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Why Teachers Need to Laugh by Leanne Shirtliffe

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I’ve only known Leanne for about 9 months, but it feels like I have known her forever. And I mean that in a good way. Not the way you would say that about some weird cousin or something, you know when you roll your eyes. She’s like one of my blogging besties. For reals.

I like to imagine that — one day — we will stop Skyping and sit side by side. I could listen to her Canadian accent for hours. That thought makes me feel funny inside. But in a good touch way. Because that’s the way we roll like thunder under our cyber-blankets. I have no idea what that means. Follow Leanne’s blog HERE or stalk her on Twitter at @Lshirtliffe, eh?

• • •

Like Renée, I love good wordplay. If it crosses the line of appropriateness, I love it all the more. I am constantly saying what I shouldn’t.

This started in high school. I remember sitting in twelfth grade chemistry class; I had handcuffed my lab partner to me because he wouldn’t sit still and do his share of the work.

Shane and Leanne, handcuffed

My teacher was my volleyball coach, a man who had a good sense of humor and knew me well. I sat at the desk with my Texas Instruments calculator and my partner, desperately trying to write up the lab before going out-of-town for a weekend tournament. Our Friday afternoon class, meanwhile, went sideways and launched into a spirited, circular discussion on the pronunciation of certain words.

Different students bandied options about. Even our teacher, whose first name was Richard, participated eagerly.

“Is it to-MAY-to or to-MAH-to?”

“How about of-FEN or of-TEN?”

“What about po-TAY-to or po-TAH-to?”

“Is it HER-bal or ER-bal?”

A loud debate ensued. I sat there, rubbing my wrist, trying to finish the lab. Shane, my partner, sat there too. He had little choice.

Frustrated, I decided to have the last word. I raised my hand and looked directly at my teacher.

“Is it Rick… or Dick?”

The class shifted in silence.

My teacher stood wide-eyed, staring back at one of his top students. He paused and said, “Get to work. Everyone.”

I had crossed the line.

• • •

Now that I teach eighth and ninth grade English, I know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of students who cross the line. I also know that I still cross the line, unwittingly in the classroom. My capacity to embarrass myself as a teacher is limitless.

Every class, I write an agenda on the board. Most days I do this hurriedly as students rush in and take their seats; in the interest of haste, I take shortcuts, scrawling abbreviations of the day’s tasks on the whiteboard.

On more than one occasion, I’ve written agendas like the following:

This agenda appears to belong to an edgy sexual education class, rather than to one doing literary analysis and oral assessments. Try explaining this to fourteen year olds who are in various hilarious stages of hyperventilation and full-out laughter.

Lately, I’ve found myself in as semi-serious discussion, explaining the terms wet-nurse, weaning, and “ho”.

Thank you, Shakespeare, for helping us to giggle through Romeo and Juliet.

My biggest bonehead move occurred a few years ago. I was trying to explain what a static character was to my ninth graders. I knew they had all studied S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders two years ago. Keep in mind that when I’m teaching, I tend to scoot across the room like Mary Poppins, enthusiastic, gesticulating, and full of self-importance caffeine.

Do you remember Dally from The Outsiders? Let’s examine him. He was a hard character. He remained hard throughout the whole novel. In every aspect, he was hard. He never changed. His hardness was evident from the first page to the end of the novel.


Evidently I too am a static character.

Thank God for laughter.

And thank God for the continual reminders that it is healthy to laugh at ourselves.

What do you remember laughing about in the classroom?

86 thoughts on “Why Teachers Need to Laugh by Leanne Shirtliffe

  1. I laughed until I cried… as far as your static character’s foil? I am so naive, I would have had to have someone explain to me the humor there. But your whiteboard? Leanne, you bless me with the best medicine all of the time, laughter. Thank you.

    1. Thanks, K. Just picture me seated on my white bar stool at the front of the classroom (every teacher needs a bar stool…and likely a drink), prostrate with laughter. Easier on the mascara I usually forget to apply than crying is!

  2. I can’t believe the handcuffs! That is AWESOME. I didn’t think they had such things in friendly Canada 😉 And I think your Rick comment is priceless.

    One of my favorite jokes (edited for delicate eyes): What do you get when you cross a [male’s naughty bits] and a potato? …A dictator!

  3. So glad to hear that I am not alone!

    I teach 9th grade and returned to the classroom this fall after a 5-year hiatus where I was running AmeriCorps programs (cheesy Ameripuns and borderline inappropriate comments are the norm in the AmeriWorld). Returning to teach is the best decision I have made and working with seniors in my Theory of Knowledge class was a seamless transition, but I also teach freshmen and, despite my memory, they are very young!

    After my first semester, I am known for being extremely hard. (I mean like “Ms. Fischer totally expects us to learn how to write in Humanities and gives us soooooo much homework! OMG!”). I’m also a bit unpredictable. The best example was the infamous “penis” incident when I drew a quick not so accurate Ionic column on the board and then turned a soft shade of pink when I realized that instead of a column what looked like a very large penis was taking up half of the board.

