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‘Three Top Tips from Tom’ will be updated weekly with the best advice and tips on behaviour and classroom management.

Tom Bennett is the TES adviser on behaviour and a teacher at Raines Foundation, an inner city state school in Tower Hamlets. He regularly supports teachers on TES through our behaviour forum and monthly newsletters on behaviour.

I love your sandals! Dealing with sarcasm in the classroom.

Sarcasm is, I am told, the last refuge of scoundrels. I’m not sure why this is. I rather imagine that scoundrels have a great many depths they can aspire (despire?) to that surpass the rascally vice of sarcasm. It is also a descendent of it’s great-uncle irony, which at least has a more impressive pedigree, although it suffers from the Achilles Heel of being, for all intents, misunderstood by most who use it- up to and including the great Alannis Morisette, who really just meant ‘annoying’. Sarcasm is also the frequent first weapon of choice by your contemporary classroom urchin. Why is it so often unsheathed? Because its USP is its intrinsic ambiguity. If a kid says to you, ‘Wow, Sir, you look realy GREAT today,’ when you just know they’re conveying their charmless scorn for your bold cardigan/ Ugg boot approach to smart/ casual. The cloak of the double entendre gives them, they assume, immunity from the clobbering hammer of your righteous wrath. Because all they have to do when you start to change colour and hop from foot to foot is say, ‘What? I was just saying you looked NICE!.’ *turns to rest of the class* ‘You can’t say anything in this class. GOD!!!’ *storms out of room*. It’s the cuss you can’t trust, the slag you can’t bag, it’s the….here’s what to do:

  1. Tactically ignore. Don’t react to the sarcasm at first, at all. Get on with the lesson. Don’t even register that it registered. This policy, similar to ‘do not feed the troll’ will often starve the situation of fuel. Note, I said ‘tactically ignore’ Don’t ignore it. Keep the little chap behind after the lesson, and explain to them, clearly and without anger, that you didn’t like the tone of the comment, and that if there was a repetition of similar comments, you’d deal with it as if it were an open insult. If they huff and fuss, then at least they don’t have an audience. Also, point out that communication is subtle, and context and tone also matter- and you didn’t feel the tone was complimentary. That way you don’t accuse them of lying, but they know that you’re not happy with the comment and you won’t tolerate it.
  2. Don’t use sarcasm yourself. I say this guardedly, because of course, you can use sarcasm if you’re clever with it, and the relationship between the kids and you is one that can endure what is essentially cheek. I use it all the time, but then my kids know where I’m coming from. If I have a new kid whom I don’t know, or a class where the relationship isn’t strong enough to take a knock, I keep my language direct and unsubtle. If you’re sarcastic, then the kids will often be sarcastic back, because they”ll model behaviour from you, or at least take their boundary cues from you.
  3. Confront. This is for when you’ve made it clear that you don’t want any comments beyond the standard classroom menu (e.g. appearance, criticisms of the lesson etc.) and kids still persist. Calmly (always calmly, losing the rag is rarely profitable) send the kid out, or set a detention, or have them removed, or whatever you do. Sarcasm is, depending on the context, a direct challenge to you, and an attempt to mock you, the lesson and your dignity. If you’re going to lead them into a brave new world of education, you can’t be a laughing stock. That doesn’t mean you can’t laugh at yourself, but never at your expense, and never solely for their amusement.

Good luck *rolls eyes*

Tom

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