The Times Education Supplement reckons that pupils want teachers to be funny. It’s the number one quality. These findings are being given elaborate respect, but given that ‘good at explaining’ is ranked twenty-third by the primary-school respondents and twenty-fourth by the secondary-school respondents out of the twenty-five characteristics supplied to them, I’m afraid I’m disinclined to take this survey seriously. Either the survey was flawed, or – more likely – children don’t think that teachers being able to explain things to them is important.
I find the latter easy to believe, but I don’t find it easy to believe that any but the most progressive of teachers actually agree with them. Surely ‘discovery learning’ demands some very good explanation at the beginning of each self-directed task? Anyone who has set project work, or set up a drill on the sports field, or even just read out a complicated email sent to tutors for the attention of their form, will know how easily pupils will misinterpret what seemed to be fairly simple instructions.
So what do we say about this? Well, I suppose a few teachers, those who truly believe that learning should only happen when the learner spontaneously decides that it’s time to learn that particular topic – sorry, skill – will hail these results. Teacher explanation doesn’t matter. Being a helpful, supportive ‘good listener’ does.
Now as it happens I think that being a good listener is really important in a teacher. But a teacher doesn’t have to be a ‘good listener’ that is meant in all those dreadful columns about how to improve your interpersonal skills. (Much of the time I think this sort of thing does harm: up and down the country there are teachers listening carefully to pupils complaining about how unfair and unreasonable their colleagues are, thereby doing exactly what a certain type of ‘good listener’ does – which is what a good colleague doesn’t do – in validating the speaker, making him feel that he has been heard, and that his interlocutor is on his side.) But that’s not the sort of good listener I’m talking about: I’m talking about the sort of good listener who can ask a couple of questions of a pupil, and from the often vague answers understand his misconceptions.
As for the substance of ‘funny’ … well. Like everyone I think I have a good sense of humour. But if my pupils want a stand-up comedian they’re going to be disappointed. I’m not one, and they can find plenty of them on YouTube, where they aren’t constrained by the requirement to stick to appropriate topics & language. I can’t compete with that. So I shouldn’t try. Haven’t we seen all this before, with the desperate arms race over ‘engagement’? I really hope we aren’t going to see consultants offering INSET sessions on ‘how to be funny.’
Pupils like teachers to be funny? I’m sure they do. They also like teachers to let them out of lessons five minutes early so that they’re first in the queue at the tuck shop. They like (some of) their teachers to wear revealing outfits, and even the most progressive of heads are unlikely to be on Twitter telling attractive young women that they ought to dress like Muscovite streetwalkers because that’s what the kids want. They might want it. They can’t have it. Tough. They’ll live.