Learning to Laugh

For six years I was a social worker in Chicago.  I worked with clients with severe mental illnesses, teen runaways, young men at high risk for HIV transmission.  I learned a lot and often times found myself wondering how the powers that be (my bosses, the health care system, family members of my clients, my clients themselves) could possibly let a guy like me do an important job like this.  I worried about if I was doing enough.  If I was making unfixable mistakes.  If I was a pretender.

During this time in my professional life, it was my good fortune and plain dumb luck to be teamed up with Thomas Dunning, a veteran social worker and golden-haired prince of a man with the quickest smile in the city of Chicago.  I remember the first time I expressed my fears to him about the job I was doing.  Instead of a furrowed brow and the serious leaning-in response I expected, Tommy D. sat back in his chair and laughed.  The warmest laugh you could imagine.  A deep bubbling laugh, sweet like honey; a laugh that rose up and wrapped you not in shame, like some laughter does, but in joy and understanding.  And after he laughed, Thomas Dunning asked me, “What makes you think that what you are doing is so important?  That you are so special?”

I don’t want you to get the wrong impression.  Tommy D. did not always laugh.  He cried like all of us cried when we lost a client, when a teenager came to us broken and needing to be put back together, when the world was just too dark.  But it is his laugh I remember and miss most of all.  It was his way of reminding me, of reminding anyone who cared to listen, that we are not the centre of all things.  That while what we do might be important, it is not the final word, or even the most important word.

There is all kind of advice for us language teachers, things we should and should absolutely not do in our classrooms.  One of them is, ‘Never laugh at your students.’  Social workers get similar advice about never laughing at their clients.  Like all advice with the word ‘never’ in it, this advice is mostly worthless.  Tommy D taught me that it’s almost always OK to laugh.  Avoiding laughter wasn’t going to help anyone.  What I needed to do was find a way to laugh, my own way to laugh, which helped my clients feel safe.  It is the same laugh I carry within me now, the laughter which, I hope, helps my students feel safe as well.

It wasn’t until much later that I realised Tommy D., my first real mentor, was teaching me something much more important.  It wasn’t just about laughter.  It was about all rules which tell us ‘don’t.’  Rules which tell us  ‘don’t’ are the simple way out.  Don’t-rules are someone saying, ‘Hey, don’t think too much about about it.’  Don’t-rules are the simple path which cuts us off from finding our own way.  The real path to growth is rarely about believing in a list of don’ts.  Thanks to Thomas Dunning, I started to see how real growth began when we looked at all those don’t-rules, and tried to figure out when and why they sometimes need to be do-rules.

[The new iTDi blog is out .  From the beginning of March, I’ve been the acting editor/curator.  This issue, the blog posts are all about people like Thomas Dunning, people outside of ELT who have influenced us as teachers.  I hope you will give it a read, and perhaps join in the conversation by sharing an ‘Outside Influences’ story on your blog and linking to the iTDi blog.  This is my first time taking responsibility of something as large as the iTDi blog.  I am hoping not to make a total mess of it.  But while I’m worried, part of me knows it’s going to be just fine, just as long as I find a way to, at least once in a while, laugh at myself, and everything else going on around me.]


10 thoughts on “Learning to Laugh

  1. I had similar experiences teaching music to over 600 children a week aged 5 – 12 in some of the poorest schools in the city. Learning to laugh WITH them was one of the most important lessons I took with me from that time and still feel is important as an educator some forty years later. Thanks for the post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Marjorie,

      Thank you so much for the comment. I agree that it is so important to laugh WITH students, but, and I hate to put it so bluntly, in this posts I’m kind of talking about laughing AT students. Laughing at mistakes, laughing at their self-centerdness, laughing at their preconceptions. I am also very much talking about learning to laugh at yourself. I have a feeling that it becomes more difficult to learn how to laugh at yourself if everyone acts as if laughing at people is just a terrible terrible thing that shouldn’t be happening in the classroom. I’m not saying it’s always OK to laugh at students, but I also don’t believe the idea that it is never OK to laugh at students. As a teacher, I think I need to be able to laugh at what I genuinely find amusing, be it a wonderful slip of the tongue, tripping over my own feat, or a student’s obviously concocted story about why their homework is late. The importance of learning how to share this kind of laughter without malice or injury, and inviting everyone within earshot a chance to join in is just one of the lessons that Thomas shared with me.

