No one wants to be the school embarrassment. Well, almost no one. For educational clowns, being the blundering idiot and class failure is actually an objective.
Educational clowns are the newest colorful characters on Israel’s flourishing therapeutic clowning scene. Similar to medical clowns, these red-nosed buffoons assist in reducing stress and anxiety among students, teachers and other educational staff in the school setting as their counterparts do in a medical center.
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Talia Safra, a clowning instructor at the Kibbutzim College of Education, Technology and the Arts, started this original initiative last year in one high school in Israel. Today, there are already six schools with educational clowns and four on the waitlist.
“I want educational clowning to be a necessary element of the educational system. A true necessity. Happiness, humor, a spirit of nonsense should be part of the educational language,” Safra tells NoCamels.
Safra, who holds a Master’s degree in theater directing, was among the first medical clowns in Israel to work in the country’s hospitals 15 years ago. She also clowned for 10 years with youth and kids in the mental health field.
Her experience taught her that, “you do not need to be sick to meet a clown.”
As such, she set out to break new ground in the therapeutic clowning field by launching, what she says is, the world’s first educational clowning initiative.
I want educational clowning to be a necessary element of the educational system. A true necessity. Happiness, humor, a spirit of nonsense should be part of the educational language”
Because it is new, the concept of educational clowning continues to be defined as each new school takes part in the initiative. Simply put, the therapeutic clowns help relieve some of the stresses associated with school – for pupils and teachers, alike.
“Putting a clown in a hierarchical system, like a school system or medical system, where there are positions and ranks can be very helpful. In these big systems, we often miss out in seeing the small details or seeing the people in need of treatment or acknowledgment. There are feelings of transparency. The clown can really help with an immediate connection or contact, and that allows one to feel relevant, present and seen. It works so well in hospitals and it works in schools, too,” says Safra.
Once a week, about a dozen ridiculous-looking adults, dressed in mismatching clothing and wearing oversized bows and flowers in their hair, leave their professional careers – computer programmer, nurse, opera singer, researcher, teacher, engineer, this journalist — on the sidelines to come and clown in schools around the country.
“Educational clowning brings joy to the school. The students eagerly await the short encounters they may have with the clowns during recess, and sometimes at the beginning of a test or lesson,” says Smadar Zeller, principal of ORT Singalovski high school in Tel Aviv. “Educational clowns in a school help create a more positive atmosphere because they reduce pressures and negative energy.”
“The clowns add something fun to the school day,” says a 12th grader at ORT Singalovski high school in Tel Aviv. “My name means ‘will be happy’ and the clowns wanted to know if I’m happy now, all the time or if I’ll only be happy tomorrow. It’s silly but entertaining.”
It wasn’t by accident that the Israeli educational clowning program started in high schools and not elementary schools, as some may assume should have been the case.
As Safra puts it, “high school is the worst time of a person’s life.”
“Everything goes wrong in high school and everything is changing. Hormones are raging, your brain is developing, and you’re searching for your identity. The high schooler spends a ton of effort on trying to hide from others how little he or she knows about how to act, who to be, what to do in life,” says Safra, 45, a mother of three. “And to hide this incompetence, they adapt dress codes, or how to talk in a certain way, or hang out with certain people.”
Everything goes wrong in high school and everything is changing. Hormones are raging, your brain is developing, and you’re searching for your identity. The high schooler spends a ton of effort on trying to hide from others how little he or she knows about how to act, who to be, what to do in life.”
The educational clowns come to school completely exposed. They are oblivious to codes of conduct or dress. They take on the role of the school’s most humiliated and embarrassed individuals. And these clowns are open to every possible scenario and see everyone as a potential friend.
“Educational clowns are not teachers, social workers, department heads or principals. They cannot do what they do. Educational clowns are people who turn themselves into idiots. They are the worst dressed in the school, their hair is ridiculous, they don’t have any friends to protect them, they don’t know what to say and usually say the wrong thing. They don’t know where to go. Everything is a question. And through these questions, the clowns learn about the students and their feelings and fears,” says Safra. “And what we learn about the students, especially if they’re in need of help, we pass on to the school counselors and social workers.”
