When asked to list qualities they want in a teacher, students tend to give high ratings to a sense of humor and fairness—but they typically find it difficult to define these qualities. It seems a matter of recognizing something when we experience it without being able to precisely define it.

My May 2000 column (The Purpose and Nature of Language) discussed the concept of fuzzy categories, such as chair and vegetable, that seem to defy precise definition—and my March 2001 column (Our Continuous Search for Fairness) discussed the concept of fairness, which is often differentially viewed by the competing folks in a dispute. Humor is another important complex concept with a fuzzy definition. Let’s explore just one key element of this broad concept.

A sense of humor in a teacher involves more than simply telling jokes. Rather, it seems to deal more with a teacher’s ability to pleasantly communicate that current behavior is approaching the edge of what’s considered normal and/or acceptable.

We’re a social species, functioning principally within a normal range of biologically possible and culturally appropriate behavior. It makes sense. The biological cost/benefit ratio would be too high for a lifespan and behavioral capabilities that go well beyond our current normal ranges. Similarly, a social species must behave within an appropriate cultural range if it’s to successfully collaborate on survival and reproductive tasks.

Young people frequently push at the edges of what’s possible and appropriate, since they’ll never truly understand normality if they don’t discover where it ends (the Olympics being our periodic formal search for selected physical limits). And since young people often lack the experience and maturity of self-assessment, they expect others to help let them know when they’ve gone too far—albeit with a sense of humor.

Think of a behavioral continuum that ranges from abnormally negative to normal to abnormally positive. We all need to know how others view our behavior along this continuum. As our behavior moves towards and into the abnormally negative, others typically let us know with an escalating sequence of responses from simple frowns to outbursts of anger, disgust, and alarm. At the positive end, the sequence shifts from smiles and gentle encouragement to effuse joy and praise.

As suggested above, we could thus view an important much-appreciated element of a teacher’s sense of humor as a pleasant non-threatening technique for letting students know that they’re moving towards the edge. The teacher inserts an appreciated non-critical smile prior to a frown—intonation and body language communicating that everything’s OK for now, but I’m watching you. This gives the student a chance to consider whether or not to proceed.

Students also appreciate the verbal and body language that communicates the teacher’s early awareness of behavior that’s just beginning to move towards the positive edge of the continuum. It’s initial but escalating encouragement to go further, beyond the normal range. It communicates, —I know you can do it, go for it!’

The term kidding is often positively associated with a teacher’s sense of humor. Sarcasm isn’t. To be effective, the indirect language and intonation of kidding must imply a genuine love of and respect for the person being kidded, even though the actual words may suggest negative connotations.

Young children often can’t correctly interpret kidding. Our right frontal lobes appear to process the verbal and affective discrepancies that play an important role in humor (and thus in kidding). The immature frontal lobes of young children can’t process subtle categorical discrepancies (such as in the puns and word play of kidding). They tend rather to enjoy the humor of broad discrepancies (such as in slapstick humor). Adults thus tend to be direct when advising young children and more indirect with adolescents.

Humor often results in laughter, an ill-understood instinctive contagious emotional outburst that can both bond and humiliate people. Dr. Robert Provine has researched the biological and social underpinnings of laughter, and published his findings in a fascinating informative book, Laughter: A Scientific Investigation (2000, Viking).

Since positive laughter has the potential to enhance the health of individual students and group cohesion (communicating to each other, in effect, —we all understand what’s occurring and it’s at the edge’), it’s not surprising that students intuitively appreciate teachers with the sense of humor that creates a joyful non-threatening classroom. The students perhaps can’t precisely define the concept, but they certainly do appreciate its ability to reduce anxiety.