The use of humor—especially self-deprecating humor—is a fantastic skill to have as an ESL teacher. Making sure your students have a blast while learning English is important, but you shouldn’t make “having fun” the most important goal of your lesson. Having fun is….fun—it can inspire students to work hard for you—but you also need to make sure they learn something. The novelty of being a foreign teacher eventually fades, so it’s important to balance fun and laughs with enriching content. If you learn to do this, you’ll have a captive audience every class.
Foreign ESL teachers teach English in a different way than most Chinese teachers do, and at first I didn’t understand the difference. Chinese teachers at public schools often teach students with rote memorization, while ESL style teaching is more interactive and engaging. This might be why the students were always thrilled to see me and the other foreign teachers—they see us as a breath of fresh air from an otherwise dreary day at school.
My first long-term employment was at a kids’ school in Luoyang. I worked there for about two years, and I taught two kinds of classes. For primary aged children I would visit 16-18 different classes per week, and I usually returned to the same classes once every two weeks. Total it was around 33 classes—each with 12 students—and I had about 400 students who saw me regularly. Walking into a classroom once every two weeks for 50 minutes was great. The students would expect my arrival, so it was easy to keep them interested.
Later I started teaching older students; every weekend I taught three classes of Middle School students for two hours each.
As I gained more experience my teaching style started to evolve; I became more of an entertainer while teaching. Since I was a child I always had this weird talent for making sounds and noises; this proved to be a useful skill in the classroom. I wanted to be an actor when I was a child, and as a teacher I have the opportunity to bring that dream to life.
Being animated in the classroom is useful when teaching kids. For example, when I teach vocabulary I act out every word into an elaborate scenario. Luckily, I’m not afraid to make a complete fool out myself, so I entertain the children with drama, sound-effects, and exaggerated movements. A class with me usually keeps my students laughing, smiling, and definitely learning. If I acted like this on the street I might be thrown in a mental hospital! But, for the students it’s a refreshing change, and they’re appreciative if a teacher can make learning English exciting.
Small kids will laugh at almost anything, but older students are more discerning. Entertaining teens with games and activities was more difficult because they’re at a self-conscious age—they’re more cautious than small children about making a fool of themselves. Plus, I saw them more often and for a longer time than my younger kids, so the well of games and activities ran dry faster than with the little ones. It takes a certain kind of funny, and sometimes you need let go of your pride and just lose it. Still, aside from the goofiness it’s key to create an environment of mutual respect. Older students benefit from knowing you’re never laughing at them, you’re laughing with them. As a teacher it’s important to never make fun of students, and don’t let them harass each other, either. Teenage kids in China have the same anxiety and fears as kids in the west; you should have fun, but mustn’t let students suffer or get hurt. It’s possible to be a teacher who commands respect, but is also someone they look forward to seeing.
I’ve been teaching in China for the past five years, so occasionally I have lapses of motivation. But, when I make my students smile I feel re-energized. When everyone’s happy and having a good time learning is fun for the students and the teacher. Sometimes when my students are struggling with the lesson I shift into comedy mode. Adding a bit of levity can break the tension, and if I’m lucky the joke will actually help them understand what I’m doing. So in that way I’ve found self-deprivation doesn’t only lift the spirit, but it also can be an effective teaching tool.
By: Mikkel Larsen