I was lucky enough to see Hacking Questions author Connie Hamilton do professional development around her book with a group of educators that represented over 18 school districts in New York City. Connie did a great job talking about questioning strategies, protocols, and engagement strategies. While I learned so many great things at the workshop, the thing that stuck out to me the most, as a behavior guy, was when she started talking about classrooms being a safe space. At first, I didn’t know where she was going with that topic, but as she started to speak, it made perfect sense--none of the strategies that she taught the educators mattered if the students didn’t feel safe to take risks.

One of the things that we might do as educators, even though we don’t usually have ill intent, is to use sarcasm in a way that erodes the trust students have in us as a safe person. While we may have more solid relationships with some students than others, and we may think “oh, they know I’m kidding,” but the truth is that being picked on is no fun, joke or not. An unintended side effect can be with students that you do not have a close relationship with. They might be afraid to engage with you in fear of being made fun of because they see that you do that with others. They will not view you as a safe person, therefore, they will not be fully active participants in your class.

While I know we often say things that are sarcastic because we can’t say what we are really thinking, but we must refrain. This is especially true when calling out students in front of their peers. We must teach students the right way to do something, speak to them in a caring way, and redirect them in a respectful way. Here is an example of a sarcastic response versus an appropriate response when a student is late:

Sarcastic response: “Class started 3 minutes ago. Soooo nice of you to join us.” Or,  “It’s not like what we are learning today is important or anything.”

Appropriate response: I am so glad that you are here! Let's talk in a minute.

*Teacher a few minutes later: I saw that you were late today and I was worried. What happened? (This is when we are seeking to understand why the student was late and let them speak instead of just assuming that they were irresponsible).

*Allow the student to respond.

*Teacher: How can you make sure that you are on time when our class meets again?

*Allow the student to respond.

At this point you might try having the student coming up with a way to repair the harm, which is in the third chapter of the book Hacking School Discipline, but you might just leave it alone if you are satisfied with the student’s answer for how they can make sure that they are on time the next time. If you deem that a student needs a consequence for being late, give that consequence to the student in a respectful way and not in front of their peers. You might tell them that you did have to log the tardy and they will have to make up the time that they were late, but you are more than willing to help them strategize on how to be on time the next time. Students do need to know that they will be held accountable for their actions, but we must do so with dignity and through logical and restorative consequences, not sarcasm or punitive measures.

In the instance above with the student being tardy, imagine how you would feel if you walked into a staff meeting and your principal said “So nice of you to show up” in front of all of your coworkers. We need to always keep empathy in mind when we talk to students. Just because they are students does not mean that we should talk to them in a certain way that we would never want from someone else to talk to us like that.

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While sarcasm as a student’s expense is detrimental, I still highly encourage you to be fun with your students and to be silly. We need to not take ourselves so seriously and be human! Laugh, make corny jokes, and have fun, but in a way that makes students feel comfortable in your room. Sarcasm can only work if not directed with a negative undertone, out of frustration, or targeting a student. One example would be when I would say to my students “You all love 80’s music, right?” before putting on some music during work time. In that instance, they all know that I’m joking, that I’m being silly, and the joke is at no one’s expense.

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