I visited a ninth-grade English class yesterday. The group was discussing an early passage in Homer’s Odyssey where Telemachus, Odysseus’s son, was expressing frustration about the bad behavior of the suitors, who were vying for his mother’s hand in his father’s long absence during his return from Troy and shamefully taking advantage of the hospitality of the household. One of the students offered, with a wry smile, “Telemachus could just do what Oedipus did and marry his mother — that would solve everything!” The teacher replied, with a wink, “And how did that work out for Oedipus?” The class had a good laugh and went right back to the task at hand.

Humor in the classroom does more than lighten the mood. It creates an emotional bond between teachers and students, and an atmosphere of emotional safety that is critical to learning. We know from decades of research that teaching and learning is fundamentally relational; students learn best when they know that their teacher knows and cares about them. A classroom where it is safe, even encouraged to make a joke, be vulnerable, and laugh together — that is a place where the door to learning is wide open.

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