Teaching with Humor, Compassion, and Conviction

by Heather Hollis

In today’s complex learning landscape, humor, compassion, and conviction are crucial. We are in the middle of a global pandemic, which means we have become even more dependent on the kindness and goodness of our family and friends, our teachers, and our students. The world can be a dark place without humor and compassion. We desperately need to be kind and generous towards each other if we are going to get through this crisis and go on to thrive and grow together.

Engaging Students Who Are Learning Remotely

The number one issue with online learning is engagement. We are relying on our students, some as young as 4 years of age, to be become engaged with a screen. I’ve heard people say, “Well, that should be easy for kids. They’re the screen generation after all. They’ve grown up looking at screens.” Yes, this is true. But most of them have only used screens for socializing and game playing. They haven’t had to use them for learning activities, which may be difficult and frankly, a little boring, for some.

Starting your online learning with something funny gets students engaged right away. Remember: you aren’t “wasting” your time doing these activities. They serve to engage your students in the learning process, so that when you do present new material, they are more ready to learn. I am working with student teachers online this term and I try to intersperse humor throughout our classes. I have started class by putting, “Which meme are you today?” up on the whiteboard. Students get to pick the meme that best describes their mood that day. These are often funny pictures of cats or dogs or famous people making funny faces. Everyone has to type in the number that matches their mood. This serves as an attendance tool, as well as a way to see who’s feeling happy or sad without getting too deeply into the issue. Just Google “which meme are you today” and click on images. There are thousands to choose from.

Another technique that I have found that works well is breaking up the lesson, so that no one is sitting, listening to me ramble on for more than 10–15 minutes (this should be adapted depending on the age and attention span of your students). Talk, then show a short, funny, engaging video on the topic you just discussed. Talk, then have students break into groups and do an activity. Talk, then have students assume a yoga pose and take a few deep breaths before starting the activity. Talk, then roll the magic name picker wheel (https://wheelofnames.com/) and see who gets to talk next. Wheel of Names is a great name generator that is free and easy to use. All you have to do is copy your class list, go to the site, drop in the names, and voila! You spin the magic wheel and when it stops on a student’s name, the screen lights up with confetti and celebratory horns. Even my adult students found it exciting. There are lots of things you can do to make your classes engaging and fun. I suspect that if you brainstormed with a small group of teachers you could come up with a whole list of ideas that would work at the different grade levels.

Compassion is key during these pandemic times. The expression, “We are all in the same boat” doesn’t apply to our students (or to us, for that matter). Some of our children have parents who can hover over them while they complete their online learning, supporting them with any technical or learning issues that may arise. Other students may have to share a computer with 3 of their siblings while their parents are at work. Still others may not have internet services at all where they live. How do we work with those students? It may require teams of teachers to come up with work packets that are delivered to student homes. Teachers could call those students to see if they have questions and to check for understanding. As well, we know that some of our students are dealing with mental health and safety issues within their homes. Keeping that line of communication open may help save that child from a dangerous situation.

Teacher Stress and Burnout

At this point, I can hear my teacher friends saying, “But what about ME? I have been so busy juggling the unprecedented demands of work and family that I haven’t had time to take care of myself and honestly, I’m falling apart here.”

Teacher stress is a fact of life right now. In a recent CBC (2020) survey of teachers, researchers found that teachers are largely overwhelmed and burned out. Developmental psychologist Lisa Bayrami, a contract lecturer at Lakehead University said the trickle down effect means that teacher stress can lead to student stress.

“We need to prioritize the well-being of educators because if they’re feeling as though they’re in survival mode… they don’t have the capacity to co-regulate and to engage in those attuned, positive relationships with students,” she said.

As I note in my book, teachers need to put their own oxygen masks on first before they can help others. This means forcing themselves to take a lunch break, get outside for a bit of fresh air, exercise sometime during the day, and schedule in some downtime. The most powerful predictor of student success is a teacher who feels confident about their abilities (Hatti, 2009). A teacher who feels demoralized or incapable of meeting the challenge cannot function at their best.

If teachers are feeling powerless and burnt out, not only is this a tragedy for them, it’s also a tragedy for their students. This is where we need to have the power of our convictions. Schools, administrators, governments, and the general public need to support teachers so that they can teach and support their students. It’s in everyone’s best interests to advocate for teachers. That means supporting them both publicly and privately. It means reaching out and helping your fellow teacher if you see that they are drowning. Finally, if you are a teacher, it means speaking to yourself as kindly as if you were your own best friend. This is hard. We can do hard things. And if we can’t, it’s OK to ask for help or to step away until we feel ready to come back.

Teachers are being asked to jump through burning hoops on a unicycle while juggling 10 balls. This means they need to be healthy, both mentally and physically.

My advice to teachers?

Take care of yourself first, and then take a deep breath and do what you know how to do.

You got this.


Wong, J. (2020, October 28). Teachers say return to school this fall has left them with overwhelming stress and a never-ending workload. CBC News. Retrieved from: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/teacher-questionnaire-pandemic-1.5775805
Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analysis relating to achievement. Routledge: Taylor and Francis Group.