What you should do if you trip up in class

What is the best way for a teacher to handle the situation of accidently tripping or knocking into things and the class laugh?  The best method of response is not just a tip for teachers.  It’s good advice for anyone in an embarrassing situation.

I am a very animated teacher. I rarely sit in a classroom and almost never behind a desk. I like to keep the energy levels of the class high. The best way to do that is to present the lesson with lots of energy and enthusiasm.  To keep the students on their toes, the teacher needs to stay on his or her feet.  I move around a lot; covering the expanse of floor space available to me. Inevitably, such a style of teaching leads to trips and knocking into things.

The other day, I decided to go in two directions at the same time. My brain thought this was a step too far and gave up trying to work through my patterns of movement. For a second or two, it shut down movement control, so I stumbled and managed to stop myself from hitting the floor by grabbing on to a student’s desk in a move that can only be described as ‘gymnastically balletic’. Whereas I managed to stay on my feet, my students – all aged about 15 – fell about laughing.

Undeniably, the teacher loses authority and becomes the laughing stock of the room.  Authority needs to reclaimed as quickly as possible.  In order to do so, the teacher should:

Realise that what happened is funny!

The incident contains the two essential elements of humour:  Firstly, It’s unexpected. A punch line seen from the distance is not funny. No one expects a college lecturer to perform a slapstick routine. Secondly, the figure of authority has been brought down to human level.  The greater the authority, the greater the fall, the greater the laugh. A young girl slipping on a banana skin is not half as funny as a self-righteous politician doing the same.  Accept the reality of the humour. Enjoy the moment as if you were a student.

Not get embarrassed or angry!

Being embarrassed (certainly, showing it) just adds a moreish delight to the schadenfreude humour already derived from the fall.  Getting angry simply adds to the humour derived from the fall from authority.  Trying to maintain authority when sprawled on the floor simply re-enforces the truth: the teacher is not in authority at this present time.  Getting angry, therefore, leads to further loss of authority. Shouting “I want to hear no laugher!” will reduce the reaction to sniggering; it won’t return the authority. It will add to the humour.

The solution is to laugh it off. See the funny side of it. In any occasion when you are being mocked (playfully or maliciously) the answer is to mock yourself.

Something along the lines of:

“This is why I got fired from my last job – teaching very young children how to walk!”

Or

“Aren’t you glad I teach you ‘X’ subject rather than how to walk and talk at the same time?”

By making light of the situation, you take away the power from those mocking you. You demonstrate you are not harmed by the ridicule. There is no embarrassment or pomposity to add to the humour of the situation. You actually look more in control, because you demonstrate that literal and metaphorical slip-ups don’t faze you. The end result is that the humour and the laughter die quickly. Authority is restored – and you might just get a bit of extra credit for being cool.

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