Thursday, September 20, 2012


I've sat in on several conversations in the last few weeks with groups of teachers, particularly new practicing teachers as well as preservice teachers, who shared that they enjoy working with older elementary, middle school, and high school students partly because they get to be sarcastic with the students. They said that students think sarcasm is funny and that it is a way to help them connect with their students.

When I hear these comments, I have a hard time biting my tongue. I try to probe for more information about why they consider sarcasm an effective way to build relationships or as an instructional or management tool. It is hard for me not to jump in immediately with how I feel about sarcasm - that it has no place in a classroom. Elementary, middle, or high school.

See, the thing about sarcasm is that at the heart, it is meant to harm. Someone or something is always at the bad end of the joke. Even if it is directed at the teacher themselves, it sets up a classroom environment modeling that it is ok to make fun of others. Teachers do not mean for this to cause harm. But in actuality, sarcasm is hurtful. Criticism of sarcasm use by teachers dates way back, as evidenced in an interesting article by Thomas Briggs at Teacher's College, Columbia University from 1928.

And I'll tell you this - when I observe students in classrooms where teachers use sarcasm, more often than not, most students are visibly uncomfortable or confused by the jokes. There are students that get it and do think it is funny. And some students have learned to laugh even if they don't think something is funny. But what are we teaching them with this behavior? Think about new English Learners in the classroom, for whom every day can be a challenge just to keep up with what is happening in the classroom. How will they make sense of the sarcasm? With so much left to inference and interpretation, it is no wonder that sarcastic remarks can be confusing for all students. Because of all this, I don't think sarcasm helps a teacher build relationships, which is a top priority at the start of the school year. There are much better, safer, kinder ways to build relationships with students rather than resorting to sarcasm.

I can still remember a sarcastic remark my third grade teacher made to me, humiliating me in class when I made a mistake on an assignment. Teachers want students to remember the wonderful learning moments from class, the relationships they built with each other and with them, not for the humiliating, hurtful, or mean-spirited things they say about students or themselves.

This is not to say that students do not need feedback about their performance and behavior. Teachers, of course, have the obligation to provide students with accurate, ongoing, constructive feedback on their progress in school. Sarcasm, though, can detract from the message of feedback because of the emotions that can be tied up in the statement. Feedback is one thing, sarcasm is another. 

I'll be honest, that I can be sarcastic with my friends, and when I started teaching middle school, I resorted to sarcasm in my first year. I thought that the kids could understand it and that they'd think I was funny. The same few students would always laugh at the jokes, but once I really started to reflect on what I was doing and why, I realized that it did not help me reach my goals of helping students learn to be the best people they could be.

A couple of resources to help you think about this. NEA has a piece on building relationships with students that addresses sarcasm and is worth a read. I also love Peter Johnston's Choice Words, which isn't about sarcasm, it is about the power of teachers' words. You can hear a podcast with author Peter Johnston at the link.

As you begin this school year, consider the language that you use with students, the way your powerful words can be interpreted. If you know you use sarcasm in your classes, think about why, when, and how it is used, and perhaps consider other ways to meet your objectives. I think you'll find a better environment for your students and their learning will result.


  1. One of the most beautiful qualities of true friendship is to understand and to be understood. See the link below for more info.


  2. Ok article, but using a source from 1928?

    1. It seems you have misunderstood the sentence which includes the reference, which indicates that critiques of the use of sarcasm in schools have been around a long time. The reference was not included to be a contemporary citation.

  3. This is really stupid, people take this way too seriously. An article about this? Seriously, obviously you don't know what it's like to be a middle schooler or student, teachers don't think like them and you need to stop thinking like a doctor and more like a student if you want to teach your students right. SARCASM IS A GOOD WAY TO CONNECT WITH STUDENTS!

  4. I use sarcasm as a common language in my classroom. It builds whit and it is never ever personal. To make light of yourself and mistakes it can build confidence. As usual with "research" there is no differentiation between personal sarcasm and good ole fashion humor. I do not coddle my kids nor do I baby them. Whats great is the students actually start using my sarcasm and funny antics on one another and it creates an atmosphere of light hearted humor. It can be done and it has worked miraculously with myself. I was voted by the students as the teacher of the year for my campus. I work hard and no one's feelings have been hurt.
    Anonymous M.Ed