Indeed, the students open up to the clowns as the clowns are open to being friends with everyone. The defiant students feel secure to talk to the clowns about sex or drugs. The fashion-conscious students eagerly put down the clown’s dress style. The socially weak pupils get a kick out of bossing the clowns around.
The clowns also help students return to class.
“If a pupil is late for class and is ushered in by the clowns, then the attention of being late is focused on the clowns and not the pupil,” Einat Gura, head of the WIZO Nahalal Youth Village school which spans grades 7 to 12, told Yediot Aharonot. “The clowns don’t sit through an entire class so they aren’t a disruption in terms of learning.”
For some of the teachers, seeing adults in clown gear took some getting used to.
“The teachers were a bit taken aback at the beginning but the fact that at the end of recess breaks, they now request that the educational clowns come with them to begin a lesson only shows what a difference the clowns can make in a classroom atmosphere,” Zeller tells NoCamels.
And while the Israeli-born educational clowning initiative is still in its pilot phase, the concept is already gaining international attention.
At a Healthcare Clowning International Meeting earlier this year in Austria, Safra presented her initiative on incorporating therapeutic clowns into the education system.
Ines Rosner, a social worker and therapeutic clown in Germany, was in the audience. Having used clowning techniques to connect with refugee children, Rosner tells NoCamels that she “knew” she had to bring the Israeli educational clowning initiative to Germany. She founded the True!Moments organization to do just that.
“I believe that this initiative is the right way to change the atmosphere in schools and help pupils to find their own way to deal with school,” Rosner tells NoCamels in an email exchange from Germany. “I believe that humor can help change the stressful atmosphere in schools, heal sickness, fear and aggression. Clowns can speak out what children or youth are not allowed to say or are afraid of doing.
“From my personal experience as a clown, I have found that children very quickly trust the clown, and thus more quickly dare to address problems and are open to getting help.”
“Clowns don’t judge,” says Safra. “They aren’t scrutinizing people. They just want to be friends with everyone for whoever they may be.”
Therapeutic clowning can help students and teachers see one another as the people they are.
“Clowns can be an asset to the teachers. Being a teacher is a hard job and it is becoming increasingly difficult. There is hardly any time to breathe deeply. A clown can make this happen, can bring laughter to the stuffy room and give the teachers and children a fresh view of one another,” says Rosner.
Rosner is scheduled to come to Israel in January 2019 to train with Safra’s educational clowns in the Israeli schools.
For Safra, it is important that the educational clowning initiative is viewed as a complementary option to the educational system. She says her project is not to butt heads with how schools teach today.
“The school system today comprises adults – teachers – telling kids the right way of doing something. There are rules to be followed. And it works. Educational clowning complements this learning style. It’s not instead,” she says. “Educational clowning is like a nutritional supplement.”
“Clowning’s ‘stupid, simple, and irrelevant’ philosophies have tremendous influence,” says Zeller. “If I could, I would have educational clowns in the school every day.”
And while the initiative is still growing, Safra and her merry clowns are hoping to make small differences in the schools. To add a bit of humor to the classroom, hallways and stairways. To get a teacher to laugh. To get a student to chuckle. To have fun at school.
Looking into the proverbial crystal ball, however, sees a future whereby educational clowns will be in every school.
“I believe that educational clowning is a requirement. Not just an Israeli need but a basic component of education,” says Safra. “My vision is that parents, teachers, and students will demand educational clowning in their schools.”
Viva Sarah Press is a journalist and speaker. She writes and talks about the creativity and innovation taking place in Israel and beyond. Viva is one of the educational clowns in Talia Safra’s initiative. She blogs about educational clowning at www.vivaspress.com/blog/Therapeutic-Clowning.