Just Kidding!

Reading time: 4

John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
Read more about John Dabell

Do you suffer from FOLF (Fear of Looking Foolish)?

FOLF isn’t something playful and creative colleagues suffer from. They like taking risks, being silly and having a laugh.  I worked with a teacher once called Joe King…no I’m not joking, that was his name. He was a really funny bloke, a natural comedian, someone that had children in stitches and he loved acting the goat.

Joe was a cross between Timmy Mallet, Mr Tumble and one of those fake nut tins that contain springy snakes that fly out when you prize open the lid. He taught Year 6 and everyone wanted to be in his class including the teachers.

You could hear the laughter coming from his classroom across the playground.

On a 1-10 Children’s Mirth Scale where 1 = snicker to 10 = belly laugh and tears, children often complained of tummy ache and could often be seen crying in his class.  The sad thing is that just 3 years later he left teaching to become a stand-up doing ‘gigs’ in pubs and clubs and he loved it.

Teachers turned comics isn’t unusual and for some it’s a natural shift and brilliant career move. There are lots of teachers who have done it as well including Greg Davies, Romesh Ranganathan,  Johnny Vegas and Frank Skinner. Whilst some comics might have attended a drama school or taught drama themselves, this isn’t necessary.

All schools are drama schools anyway – they are full of it and so are the perfect training grounds for stand-ups to kid around.

Dead centre: 

The malleable middle bit of a Venn diagram is where teaching and stand-up mix together and flood the oval intersection with shared characteristics. They both involve working the audience, challenging the audience, delivery, timing, rapport, immediacy, affection, enthusiasm, ad libbing, adaptation, exchanging energy, authenticity, exaggeration, anecdotes, dealing with hecklers and pushing at the boundaries.

Teaching, learning and humour are partners and together can perform miracles in the right hands. Not everyone can pull it off but those that can live with you. Think back. Who do you remember?

For me it was Mick Bailey, an intellectual and droll teacher who used to tie elastic bands into his hair whilst delivering heavy-duty sociological concepts mixed with sarcasm. The elastic bands flew off mid-sentence and he’d remain deadpan. His constant catchphrase was “Give ‘em what they want. That’s what they came for” and we did. We wanted more fun, we got it, we came back for more and we learnt lots in the process; Mick delivered the goods and helped us move from Ha Ha to Ah-Ha!


But back to Joe King….what made him so good at being a teacher was his spontaneous ‘banter’. He fed off the energy and humour of the children and he gave it all back with extra toppings. He used to say that playful chat and witty exchanges were the most important ingredients in the classroom as they ‘relaxed minds’ and made them more susceptible to learning.

He was a natural wordsmith and his forte was getting children engaged with language.

He put a premium on oracy and milked every opportunity to trade words and conversations to get children thinking but above all speaking. He wasn’t a flippant teacher but knew how to play with language and most of his witticisms, wisecracks and ripostes were juicy lessons in puns, malapropisms, Wellerisms, spoonerisms, ambiguities, riddles, puzzles, poems and rhymes.

Joe didn’t josh, rib and quip to embarrass or upstage but made sure it counted for something and had educational value. Children liked to repeat his jokes and became wordsmiths themselves. He’d even have children doing a stand-up routine of their own each week telling jokes to build their confidence.

I’m here all week …

One thing Joe King did every day without fail was write a couple of jokes on the board along with an example of word play technique that children would have to explain and name. Language was there to be dissected and enjoyed. For example,

  • I’m very good friends with 25 letters of the alphabet. I don’t know why.
  • Would a cardboard belt be a waist of paper?
  • This boy just threw milk, eggs and cheese at me. How dairy.
  • I recently got crushed by a pile of books…I suppose I’ve only got my shelf to blame.

Joe’s modus operandi was to start the day with a joke and to keep messing and mucking about until 3:30pm. His day appeared to be one long performance that other teachers used to think was just an exhausting act but it wasn’t. That’s who he was. But his day was also carefully planned and prepared like every other teacher and he’d always have a trick up his sleeve to maximise interaction.


But Joe didn’t just rely on words, he used a vast array of comedy props too to make learning fun and memorable.

Props can do the trick because they can help the learning stick. His desk and bookshelves were crammed with things like wigs, hats, moustaches, comedy glasses, chattering teeth, a rubber hammer, an oversized lightbulb, an inflatable guitar and quite a few magic tricks too.

He used props not as distractions or cheap support acts but to add to the excitement, liven up dry concepts, evoke an emotional response and propel learning.

His view was that cultivating a sense of humour was a ‘no brainer’ because the benefits to pupils were obvious:

  1. enhanced self-esteem
  2. improved motivation
  3. reduced stress and anxiety (especially around tests)
  4. improved the class atmosphere
  5. boosted creative thinking
  6. enriched divergent thinking
  7. improved attentiveness and interest
  8. upgraded retention
  9. enriched rapport
  10. made learning enjoyable

Like a hole in the head!

I met up with Joe recently and I asked him if he missed ‘being’ a teacher. He said, “No, teaching is just a big joke. I used to hate the spreadsheets, data, ‘targits’, marking and all those bloody meetings. Yeah, of course I miss it. Now I get up at 11am, drink coffee until 3pm and then stand in a pub for a couple of hours in the evening telling stories and jokes. The only thing I miss is the kids and the things they’d say and do.”

Are you having a laugh?

Teachers stand up in front of a crowd everyday of their lives and it takes something special to be able to connect with everyone, to make them smile and to make laugh. If you can make learning fun and get them wanting more then take a bow because teaching is definitely one of the toughest gigs going and students are a tough crowd.

John Dabell writes for Teacher Toolkit.

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