On Sarcasm, Irony, and Teaching

Recently, Grant Wiggins posted a heartfelt post by his daughter who was totally gobsmacked by spending two days shadowing students. Apparently, they lead a life filled with boredom and pain, tortured by constant immobility and sarcastic teachers.

I was unmoved. It was, clearly, a minority opinion; Wiggins’ post went everywhere, and all sorts of teachers posted emotional paeans to the effect that they would change their ways this very minute. Others wrote, a tad smugly, that they had come to similar insights years ago and so no longer were that kind of teacher.

I kept my mouth shut, but when Wiggins posted a followup celebrating the fact that only two commenters spoke out in favor of sarcasm, I felt moved to comment.

Actually, I would have defended sarcasm in teachers, and wrote a long comment on the last post–and then deleted it, because really, why fight the zeitgeist?

But since you made a point of mentioning that only two commenters supported sarcasm, I thought I’d add my voice after all.

… I guess the definition is changing. I am not hurtful or unpleasant to my kids. I am definitely ironic in ways that I would describe as mildly sarcastic, and the kids enjoy it. And certainly, I use paws up, but claws not out sarcasm as a form of classroom management in ways that I am perfectly content with. Now, perhaps other teachers are incapable of non-hurtful sarcasm. Or perhaps everyone’s just a little too pure.

For example, “Ernesto, you appear perfectly enthralled with Sophia’s conversation. Must be fascinating. Sophia, perhaps you’d like to share?” is sarcasm. I do not, in fact, want Sophia to share. I want her and Ernesto to pay attention. If I say this with a bright and cheery voice, I am not being hurtful. But I am being sarcastic.

And sure enough, I got three responses that proved my point.

Your example of “mild sarcasm” might be embarrassing or humiliating to certain students. Almost fits the definition of social bullying, as it is sort of making fun of and belittling Sophia. It would have served to shut me up completely in that class, leaving me fearful that any utterance on my part would open me up for more public embarrassment. Some students can let that “mild sarcasm” roll off their backs, but certainly there are those who would feel the sting.

Second: I have to respond to the sarcasm. I have a middle school daughter. She is a high honor roll student. She finds pride and accomplish in her academics, and places far more pressure on herself than I ever would. Last week she forgot her homework, not because she chose not to do it, but because like adults, she made a mistake. As she got into class and realized this she panicked. Her nervous reaction is to cover her mouth, 12 year old age appropriate. Her teacher gave her some comment that crushed her. Upon picking her up even her explaining to me her “humiliation and embarrassment” brought tears to her eyes. “I am not that student that just doesn’t do my homework or that student that thinks it is not serious” she stressed over even going into class the next day. What was accomplished by that??? On a much brighter note my daughter to the initiative to email the teacher and explain she wanted to apologize at the end of class for the misunderstanding but was “scared” to approach him! I was very thankful to see an email back from the teacher thanking her the email and encouraging her to never fear approaching him. It was not the lack of missing homework that had her that upset. She had already figured out with no grade under a 93 and HW only 20% of her grade she was in the clear for high honors. It was the comment and the weight of how that teacher made her feel. Please understand this teacher at parent teacher night seemed great. I feel he really does care about the students he teaches everyday. This is not meant to be a teacher bashing rather hopefully another perspective on what some may see as harmless in a classroom.

I had a Spanish teacher for 3 semesters that had a reputation as the worst teacher in our high school. (Of course, I do not compare you to her, but I want to give an example of how disruptive sarcasm can be to a learning environment.) Sarcasm was her only classroom management strategy. All the students were terrified of her. If you asked a question, she sarcastically said you should have paid better attention to the lecture. If she asked a question and you answered wrong, she’d simply raise her eyebrows at you and not help or offer suggestions as you struggled to find the right conjugation of a verb. There was no kindness, no empathy, no humanity. I knew only two students that liked her. They claimed you had to understand her sarcasm, but most students couldn’t. Many begged guidance counselors to be switched to another teacher. She was the only 4th year teacher the last year I had her and so few students took 4th year (because it was not required to graduate) that they had to make her the only 3rd year teacher this year so that 4th year Spanish could continue to be a class. The only reason I stuck through it was because I wanted to minor in Spanish. Classmates that before loved Spanish hated it with a passion after having this sarcastic teacher.

So. (In my response, please note that I teach high school students.)

The first commenter wants me to feel badly about Sophia, who is talking in class. Sophia may never open her mouth in class again! she says dramatically. Well, if Sophia is constantly talking in class when she shouldn’t be, then this would not be the worst thing. My experience suggests that the kids who talk a lot in class when they should be listening are not easily discouraged.

But in any event, why should Sophia be any less intimidated by a stern request to stop talking? Or would the commenter prefer that the teacher simply say “Everyone stop talking, please!”, without identifying any particular person?

The latter issue, whether or not a teacher should “call out” offenders, is a subject of considerable debate in the teaching community. I am unsympathetic on this point—if you’re the one talking, you’re the one I’m going to tell to hush, one way or another. But in either case, the issue in that event is not the sarcasm, but the calling out.

The second commenter, the mom, doesn’t even describe the comment made, merely conveying that her daughter was devastated because she’s extremely sensitive. So I can’t really tell if the teacher used sarcasm or not. If the teacher wasn’t saying anything deliberately hurtful, then it’s hard to argue that the teacher should change. Sometimes you have to tell girls to get a grip and stop thinking it’s all about them. And kindly note the name of this blog before you tell me I don’t understand.

Notice that I am speaking here mostly of suburban kids with plenty of privileges—the ones who post on blogs or have moms who do. High poverty kids who are offended by an unintentionally hurtful comment are a different issue. But ultimately, all kids who are sensitive to basically normal interactions should be supported sympathetically but led to see that they need to take a breath and realize no harm was meant.

