A wise man once said that a teacher requires three bones – a wishbone, a backbone, and a funny bone. Being a vegetarian, I cannot say anything about the importance of the wishbone. As for the backbone, as in the case of most married men, I don’t have one; mine has been replaced by jello. But one thing that I can say with certainty is that if a teacher wishes to take on the slings and arrows of the students of today, he definitely needs the ‘humerus’ – the funny bone.
People often ask me if teachers have a sense of humour, and my usual reply is, “Of course we do. Why else would we take up a job where the pay, most often, is a joke!” For some strange reason, people think teaching is serious business. Teachers themselves want to be seen as ‘scholars’ – a mine of information that an interested student has free access to. In the age of the Internet, when unlimited information is available to the learner at the click of a button, there is a need for a teacher to redefine his role. In addition to being a fount/font of knowledge, he needs to sustain the students’ interest by becoming an entertainer. When I enter the classroom, I see myself as a stand-up comedian, and therefore find no reason to act my age.
It is a course in presentation skills, and a student who had made quite a few grammatical errors in his five-minute presentation is trying to point out the difference in meaning between “The test will be held on Monday” and “The test would be held on Monday”. While he hesitantly tries to unravel the complex world of the modals, his fellow classmates turn their attention to more meaningful activities – a few slyly pull out their phones, others doodle, while one or two show signs of nodding off. I stop the struggling individual before he becomes even more confused and call out the name of a popular student. I say, “X, suppose you have a girl friend”. No sooner are the words uttered, some students giggle, others gasp. Everyone stops doing what they were doing and focus their attention on the popular kid. There is, as we say in India, ‘pin drop silence’. I continue, “You ask the girl to come to a movie with you. Which of the following replies would you prefer? I will come to the movie with you or I would come to the movie with you.” The student’s face breaks into a smile and he replies, “Most definitely ‘will’, Sir”. I ask the other students which answer they’d prefer to hear. Some say ‘will’ and others ‘would’. We then begin to discuss the difference in meaning between ‘will’ and would’; since there’s a ‘significant other’ involved, most students take part in the discussion enthusiastically. At the end, the cheeky among them say that they never ask such a question in English, it’s always in their mother tongue! We all have a good laugh.
In every class there is liberal sprinkling of jokes – some directed at the students and some at myself. As a teacher, I’m not known for my sartorial resplendence. I’m usually seen pacing up and down the classroom in jeans, kurta, and a pair of sandals. As part of the presentation skills course, I tell the students about the importance of dressing appropriately when talking to an audience. Pointing to myself, I ask them, “Do you think these clothes are appropriate for a formal presentation?” They have a good laugh before saying, “No way!” I then narrate an incident from my life as a PhD student in the States. The first time I went to meet my supervisor, I was in shorts and a t-shirt. When I walked into the Department of Language Education, the Office Assistant mistook me for a migrant Mexican farmhand and asked me if I had come to learn English! The students roar with laughter and I join in.
Teachers and students should have fun in the classroom. Humour can add to the learning process. As a student wrote in her semester-end-evaluation report, “There’s something about your course – I haven’t been able to figure out even after two semesters. We have all the fun, we learn a whole lot of extra things and still end up learning quite a lot of complex, serious things.” In the words of Roald Dahl, “a little bit of nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men.”
The author teaches at The English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad. He can be reached at [email protected].