      Thanks again for the comment. And hoping your week is filled with all kinds of laughter.


      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Kevin and thank you for your post.

    Laughing AT students doesn’t sound correct, indeed. However, I truly, understand and agree with what you’re saying here. I do that with my learners, too, and they love it; they understand that making errors is welcome.

    However, this can be very dangerous if not done with care. So, what I do is that I first establish good rapport with my learners, then I laugh at myself for things I say or do (not only during breaks and definitely not in a bad sense), and then I am very careful with whom I choose to ‘laugh at.’ What is very surprising is that the majority of students translate this as caring, while the ones that are more hesitant at first, do ask for it as lessons progress. Of course, there are always others who simply wouldn’t allow any jokes or comments of that kind.

    It is, though, very very important to stress that such a behaviour requires the teacher to have very good people skills, doesn’t it?




    • Angelos,

      You are now a personal hero of mine. Yep, it doesn’t sound correct to laugh ‘at’ students. Or anyone really. And maybe what I should say is we are laughing at the mistake, or the self-absorption, or whatever else it is that is actually funny. And sure, it takes sensitivity to laugh at this kind of stuff in such a way that the student can laugh as well. It’s difficult. And for some students and in some cases, it might even be impossible. But I think you hit on a pretty important point, if you do it with some students, and other students see that it isn’t painful, it is in fact a kind of caring, they might become comfortable with it. They might even welcome the laughter as well.

      I think there a lot of teachers out their laughing and having a great time and infecting their student with that laughter. Just because it’s difficult to pull off doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try and learn how to do it. But if we all walk around pretending we never laugh at a student’s mistakes (or what have you), we aren’t really talking about what is happening in our class. And if we don’t talk honestly about what we are doing in our classes, how can we actually learn from each other. So thank you so much for letting us look into your classroom. Thank you for letting us hear your laughter.



  3. Hi Kevin,

    I said in the tweet there’s one line that spoke to me in this post, but in fact there are plenty of things that do. By plenty I maybe mean three:

    1) “What makes you think that what you are doing is so important? That you are so special?”
    I think about this very idea so often, way too often. One day I think I am, next day it’s crystal clear I’m not. In general and overall, I think I’m not. It was a shocking realization, took a long time to put up with and accept, and now it’s reassuring and nice.

    2) ‘Never laugh at your students.’ And I do, I way too often do. I’ve given it a lot of thought and tried to be aware and more sensitive, and, to give me credit, I sometimes manage that. But in general I stick to what you expressed in your comment above – laughing kindly together at what we ALL can do/ say wrong makes a classroom a safer space. I’m worried that the sensitivity/ touchiness threshold that students have might be different from mine, and then there’s chance laughter offends. It happened very recently in my class, and I felt like a heavy bag landed on my head. I felt so low and ashamed but I think in the end I did well to not aggravate the situation. But the guy’s frustration and pain is vivid in my mind up to now.

    3) What a great job you’re doing with the ITDi Blog. I admire you.

    That’s all. Thank you for the post which made me feel like I need to comment, the feeling I haven’t had in a *long* while.


    • Dear Anna,

      3 things that speak to you in one post is a pretty awesome average. I wonder how many ‘things’ this post has in total and if I am hovering around the professional baseball batting average. OK, enough nonsense.

      1) Yes, I also feel very glad not to think that who I am or what I do it is so very monumental. And if it gets a bit smaller, small enough that it isn’t clouding up my vision, I think that maybe I will be able to see more clearly how that small thing connects to other people and other things. Which will be nice.

