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After reflecting on my first two years of teaching, I finally settled on the single most important objective of my third year: to be funny. Sure, I wanted my students to learn more, to write better and, especially, to think more critically about the world. But even more deeply, I wanted to make them laugh.

I wanted to crack jokes. Really good jokes. The kind where the whole class laughed together in unison. Somehow, developing a stronger sense of humor and sharing this humor with my students seemed vital to my growth as a teacher. In fact, the desire was so profound that I actually discussed the matter with two different comedians and one professional clown (true story). To each, I asked the same basic question: What can I do to become a funnier teacher? From each, I received the same disappointing advice: “Be yourself.”

I was as frustrated as I was disheartened. Each performer had responded with the exact same cliché, not realizing, sadly, that I already knew how to be myself. I am, after all, a psychologist. Combine that with my solid commitment to teaching, and you’ll find someone who reflects constantly on every aspect of who she is and how she presents herself in class.

For instance, I’ll be the first to admit that my first two years of teaching inadvertently became a campaign to establish control -- control of classroom behavior, group discussions, course content, scheduling and so on. I planned everything. I approached my teaching with great seriousness and a solemn, professional reserve. In doing so, I seemed able to establish the authority I needed to teach effectively.

But as the second year came to an end, I began to wonder whether my teaching style was perhaps too controlled. After all, the terms “serious,” “professional” and “strict” did appear frequently on my course evaluations. Though I wondered about more carefree styles of teaching, I doubted whether such approaches could fit with the controlled and orderly class structure that I liked -- and needed -- to have. How could I infuse more playfulness into my teaching and still be in charge?

Ignoring the boring advice to “be yourself,” I carefully crafted humorous jokes and anecdotes, inserting them in exactly the right places and delivering them per plan. It didn’t work.

I tried new jokes and different techniques, each very well thought out … but ineffective. I watched comedians and tried to emulate their styles of humor. Though I would eventually receive a few sympathy laughs from my students, nothing yielded the real success I desired. So I worked harder. I took more risks. I still failed.

I approached the problem systematically: What style of humor should I adopt? What sorts of values, beliefs and boundaries define me and, therefore, should be evident in my humor? Some comedians use expletives to draw laughs -- would I be comfortable experimenting with this sort of language? I was not; it just wasn’t me. Because I am a professional, I reasoned, I shouldn’t joke about politics, religion or sexual matters. My teaching values inspire me to model the behavior I hope to see in others -- that I knew. Nothing disparaging, demeaning or disrespectful -- that’s a line I would never cross. No puns because I can’t pull them off. And no crude language because, well, I’m not a fan.

It seemed impossible. If I were to truly be me in the way that I wanted, I couldn’t also be funny.

Except at department meetings. There, I was funny. Hilarious, even, if you count the hallway conversations that happen afterward (try describing your failed classroom humor to your colleagues someday and they’ll definitely laugh … at you?). After two years, I was now feeling very much at ease with everyone in my department and could occasionally crack some good jokes. Appropriate jokes -- well within the parameters of my professional values -- but still funny. Exactly the kind I wanted for my students.

So what was limiting my classroom humor? Maybe it was something about the classroom itself. I hadn’t always been comfortable there. I spent the first two years of graduate school relatively silent, speaking only when sure that I could offer a solid contribution. When I did speak, I had a well-thought-out, mentally rehearsed comment ready to share. Those went down pretty well, when I managed to deliver them.

But usually I didn’t. Translating random thoughts into professional-sounding, well-articulated prose takes time, so I usually lost my chance to contribute something valuable. Even worse was when my peers received accolades for an imperfect delivery of my ideas sometimes just moments before I had decided to take stage. Also stolen from me during those years were my best jokes. Each had been perfectly crafted.

My first classroom joke triumph, of course, happened by accident. We all knew that the class wanted tomorrow’s exam to be canceled, so when I unexpectedly teased them about it, they laughed appreciatively. Who knew that I could be so playful in the classroom? I later gained the courage to open up about a personal matter: how much I love snow days. I was as gleeful about a college closing (and we had already had three!) as they were, and I wasn’t bashful about revealing my excitement to them. We were really connecting.

I started to share more unscripted thoughts. When discussing fertilization, I marveled at the odds that any one sperm could become the single cell that fertilizes the ovum -- it’s roughly one in a billion. I think about that billion, I told them. I wonder how I ever made it to the finish line. They laughed in unison when I finally confessed, “It kind of makes me feel like a winner.”

Ultimately, the key to better teaching was not to become funnier or more funny. It was to become more me. There was a deeply playful -- even silly and mischievous -- person inside of me. And my students had no idea. That didn’t feel right. Perhaps that person should come out, at least a little, and contribute to my teaching persona. Adding authentic, off-the-cuff expressions of emotion could be funny -- as long I felt comfortable sharing that side of me with the class. My distinctly odd impressions of course material could also become jokes -- but only when shared naturally and imperfectly. Just choosing to be a bit more carefree with the class seemed the key to becoming funnier. When I loosened up a bit, so did the class. And, despite the occasional roars of laughter, they still respected the overall “order” that I had established.

My department chair observed one of my classes during the year that I was striving to become funnier. To my delight, she actually mentioned my humor in her written evaluation. But what really surprised me was a word she used to depict the overall classroom atmosphere: comfortable. She noted that “many students asked questions,” “were engaged in discussion” and appeared “very comfortable expressing their ideas and opinions.”

I had noticed a change, too. As I became funnier, the number of voices in the classroom grew. Discussion flourished. Students who were shy or quiet spoke up much more frequently. In fact, some were cracking jokes. Really good jokes. Appropriate ones. Exactly the kind I had wanted for my students.

Looking back, it’s amusing to reflect on the lessons I learned this year. Be yourself -- or at least a bit more of the you beneath your teaching persona -- was indeed the wisdom I had needed. Humor won’t work unless it's genuinely yours. It’s about having the courage to reveal who you are during unrehearsed moments. And -- funnily enough -- that goes for teaching, too. Just ask a clown.

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