Stand-up? You should get it on the State

Toby Martin on how comedy can help pupils... and teachers

Thirty lank-haired adolescents file into my classroom.  Half nine on a Friday morning.  On the way into the classroom, one particularly surly brute, who has more facial hair than I do, fixes me with a hard stare and says, ‘This better be good,’ before slumping into a chair at the back of the room. 

‘Sit down, Dominic,’ I answer back, glancing at his greasy mop.  ‘I see you still think Timotei is the name of an Irish footballer.’  No reaction.

My task, this frosty winter morning, is to engage these 30 wandering minds in the practice of public speaking. 

It is a part of the English curriculum that people don’t quite appreciate.  It’s not all Shakespeare and Keats, we also have to equip students with good speaking and listening skills.

From next door, the booming tones of Martin Luther King are filtering through the slim walls.  He isn’t teaching the lesson, you understand, merely being used as a visual stimulus.  I briefly picture my colleague’s 30 Lynx-encrusted adolescents glumly watching grainy footage of a lost legend proclaiming his partially-realised dream.  A worthy and important dream, of course, but one that is slightly lost on its mono-cultural Wiltshire audience.

I have my own visual aid ready, my own ‘preacher’. 

Finger hovering over the play button, I tell my class to make notes on how the speaker commands his audience, how he uses varied tones and inflections, the way in which his body language captivates a crowd.

Cue the video.  Next door can keep their political and cultural icons; I’ve got Rhod Gilbert.  At the Royal Variety, of course, to ensure there’s no swearing.

My proclivity for using stand-up in my lessons originated from when I was training to teach.  After a particularly dismal ‘voice coaching’ seminar, in which we were meant to learn how best to capture the fleetingly short attention spans of our future pupils, it dawned on me that I should turn to other sources for this inspiration.

As a veteran of only a handful of open spots, I consider myself to be an extremely frustrated comedian.  However, I realised that the skills that I had built up while doing this were immensely transferable to the world of teaching.  I decided that further research was required.

Over the course of the next year, I used this as an extremely convenient excuse to watch some of the best comedians on the circuit.  However, I could never quite stop myself from making mental notes on how each performer engaged their audience.  The next week, I would then try to incorporate some of these techniques into my teaching.

I watched Rhod Gilbert stride about the stage, making good use of the entire space and demonstrating how the stage was his.  A magnificent example of how to stamp your authority on a classroom.  rnrnI saw Stewart Lee use lowered volume to make his audience listen more intently.  Greg Davies – himself a former teacher - conducted a master class in storytelling, never letting a single attention span expire.  Brendon Burns constantly trod a thin line between control and slight insanity, making most punters far too wary to interfere with his act, a persona that is surprisingly useful in teaching.  rnrnThe Comedy Store Players relied on suggestions from their audience for their show to operate, but it also made the crowd feel more engaged in the lesson… sorry, show.  Most importantly, I noted how so many stand ups deal with heckles.  They slowly repeat the heckle back to the heckler, in a way that exposes any flaws in the comment which can then be picked apart, thus turning the audience rebel into the audience clown.  This is something that I have used time and time again with countless smart comments from the back of the room.

The list of comedians who I saw that year continues on, but each one of them didn’t just conduct an expert tutorial in stand-up material, they also demonstrated how to engage and control a room.

We teachers begin to moan if the size of our class exceeds 30; these performers were handling classes of several hundred rowdy oversized kids.

At first, I considered writing a book about my findings: Stand up And Teach: Classroom Management The Funny Way, but I then recognised that it would be another of my Great Unfinished Projects.  Besides, my next idea was far bigger than that:

Stand-up comedy should be made a part of the National Curriculum.  For students and teachers. 

Every day, I have children entering my classroom who sit silently at the side of the room, desperately trying to hide from me and from their peers.  These are the pupils who, when I ask them to prepare something to be read to the rest of the class, come close to tears at the thought of standing up in front of everyone else.  rnrnThe reason behind this fear is that, for some tragic reason, they have had all of their confidence knocked out of them at an early age.  Imagine now the impact of a year-long course in which they learned how to write something funny and then steadily built up the nerve to perform it.  Imagine how they would feel making a whole room laugh.  Think of the good it would do them.

Social cohesion is also something that has been lost in this age of texting, MSNing and social networking.  Whenever I ask classes to discuss something in groups, they look around, bewildered and not really knowing how to go about instigating a discussion.  A comedy course, with impro games, would be the perfect antidote to this.  We all know of that social buzz that runs through a room like electricity at small, intimate comedy venues.  This is caused by a feeling of togetherness that is created by a good comedian.

Finally, it is not an uncommon sight to enter a classroom in any school and see a teacher cowering behind a desk whilst the students run riot over their classroom.  What this teacher needs is to study stand-up comedy.  They need the confidence, the crowd control and the skills that this course would teach you. 

We all remember a teacher from our childhood who completely bored us to death by sitting behind their desk and droning on until you felt like taking the ruler, that he slapped on the desk when he wanted quiet, and sticking it down his throat.  I have trained with teachers who exuded as much charm and charisma as Adolf Hitler at a bar mitzvah… yet they have stayed that way and have successfully found employment.  These people essentially need a crash course in how to entertain.

I am far from being a perfect teacher.  I have a great deal of enthusiasm, and not quite so much technical ability.  I am the Robbie Savage of the teaching world. Yet it is so easy to see that a teacher with comic ability, or at least the skill and confidence to stand up and make a subject seem enjoyable, is going to be more successful than a teacher who is either too shy, excessively power-crazed or a complete bore.

Even if the meek do inherit the earth, they won’t be running our schools.

A new rule should be introduced.  Before you qualify fully as a teacher, you should have to survive a King Gong show at the Comedy Store.

Published: 26 Jan 2010

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