      2) You were already one of my heroes. But now you are one of my laughing-heroes, which means you get a new badge for your TESOL vest. I will be using this line, “laughing kindly together at what we ALL can do/ say wrong makes a classroom a safer space,” in an upcoming presentation. Somewhere. Sometime.

      3) Yatta! (Which means ‘yippee’ in Japanese for all those who are wondering. And also for those who were not wondering, but were still glad to have the information.)

      Thank you for commenting.



  4. Sweetest Kevin, thank you very much for the immense compliments with which you have honoured me in your blog entry above. I thought it would be useful to add for your readers that doing HIV prevention work together, often in the field (outside of the office in unusual environments), Kevin and I talked a lot about creating safe space for our clients, colleagues and each other. He didn’t mention creating that trusting environment, but that would have been the context for the ideas here. I was happy to see that many of the comments left identified this aspect of creating safe space.

    He also didn’t mention that he was *my* mentor who taught me so many things about being true to myself and my ideals and values and my community. He gave me courage and inspiration and so much healing laughter. I never had a job where I laughed more than I did than when I sat with my desk next to Kevin’s…and I doubt that I ever will again.

    Thank you again Kevin, for everything.

    Your affectionate brother,

    Thomas Dunning
    Dublin, Ireland


    • Dear Thomas,

      Thank you for taking time to comment here. I was recently thinking back on our time out in the field. How we tried to gently (and often through laughter) to challenge our clients ideas of what kind of behaviours put them at risk for HIV. In all the wild training sessions we ran, I can’t remember once telling our volunteers or staff that they had to hold their laughter inside. But I think we did manage to find a way to help the volunteers connect with the clients so that any laughter, any challenges at all, were delivered with a sense of empathy and concern and yes, even joy. It was indeed all about safe space.

      In this blog I am hoping to make a similar space, to allow teachers to admit that yes we do laugh at as well as with our students. If I can capture just a bit of that magic we had back in Chicago, the sense that we could say anything to each other, perhaps I will have succeeded.

      I am sure we will, eventual, find ourselves in each other’s company. Until that time, know that I am thinking of you, feeling gratitude for you being in my life, and very very happy to know that I might also have given as well as received in our time working together.



  5. Dear Kevin and Thomas,
    Thank your for making me laugh and cry happy tears this morning.
    We are human, and we should react like humans to the people in front of us. When we become robots then relationships don’t work. Of course, we should also consider the effect this has on others, and as you and many of the commenters have said, it’s important to know when laughter will hurt and when it wil help.
    There is a lot of research out there about why we laugh and how it helps us to build stronger bonds with the people who are around us. I couldn’t be a teacher without that, and the first person I laugh at is myself: when I drop things, when I walk into a table, when my drawing is rubbish. Then if I laugh at a student’s mistake, it’s natural, because I make mistakes too. We talk about why I laughed, and the student can see that it’s OK. At least, I hope they can.
    Kevin, you’ve got off to a great start with the iTDi blog, and I look forward to seeing where you take it next.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dear Sandy,

      Thank you for joining Team Laughter. It is so freeing to know that yes, there are many many teachers out there whom I respect and admire who also believe that even laughter that arrises from student mistakes has a place in the language classroom.

      The longer I teach, the more I realise that it is indeed the very human reactions, “to the people in front of us,” through which learning does or does not take place. And freely telling those stories about what actually happened in our classrooms (including the laughing-at stories) is how we can learn from each other as teachers. I also love your point about the importantance of laughter in our lives as a source of healing and health (one short article on a similar theme: http://www.webmd.com/balance/features/give-your-body-boost-with-laughter).

      Thanks for the kind words about the iTDi blog. It’s an honour to be able to help teachers get their ideas out to the wider ELT community. And knowing you are reading the posts makes it even more fulfilling to put together an issue.


      Liked by 1 person

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