    Being the daughter of a sex education teacher (yes, my dad taught me sex ed. in 5th grade), I immediately laughed with the class, and then embarrassed them further by pointing out the inaccuracies in the drawing and asking them to ask the health teacher for more details. While it was not the highlight of my teaching career, it certainty broke the ice and has made the classroom environment friendlier.

    Thanks for the laughter!

    1. Sarah, thanks for sharing that hilarious anecdote. First, don’t you love Theory of Knowledge? (I taught IB English for 8 years). TOK rocks. But the penis: you handled it splendidly, if you know what I mean. And I think you have the germination of a book idea with your dad teaching you sex ed in fifth grade!

      1. Leanne – First I love TOK and that you actually know what I am talking about as most people just give me a blank stare. Second, feel free to develop the book idea as I only wish I was witty enough to capitalize on such an ridiculous situation.


        PS “You handled it splendidly” … seriously, I might have peed my pants laughing when I read this and I think that it is a direct reflection on my 5th grade experience.

  4. I had to really apply myself to refrain from using my sarcastic wit. Most of it went over their heads but there were many sharp 11th graders that picked up on the joke. Sometimes I crossed the line but was never too proud to apologize to the whole class and they appreciated that. I encouraged laughter in the class. My favorite answer on a history test was “Angelo Saxon” You know, that famous Italian guy that settled England. Snort.

  5. Shirtsleeves:

    You know I am so glad that you are here today, kicking off the whole new thang with “Lessons Learned” and all.

    You might recall how during a short story unit I misquoted the title of Flannery O’Connor’s Classic. Yup, right there in huge letters: “A Hard Man is Good to Find” instead of “A Good Man is Hard to Find”.

    So. Embarrassing.

    You know, because I was pregnant and all.

    Still we made it through with laughter.

    And a good chalkboard eraser.

    If only everyone would laugh more.

    Myself included.

    Also I find falling down is always good for classroom giggles.

    And I am pretty good at that.


    1. Renzay, thanks for having me. And sorry for the deadline thing. I do always meet my deadlines, but I tend to cut it close!

      I remember your fab Flan. story well. Classic. We need to edit a book of hilarious teacher stories…I’m thinking Tyler could author a third of them.

      And falling down? I prefer to do that in the hallway and parking lot, both of which have happened in the past few months. In front of students. Melting snow is hard to spot on hallway floors… Sigh.

  6. Hard is such a… wrong word for adolescents. I try to stick wit difficult. I teach 7th grade and I always love The Giver discussion of jobs… there is always some boy who screams they want to be a ‘birth father,’ and then there is the awkward silence or titteering of laughter – some get it and some don’t. there is always that divide. and my all time favorite msitake is when we are bullet pointing notes and I circle one – it looks like a boob and we move on. Crossing the line….. as a student I remember …laughing so hard I could hardly speak but as a teacher in the classroom, laughter is a necessary component – kids need to see you as you human and we so often need to be human – that is what is it is all about – making connections and building relationships and that’s when the real learning occurs.

    1. Well said, Clay. That’s exactly it: seeing you as human. And laughter is such a humane and healthy way to deal with errors because it acknowledges them.

      Laughing at your boob drawing.

  7. I have a hard time not laughing at silly things like that.

    I remember back when I was interviewing for a teaching position, I was tossed into an 8th grade lit class with the principal and the superintendent watching. They were supposed to review The Chocolate War, which yay, I had actually read just a few months before.

    Came up with what I thought was a creative question: If we were to create a movie for The Chocolate War, what are some must-have props and why?

    And then this kid who had previously been ignoring everything else, perked up and said “A bathroom stall” I blanked for a minute and started to ask why and then I rushed and said “Well, not for a PG movie. Moving on.” OMG. I wanted to kick that kid. Or maybe just laugh.

  8. I teach high school French. Last year I was attempting to illustrate Les Champs Elysées in Paris, you know, the grand avenue that is capped by l’étoile, the “star” of smaller avenues that shoot off roundabout at the top of the Elysées. So I drew this enormous column to represent the boulevard. Then I added a rounded top, where the Arc de Triomphe and roundabout are. Someone snickered, and I realized I’d essentially drawn a massive penis on the board. Flustered, I added lines shooting off the tip–I kid you not–and said that these were the streets that splay out in connection to to the roundabout. What to do? I’d inadvertently drawn in a “climactic” ending, You can sort of see the shape of the avenue and its offshoots at the bottom of this page I found via Google:
    Instant classic embarrassment.

  9. Well, the full story is that *he* brought the handcuffs in and was goofing off. So I stole them and handcuffed him to me. He thought it was funny. I think. He was incredibly clever, just hard to pin down. The cuffs helped….