Third commenter is specific! And none of that is sarcasm!

Therefore, for starters, let’s define terms.



I am uncertain as to what “irony” is without sarcasm. We Americans definitely conflate the two terms. So let me try to define: ironic utterances intended as humorously warning rebuke.

Some people find “Sophia, perhaps you’d like to share?” to be a comment beyond the bounds of acceptable teacher discourse because it’s hurtful and unfair to speak in such a fashion to a student who is rattling away cheerfully while the teacher is addressing the class.

Those who oppose “sarcasm” (whatever that is) also tend to be bothered by exchanges like this:

“Fredo, are you intentionally trying to be irritating?”

“What!?! I wasn’t doing anything!”

“Exactly! Pick up your pencil and at least pretend to work!”

“Jimmy, either stop tapping that pencil of your own accord or sit on your hands.”


“Sandy, the sign says no grooming. Put the mirror away. You are naturally fabulous.”

None of these are sarcastic comments. None of them are respectful. All of them are comments that, in my class, get a laugh from the students (including Jimmy, Fredo, and Sandy). All of them identify a student who is in some way violating the rules of my classroom—or simply driving me crazy, in the case of Jimmy’s tapping.

I have run into two sorts of sarcasm opposers. One sort really opposes meanness and is only thinking of mean, hurtful sarcasm. I think all teachers would agree that hurtful language towards students is never appropriate. They have only the “mean” type in mind, and readily agree that much verbal irony does not qualify.

The second sort really opposes not just sarcasm, but all verbal expression that isn’t polite, respectful, and utterly indifferent to the student behavior. When you give them an example, they respond with an alternative. Emilio should be gently asked to go back on task. Jimmy should be allowed to tap. Sandy should be counseled on feminist empowerment. Or something.

This may be an issue of class. I do not come from a polite ring of the social strata, which may be why I don’t consider the occasional verbal riposte a source of endless psychological damage.

So to those people who simply think teachers shouldn’t be mean, we agree. Very few teachers would disagree.

To those people who think teachers should be intensely conscious that their every word might scar a super-sensitive teenager, we need to remember those super-sensitive teenagers will grow up. Grant teachers some leeway, and tell the kids to toughen up a bit, with sympathy and understanding. And most teachers will get a bit milder with the sensitive ones.

To those who believe all teachers should be respectful, firm, sincere in every utterance and unfailingly polite, I certainly agree that teachers who want to should operate in such a manner. But requiring that behavior from all teachers would suck the joy out of my classroom and I’d leave teaching if we were all expected to act like pedantic ninnies with high school students. I secretly wonder if such people are evidence that much of what makes America great is in the process of being castrated.

Yeah, don’t mind that last sentence. It was just me being sarcastic ironic.


7 thoughts on “On Sarcasm, Irony, and Teaching”

  1. LOVE the last full paragraph! Way too many of my colleagues would not risk a humorous or interesting remark because PC police might emerge. As a result their classrooms reeked of boredom. Teaching math is difficult enough without cutting out the human flavor to the interaction!

    1. Sometimes they are afraid of the “PC Police”, but other times these folks genuinely believe that any sort of jocular remark is inappropriate. I do not grok.

  2. My major moment when I stopped using sarcasm in the classroom (but not humor) was few years ago. It was pointed out to me that a sarcastic remark towards a specific student (who I knew could “take it” and understood what I meant) when interpreted by a student who might not understand my meaning could completely shut down. In the example above Sophia might not mind and she also might continue to talk but the kid two seats down may become terrified of you because they don’t want to endure your wrath so to speak. When I started to think about how my words could affect kids around them (especially if they are autistic and/or have trouble with social cues and tone) then I started using sarcasm less frequently, and usually one on one and never in a group setting. I am not being “PC” or trying to suck the joy out of teaching, but I do recommend that sarcasm not be used. Irony, now that is another thing all together. Joy, fun, silly humor, all appropriate.

    1. You do realize you are just rationalizing much of the same? What you call “humor”, others could call “comments that could be misinterpreted” by an autistic student.

      All you’re doing is judging teachers who draw the line at a different place than you do.

      The Sophia comment is not in any way potentially hurtful or damaging to a kid who might “shut down” due to fear.

  3. Points noted. Edgy humor and sometimes “walking the line” can make the difference between life and death in successful relationship building with high school students. I’m not certain if, what you describe, even warrants your response or counterpoints. Sounds like fun between teacher and student, both understanding mutual respect and positional authority and responsibility, right?

    A simpler way to thin slice this is, does one “manage his or her classroom” by being enough of a “presence” as to gain compliance by communicating, “Screw with me, my rules, or my class and we will surly have words for which you will come out the fool and your peers will witness you fall, HARD.”

    Now, I am quite certain this is not you and you would WELCOME your administrator to use your own approach with you as you use it with students, speak to you as directly, and use similar tone, physical presence, and delivery when you feel compelled to occasionally meander outside the bounds of meeting etiquette. If so, I bet you would smile, appreciate the well deserved redirection, close your mouth, and understand you are actually in his or her classroom never barking back, not involving your union, not citing a contract, not reminding or considering your seniority, standing, or position, and without a word of disagreement. Right?

    As long as any teacher could deal with like treatment in kind, you are probably not who this stuff is even talking about. You probably just know how to develop the kind of respect people envy in a teacher that can pull things off successfully, supportively, and are beloved because of it.

    It’s the people that try to, unsuccessfully and hurtfully, emulate “word play” that mistake humor with being a bully, misusing positional authority, and are the first to cry like a baby when called out by their superior in kind that all this is about.

    Walking the line is what great teachers do. So walk on. And ignore the noise. This stuff cannot be referring to you.

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