Who doesn't love a class clown? That perfectly timed joke about the ancient Greek poet looking nothing like Homer Simpson is fun for everyone. Unless you're the teacher ... trying to teach a lesson about the Odyssey.
As a teacher, the class clown is often your nemesis. I know this from experience: I taught ninth grade last school year.
They derail lessons, steal the spotlight and, to make matters worse, sometimes they're actually funny. It's not easy enforcing class rules when you're laughing.
What if we looked at class clowns differently? What if, instead of seeing them as a nuisance, we saw them as gifted? A little misguided, sure, but still gifted.
That change in perspective can make a huge difference for some students and their teachers.
Lawrence Davis, a senior at Dover High School in Delaware, is the perfect example.
He's the quintessential class clown, overconfident and mischievous. But also genuinely personable. He had me laughing from the moment I met him.
According to him, every teacher loves him. "They enjoy me," he says. "I'm not gonna say I'm the life of the class, but I bring the class to life."
It hasn't always been that way.
"He was incorrigible as a freshman," remembers Leann Ferguson, who taught Lawrence in her world history class. Back then "enjoy" isn't the word she would have used. "He acted out inappropriately all the time," she says. "He had impulse control issues, couldn't stay in his seat, paced the room."
In short, he drove her crazy. But she also saw something more. "He has the most amazing sense of humor," she says with a big smile.
To her, Lawrence wasn't just another class clown. He was gifted. And his gift was his dynamic personality.
This changed the way Ferguson approached Lawrence, which in turn changed the way he saw himself.
What did she do exactly? Here are three takeaways:
Don't Take It Personally
From the moment Ferguson met Lawrence she could tell he wasn't a bad kid.
"Yeah, you push it, that's just what you do," she says, sitting across from Lawrence. He nods in agreement. But she never saw his antics as a personal attack against her and her teaching.
"Typically the class clown is not disrupting class for the sake of disrupting class," says Laurence Steinberg, a psychologist and professor at Temple University.
Class clowns usually act out when they're bored or confused, he says. They would rather stick to something they're good at, like making people laugh.
And most of the time, Ferguson would laugh right along with Lawrence. He was still expected to do the class work and his jokes weren't tolerated if they were at the expense of another student.
Ferguson learned to take his humor in stride — never berating or belittling Lawrence for how he acted and who he was.
"She treated me like I was person," Lawrence says, and that took him by surprise.
Work With Their Strengths, Not Against Them
At one point in our conversation Lawrence interrupted me with a "really funny" story he just had to share. Here's a brief summary:
Lawrence was sitting in class, attentively listening to Ferguson, when his stomach began acting up. So, he stood up and walked over to the open door. Ferguson asked what he was doing. He said: "I had to fart. I didn't want to disrupt class so I put my butt out the door."
Retelling the story, Lawrence laughs, clearly pleased with himself. I notice Ferguson laughing, too. She points to this story as an example of how funny he is: "See what I mean? You gotta love this guy. He's hilarious."
To be honest, I'm not sure I see what she means. It's just dumb teenage humor, right? But as I was talking with them I realized that's the point.
During moments that most of us would have just felt annoyed, Ferguson saw potential. Amid the fart jokes and color commentary that constantly disrupted her lessons, she saw a gift: He could really command an audience.
Ross Greene, who studies disruptive students, calls that kind of gift a "raw skill." And raw skills "have to be molded so that they are being used in the best interest of the group," he says, which takes patience and a change in perspective.
Ferguson had the right perspective, she just had to put Lawrence's gift to good use. So she enlisted his help to get the class back on track when they were having a hard time focusing. His approach occasionally involved some questionable classroom language, but he was effective nonetheless.
Lawrence began to understand that he was an example to his classmates. They followed his lead. The better he behaved in class, the better they behaved, too.
With time he went from antagonist to ally.
Encourage, Encourage, Encourage
Ferguson and Lawrence remained close after his freshman year. She really wanted to see him succeed and he knew it. So he'd drop by her classroom on a near daily basis.
Most days he just needed a quick pep talk. He'd tell her he was butting heads with one of his teachers or having issues with another student and she'd remind him to be patient, be flexible, apologize, that sort of stuff.
But last year, his junior year, things got more serious. Lawrence started missing school, a lot of school. He was on the verge of dropping out. Ferguson became a kind of lifeline for Lawrence.
She kept tabs on him. She would find any opportunity to let him know that she cared about him, and that was enough. If she wasn't going to give up on him, he wouldn't give up either.
And now this class clown is on track to graduate. He has a job, he's applying to colleges: He's using his gift for good.