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Avoiding Toxic Humor: Why There's No Room for Sarcasm in the Classroom

By Brian Gatens May 22, 2014

Teachers have to always guard against sarcasm, the dark side of humor in the classroom.

The best teachers often have warm hearts and a keen sense of humor. They’re the ones with an almost magical combination of enthusiasm and attention. Their classroom performance looks almost effortless as they seem to glide through the hallways from class to class.

Then there are the teachers with a poor work ethic and a sarcastic temperament — a nightmare combination for students, families, colleagues and administrators. As you work on becoming the educator you want to be, it’s essential is to live as much as possible in the first example, and to flee from the second one.

Sarcasm isn’t the right word

Sarcastic comments can be like poison in the classroomFirst, sarcasm isn’t even the proper word to use. I prefer to call it what it is: cruelty. Far from being a good-tempered, fun exchange between teacher and student, a sarcastic comment (or action) is like poison in the classroom.

If I come across as passionate on this topic, it’s because I am. I’ve had the unfortunate opportunity to work with teachers whose primary goal was to be as sarcastic and snide as possible. The cascading negative effects on their students and classes were palpable. I’ve also had the unfortunate task of from time to time defending teachers when parents complained about poorly considered comments in the classroom.

Kids don’t get it

Children, depending on their social and emotional development, sometimes don’t grasp the language of humor, and any comment that isn’t direct and clear only serves to confuse them further.

Sarcasm is even worse.

Rather than creating a positive connection with a teacher, the sarcastic jibe becomes a sticking point for the child. This tends to come up when teachers “nickname” their students. Stay away from anything that appears to call out a child’s personal traits or physical appearance. Also, don’t fall into the trap of using a nickname that other students may have given the child. You don’t want to become a co-conspirator to cruelty.

It can spiral out of control

Even the lightest use of sarcasm tells other children that classmates are fair game for fun and teasing. As a teacher you set the behavior and moral expectation for your classroom. By breaking that “law” in your conduct, you’re sending the explicit message that your students can do the same.

This downward spiral creates divisions inside a classroom and makes vulnerable students feel even more exposed. Remember, everything you do sends a signal. On that same note, you have a responsibility to call out and correct any behaviors that work against the student.

The right way to use humor

This doesn’t mean that good humor doesn’t deserve a place in the classroom. I know of one teacher who began class several days a week by putting classic “Far Side” comics up on the wall, and another who encouraged the occasional joke contest. Healthy laughter releases hormones that the body loves to have coursing through it, and helps students open up their brains (and attitudes) toward learning.

Don’t hesitate to create laughter in your classroom, and be prepared to be amazed at the reactions of your students when they see you laugh heartily. Actions like that, which can’t be measured on tests or on a spreadsheet, are among the greatest joys of teaching. Have fun!

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