  10. You crack me up. I can totally see you asking your teacher whether it’s Rick or Dick.
    Great post. Thanks for the laugh!

    1. On a volleyball road trip, I also played the name game with my coach’s name. But because one syllable names work better, I shortened his to Rich. Sing with me now: “Rich, Rich, Bo, Bitch…”

      1. Great post! This type of thing is what keeps getting me into great trouble with my wife.

        Anywho, my 5 yo daughter has just stated playing the word by herself, at random moments. My son sent me a recording of a word that rhymes with “store.” IKYKWIM

        We have not taught her these words.

  11. My teaching experiences didn’t come until I was a 14-year veteran in the Navy. I taught computer programming and repair (1975-style). My class was only 17 people, but was mixed male/female in age ranges from 18 to 21.

    Every so often, we would drift off-topic with puns and innuendos. Propriety restrains me from repeating most of our hilarious moments. Suffice it to say that the subject matter consisted of hard drives, flushing buffers, RAM, spinning the stack, plugging in variables, and the like. Their favorite was ‘extending the length of queues’.

  12. I can only imagine what a hard time you gave your teachers.

    Humor goes a long way in the classroom. They should teach that to those in teacher preparatory programs. Although I’m not sure it can be taught.

  13. I will never forget a high school spanish class I was in. We had a VERY young substitute teacher and the kid next to me raised his hand and asked her, “How do you say, ‘how much for a hooker,’ in spanish?” Don’t know what possessed him to say it, but the sub was HORRIFIED. Class erupted in laughter, but somehow I felt guilty by association. He was promptly ushered to the principal’s office!

    1. Ha! When I was student teaching in a Senior class when I was 22, I got asked on a date. The gentleman was forward, but polite. “I’m not asking you now. I mean when you’re done your student teaching at my school…” Um, no.

  14. I was not a class clown, more of the top geek squad. I’m sure there was a funny incident in Physics one day when we had the teacher turning on a light bulb or something. It was too long ago!

  15. I think the only time I remember wondering if I crossed the line was when a student teacher told me he was scared to ask me for my paper because I was like a bully. Not to the class, but to him. He was student teaching an ancient archaeology and history class that he clearly had no background in. I got annoyed when he mispronounced Mesopotamia every time and all the names in the Odyssey. I was that brat who kept correcting him. The true line came when he kept calling the group the Hittites the Hi-titties. Oh yah, that needed to stop. Moron! LOL

  16. Oh no, that just reminded me of my favorite story from my husband’s school days. Their teacher wore one of those bullet bras and one day the class itch raised his hand and said, “Mrs. Jones, does your titties have bones in ’em?”

  17. When teaching band years ago I distinctly remember telling a female clarinetist that her tits weren’t small enough – that would be ‘tit’ as in the way you place your tongue when playing the staccato articulation of an eighth note……. the band lost it and so did I………

  18. I was one of the class clowns in school. Used to have all sorts of fun trying to convince the subs that I was a new student. I’d come up with some ridiculous name and try to pass it by.

    Convinced one that my name was Ricky Fondleme. I told him that I would only respond to my full name. Don’t know if he was playing along or just stupid, but he did.

    At 14 it was pretty funny.

  19. Anal, oral, Dick, hardness AND handcuffs??? Very funny. I loved this post Leanne. It was the cheer up I needed after the embarrassment of writing about nuts. I like that you remind us to laugh at ourselves.
    Thanks Renee.

  20. Cracking up! I do enjoy a good innuendo. And then the handcuffs? I mean, where on earth did you get them? Did you only use them in that particular class? And your teacher was fine with it? I am in awe.

    For the record, if you asked my dad that question, he would firmly answer Rick.

    Ah, Leanne, you are good for my soul.

  21. That last part really made me laugh out loud! Well, the whole post did, actually. I remember laughing at my Trigonometry teacher who had a blue contact that was always a little bit out of sync with her dark brown eye when it turned quickly. Does that count as a good memory?

  22. My middle school art class has been working on thumbnail sketches. I was explaining and working quickly on an example, the drawing I was doing at my desk being projected larger-than-life onto the adjacent white board when suddenly the room erupted in laughter. Apparently the quick shapes I drew to lay out the basic composition of my drawing had convened to create a huge weiner. Fail.

  23. In my undergraduate Evolutionary Psych class, one of my profs described his field studies way out in the boondocks. He was normally a really mild mannered guy, but he described being absolutely starving and finally getting his hands on a big ol’ chunk of meat. He was about to dive in when a dog came and snagged the meat, prompting him to bodyslam the dog to regain the meat. All of which he demonstrated in a manner that had the classroom laughing, which–endearingly–he found totally bemusing. 🙂

  24. I’m a high school teacher who is consistently reminded and amazed by the sheer number of things that look like a woman’s breasts or a man’s naughty bits when an English teacher with little drawing talent tries to draw something on the board. Now I don’t draw; I just find it on the internet and show it on the SmartBoard.

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