Class Clown Or Gifted Student? It's A Matter Of Perspective

Nov 8, 2015
Originally published on January 3, 2016 9:50 pm

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.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Almost everyone loves a class clown. That perfectly timed joke about the ancient Greek poet looking nothing at all like Homer Simpson is good clean fun - unless you're the teacher trying to explain the "Odyssey." Still, a change in perspective can make all the difference for some class clowns and their teachers. Lee Hale from the NPR Ed team reports.

LEE HALE, BYLINE: Lawrence Davis is a senior at Dover High School in Delaware. And according to him, every teacher loves him.

Do most teachers think you're pretty funny?

LAWRENCE DAVIS: Yes, they do. They enjoy me. Teachers enjoy having me in their class.

HALE: He's obviously not shy about it.

DAVIS: I'm not going to say I'm the life of the class, but I bring the class to life.

LEANN FERGUSON: He was incorrigible as a freshman.

HALE: That's Leann Ferguson. She taught Lawrence the freshman in her world history class. And back then, enjoy isn't the word she would've used.

FERGUSON: He acted out inappropriately all the time. He had impulse control issues, couldn't stay in his seat, paced the room.

HALE: He drove her crazy. But she also saw something more.

FERGUSON: He has the most amazing sense of humor.

HALE: To her, Lawrence wasn't just another class clown. He was gifted. And his gift was his dynamic personality. She has him in her class again this year. I sat down with both of them to talk about their journey together. Side note, when Lawrence says F, that's his nickname for Mrs. Ferguson. She's cool with it.

DAVIS: I feel like if F wasn't there, none of the teachers would like me. (Laughter) You know, I think that's what it is.

FERGUSON: From the minute I met you, Lawrence, I knew you weren't a bad kid. Yeah, you push it. Yeah, that's just what you do.

DAVIS: (Laughter) I remember one day - can I tell my story real quick?

HALE: Lawrence really wanted to tell me this story. It involved the classroom door. I'll just let him tell it.

DAVIS: Where you going? To the door. What are you doing? Well, I have to fart. (Laughter) You know, I didn't want to stink up the class, so I had to put my butt out the door.

FERGUSON: See what I mean? You've got to love this guy. He's hilarious.

HALE: To be honest, I'm not sure if I see what she means. It sounds like dumb, teenage humor, right? But as I was talking with both of them, I realized that's the point. During moments that most of us would have just felt annoyed, Ferguson saw potential. Ross Greene sees this all the time.

ROSS GREENE: Skills have to be molded so that they are being used in the best interest of the group.

HALE: Greene is a psychologist who studies disruptive students and trains teachers all over the country. He agrees that students like Lawrence are gifted, in a sense. He uses the phrase, raw skills. How do you mold these skills? It starts with a change in perspective.

GREENE: So instead of looking at the kid as a pain in the butt, we say, you know what? I've got a live one this year.

HALE: That's exactly how Mrs. Ferguson saw Lawrence. And she wanted to channel that energy. For instance, she knew that he could get a reaction out of the class. So she would ask for his help when the class would get out of hand.

FERGUSON: And you'll get them back on track when they're off-track for me.

HALE: He loved talking in class and making people laugh. So Mrs. Ferguson would enlist him to help other students finish their work. And he was good at it. He started looking for ways to help.

DAVIS: What do you need done? Oh, I need these papers collected and such and such. All right, give me your papers. I'll get it done.

HALE: With time, Lawrence went from antagonist to ally, a relationship that's proved to be crucial, especially last year, his junior year, when he nearly dropped out.

DAVIS: I'm thankful F was there on the good days, the bad days, the ugly days - all that - the why-are-you-here days.

HALE: 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. Lee Hale, NPR News, Dover, Del.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CLASS CLOWN")

THE WASCALS: (Singing) Your lectures bore me. I interrupt you when you tell a story. I raise my hand, to make you stand up and you ignore me. Open up your eyes and please realize your lesson's phony.

My parents always said, don't let the teachers put you down or walk around school grounds labeled as a class clown. Class clown, class clown. Come ditch if you're down, through the halls run around. Throw your books to the ground if you are a class clown. Come ditch if you're down, through the halls run around. Throw your books to the ground if you are a class clown. Class clown, class clown. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.