Sarcasm. We’ve all used it in our teaching, even though we are admonished from day one in our education courses that this is a “bad thing.” Piffle. Used correctly, with a deft hand and soft touch, sarcasm can be one of the greatest tools in your teaching arsenal.
Students these days are well versed in the vocabulary of sarcasm. They have heard it used to great—and not so great—comic effect in television and the movies almost from birth. The use of sarcasm when dealing with students—especially discipline problems—often shows them that you care enough about them and their lives to actually discover what buttons to push. In the short life-history of the average student, there is only one category of animal able to use sarcasm on them to its greatest effect—family.
Now, I don’t recommend trying to convince your students you are part of their family, or even spending the time to try to show them you care about their lives—though this is not a bad thing, usually—but the proper application of sarcasm, especially in discipline situations, can add the hint of paternal (or maternal) familiarity that will often get a positive response from a student.
In the past, when a student would talk back to me openly in class or display other forms of disrespect, they could always count on a heavy dose of sarcasm to quickly convey that such behavior is not permitted, and continued endeavors in that direction will only serve to allow me more opportunity to subject them to public ridicule. My favorite opening salvo was “is this your plan for having a good day? Because I can tell you from experience it will not end well for you.”
Most students would get the hint right there, and abandon their ill-advised and evil schemes. Others simply made the situation worse, and were promptly made aware of their grave mistake. One such student inhabited an eighth grade math class for which I was substituting, and as I was handing out the worksheets the teacher had left for them he piped up with the most common question ever asked of a sub, “Do we have to do this?” My standard response in these cases was always “Of course not. Somebody’s got to be out there to ask me if I ‘want fries with that.'”
This kid, though, did not take the hint and proceeded to wad the paper up saying he wouldn’t do the work. Before I could respond—my reputation having preceded me—the boy next to him leaned over and said “That’s Dr. Weeks. I would quit while you’re ahead, dude.” The remainder of the class period was trouble free.
There is, of course, a lower age limit for good use of sarcasm, but I have yet to find a hard and fast rule that would apply to the general population. I have used it successfully on my six-year-old son (and he with me) though I don’t recommend its use—especially the advanced art of layered sarcasm—on children who have not reached at least the age of 11.
For those wishing to build a repertoire, here are some of my favorites:
After explaining an assignment, when the inevitable hand flies into the air to ask a question about what you just said:
“I don’t know. I wasn’t listening to me talk, either.” And then move on without answering.
When the kid tries to convince you that you gave them an instruction or assignment you clearly did not:
“Hey, I’m not as dumb as you look.” Works best with high school students.
Just to keep them on their toes, when you notice two of your students dating each other:
“You do realize that you can both do better, right?”
In my band class, when they have just finished playing something we have been working on, but it still needs more work:
“That was almost not terrible!” The looks you get are priceless, and it is effective even with adult students.
My favorite, though not recommended, is when I told a student that they had just done something dumb—something we had just spent considerable class time working to avoid—and she responded by telling the whole class very loudly she would tell her mother I said she was stupid. To which I replied:
“Sweetie, I think she already knows.”
Just remember, like comedy, sarcasm is hard, and should be attempted only by a professional on a closed course. Or, whatever… Just be careful out there.