A bit of wisdom from a grad school mentor on sarcasm, paraphrased:

Sarcasm is corrosive. It creates false intimacy. For every kid who might think it’s funny, there’s another who is terrified and will never say a word to you about it.

I’ve been thinking more about this recently. I can be pretty sarcastic at times, without much purpose. It’s easy to go for quick laughs. It’s much harder to think about whether there is a student in the corner who is terrified. And it’s especially important for students in math classrooms with deeply entrenched mindsets and dispositions toward math.

I wonder what my class would be like if I replaced my sarcasm with sincerity? Food for thought.

8 thoughts on “Sarcasm

    1. dkane47 Post author

      I really like that piece! Haven’t seen it for too long. Yea, it’s easy to forget the impact that broader institutional patterns have on kids. I wonder where else that comes up?

  1. Patrick Honner

    Every year our principal includes the definition of sarcasm in his presentation to the staff on day one.

    Sarcasm — a sharp and often satirical or ironic utterance designed to cut or give pain

    Thus, when a student complains that a teacher has said something objectionable, “I was being sarcastic” is not a defense, it’s an admission.

    I’ve heard it on the first day of school for ten years in a row, and it’s still good to be reminded.

  2. julierwright

    Bless you for thinking of the terrified or just uncomfortable kid, Dylan. And when there is a power imbalance (as in the classroom), it is really hard to know just who that kid is sometimes.

    I had a coworker once at a previous school whom I really liked and thought was clever and hilarious. My son had him for homeroom in middle school one year (just a few days each quarter), then got him as a teacher the next year. I was surprised that my son was distressed about that, since they seemed like a good match, but it turned out the teacher had been kidding him in homeroom with a nickname he really hated and he didn’t know how to get him to stop. I gave my coworker a heads-up about it before classes started and he was so chagrined and of course completely dropped the nickname, and within days he was (and remained) one of my son’s favorite teachers. But I wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t stepped in (something I’d have been reluctant to do as a parent if I hadn’t known the teacher).

    “Thus, when a student complains that a teacher has said something objectionable, ‘I was being sarcastic’ is not a defense, it’s an admission.” That’s memorable!

    Teaching sixth graders has really broken me of the sarcasm habit, because many of them take just about EVERYTHING literally. “Let’s do a poll. How many people like cats better than dogs?… dogs better than cats?… OK, that second group, wrong answer, you all fail.” “WHAT???” By the time you explain yourself, any original humor is dead, buried, and rotting in its grave.

    (There’s probably some kind of exception for Fawn Nguyen. I feel like she could pull it off.)

    I’ve learned to channel my sarcasm into gentler forms that let me be an adult, but with less of a power imbalance, such as appreciation of the absurd, or wry humor against myself or other adults who can take it. Also, I decided I could live with not being all that funny. Most students will tell you teachers are usually less funny than they think they are, anyway!

    1. dkane47 Post author

      Thanks, Julie. It’s really hard to take that kid’s perspective, and I think it’s important in lots of other contexts too. Your story really hits it home, and too often that message is never sent.

  3. LB

    I’ve been trying to avoid sarcasm for a few years now (and when it does slip out, I follow it up with something like “That was false” or “And by __ I mean __” which is _also_ hilarious to my friends so) and it has been great! I feel much better about my interactions when I know exactly what I said.


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