No one likes a chatterbox, least of all teenagers eagerly clinging to the hope of a lunch break, and much less the satiated stomachs after lunch. Students do not enter the classroom with an existential take on boredom as a state integral to their becoming fulfilled adults. As such, most teachers have resorted to banter as a way to liven up their lessons and gain influence among students.
Defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “the playful and friendly exchange of teasing remarks”, banter has become a feature of contemporary life. We know that children respond better to adults who have a sense of humour, and there is certainly nothing wrong with being likeable (within the parameters of professionalism). In fact, the give-and-take with students, the trusting rapport, and the shared affection, are at the core of teaching. As such, classroom jokes and occasional banter may seem light-hearted and harmless.
That being said, it is important to note that the friendly, well-intentioned and non-school related playful conversations we can sometimes have with students are one thing, but a tease that has a student at the butt of a joke is another. Other students may laugh at your spiteful reference to their colleague as the one with cheeks like watermelon or with fingers like ginger, or face like a confused road map, but the victims may find themselves trapped by such situations—leaving them with little recourse other than getting irate or distraught. Either way you come across as a bully or too friendly—you are doomed!
Let’s face it, when you tease students, use slang or try to be cool or become overly sociable, they’ll lose respect for you. Your influence comes from your position as their teacher, not their friend. Writing for the teacher publication TES, Keziah Featherstone, head of Q3 Academy, argues that “doing everything that you can to be liked, rather than respected, rarely pans out well. Whether it’s bribing kids with low expectations, letting them get away with bad behaviour or trying to be their friend, it won’t work as a parent and it won’t work in the classroom.”
Apart from running the risk of overstepping your authority and bullying students, vicious jokes in the classroom may also result into an uncontrollable class. As soon as students get a whiff of your “cool teacher” vibe due to your jokes/teasing, they’ll start challenging and testing you. And, you’ll likely find yourself in a showdown with a few or more students bent on wresting control of the classroom from you. They will react to your buddy-buddy management style by routinely and nonchalantly breaking your rules. They’ll assume, since you are friends who joke together and tease each other, the rules don’t really apply to them.
Do not get me wrong; ignoring the needs of students by not engaging them in ways that are meaningful and exciting is negligence of our duty as educators. All the same, humour must not be aimed at a certain student and should certainly not involve a teacher crossing the line. Influence that is powerful enough to get your students to want to behave and want to learn is not born of peer-like friendship, casualness, or laid-back coolness. It is born of likeability and respect.