, lighten up! 

Hope this helps,

Mitch