By general standards, I have always been a pretty fun teacher. I make jokes, I laugh, I sometimes use educational games. When I had a classroom, it was decorated with pretty things and bright colors. Students usually like me.
Therefore, it caught me off guard the first time that a student told me, without skipping a beat, “Teachers don’t know how to have fun.”
“We do fun things in class all the time,” I pushed back, perplexed that perhaps I had been delusional in thinking students enjoyed my class.
“Well, yeah,” he answered, “but those are fun school things. Why can’t we do something actually fun?”
Then I started to hear a similar sentiment repeated among other students. Some repeated the assertion that teachers must lead boring lives; others complained of lack of truly fun activities. Initially, it bothered me because I didn’t like being sloughed off as a boring old fuddy duddy.
However, this disappointment subsided fairly quickly; I reminded myself that if I took seventh graders seriously every time they lobbed an unflattering comment my way, I would have to view myself as an old, ignorant, boring, athletically inept buffoon who wears clothing reminiscent of flight attendants and circuses (yes, circuses).
Another concern, however, soon rose in place of my hurt feelings. My students did not seem to know how to enjoy the fun parts of school. It’s true; school fun is not the same as free-time fun; even my tottering old twenty-seven-year-old self admits that. Hanging with friends and eating brownies while watching a good movie is an easier and shinier fun than the crisp intellectual satisfaction of diagramming a sentence, or the exhilaration of selecting just the right word, or the academic competition of a review game.
Yet, it started to bother me that the second kind of fun seemed lost on my students, and I started to think that maybe they had it backwards. Maybe they were the ones who didn’t know how to have fun.
I started asking myself some questions.
Why were my students begging for movies and opposed to finding joy in school activities? Had they been so blinded by the desperate need to be cool that they refused to take pleasure in learning activities which are, at their core, fundamentally human, and fundamentally good? Or, perhaps worse, were they so obsessed with the party kind of fun that nothing else could be good enough? After all, if you live on a diet of chocolate and potato chips, stomaching broccoli and chicken might be tough.
At this point, my readers may suggest that I am expecting too much of the adolescent age. Kids—especially middle schoolers—hate school. It’s just a part of life.
However, as much as our society insists on such views of adolescents, I know from first-hand experience that they are indeed capable of putting aside their immediate desires for pleasure for the sake of some loftier good. That doesn’t mean they always make the right choices—but they are capable of those choices—much more capable than we give them credit for. Few are so hardened by their teen years as to not feel the pleasure of learning truth.
Yes, they are immature, and they will often lapse into poor judgment and immediate gratification of their wishes, if they are allowed to do so. But can we really blame their vehement distaste for learning, and desperate desire for the shinier type of fun, on just the weaknesses of their age, or do the rest of us—teachers, parents, society as a whole—have something to do with it as well?
Have we perhaps fed these children so much entertainment that, like kids who live on a potato-chip diet, they hate everything else? Or, conversely, have we made school so insipid and painful that learning truth is no longer delightful?
Moreover, have we allowed them to become mired in the lie that learning is the province of the socially inept, the uncool, the nerds—and that the life of ignorance is the one that deserves honor?
And, have we taught our students to have so little respect for their elders that they would feel comfortable telling a teacher that she doesn’t know how to have fun?
A serious look at these questions may help us reevaluate the way we handle some things. Maybe we should be more intentional about teaching kids at home from a young age that life isn’t about fun. Maybe we should, as teachers, take care that our classrooms do not become silos for our droning voices and boring busywork. Maybe we should boldly defend the life of mind in the face of mockery from television, movies, and our friends.
We shouldn’t expect that we can change the world, in spite of rampant cultural messaging assuring us naively that everyone can and should. For all our efforts, there will always be rude and spoiled children, incompetent and boring teachers, and cool friends who mock people who think learning is fun.
But we can expect that by doing our best within our own spheres of responsibility, we can indeed help one student—or maybe five, or ten—to learn how to enjoy academics. We can help a few children—most importantly, our own—to find pleasure outside of the party type of fun. And we can ensure that our own classrooms—on good days, at least—are places of joy.