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The One Thing Teachers Cannot Do (And What to Do Instead)

One afternoon, a colleague swung by my classroom to talk about a student who had just referred to her as “harsh.” As I listened, she shared, “I don’t get it. I’m always super nice to kids, and I’m also pretty funny. At least, I think so.”

As soon as I heard the word “funny,” I had a feeling about what might be happening. Try as we might to strike a delicate balance between being too strict or too buddy-buddy with students, we sometimes make mistakes in the tone we unintentionally communicate. More specifically, students can misinterpret our use of humor, no matter how well meant, as cruel. In the absence of more objectivity or self-awareness about the impact of our words on children, what can we do to make sure we are approachable but not snarky? 

Smile Openly

Who came up with the misguided notion that teachers who smile lose control of their classes? The two ideas should not even be connected; showing our humanity is not an unspoken signal to students that they can walk all over us. The ill-conceived directive we give new teachers, “Don’t smile until Christmas,” is therefore incredibly bad advice. Instead, we should allow ourselves to smile at our students, both to make them comfortable and to demonstrate that we love our jobs. It is also great to laugh, provided we are not mocking anyone or laughing in a sardonic way that makes children wary of us. If our goal is to show joy or happiness, demonstrably pleasant humor is a tried-and-true way to build a classroom community. However, if our goal is to show students how clever we are, we might want to take a long, hard look at how our use of levity does (or does not) further a safe classroom environment where academic risk-taking occurs freely.

Ask for Feedback

When I was growing up, if my mom asked me a question and didn’t like the response, I would reply, “Don’t ask questions you don’t want to know the answers to.” A lot of us might not want to know what other people think, but in teaching, it is important we face reality to make sure that our actions have the intended outcomes. Why spend so much time wondering when we could be asking? If we want to know how students feel about us, we can ask them anonymously with the caveat that the goal is to be helpful, not mean. Whenever I ask for feedback, I review it with my students the next class period and share my ideas for making sure that feedback translates to reality. Then, they see that we want to grow with them, and they will likely be honest with us without (in most cases) tearing us apart. Either way, we want their thinking to be visible, even if it is not always what we want to hear. Otherwise, we might spend months causing unintended hurt or resentment without realizing it.

It’s Not About You

We’ve all had a teacher who seemed to use class time either as a platform for a non-academic agenda or as a stand-up comedy routine. Teaching doesn’t just feel personal: it is. When we pour so much of ourselves into our jobs and into the kids we teach, it’s hard to remember that we are not supposed to be the center of attention in a classroom. One simple but effective way to make sure we are not pulling focus from the learning our students do is to monitor our own talking time. Each time we talk for more than a moment (i.e., when we are not answering a quick question or providing brief clarification), we can give ourselves a quick tally mark to represent how often we spoke. After class, we count our tally marks and set that number aside. During the next class period, we also count tally marks, but this time for our students. If we are talking at least double the time (or more) that our students speak, we are likely talking too much. If we want to check for our humor or tone, we can also be mindful of how many of our comments are intended to be light or flip.

Sarcasm: The Ultimate No-No

Sarcasm is often referred to as the lowest form of humor. That may or may not be the case, but it can certainly be the meanest. While putting the kibosh on all classroom humor is neither advisable nor possible, the one thing teachers cannot do is be sarcastic. When we respond to students with sarcasm, we say the opposite of what we mean, otherwise known as verbal irony. Suppose a student gives us a one-word answer to a question and we say, “Love the detail in that response.” Even if we think we’re kidding around, many students in the room will rightly perceive our comment as a cheap shot. Maybe occasional sarcasm has its place with our friends, but not with our students. We are in a position of influence and power, and when we get snarky, we can veer into bullying territory. As hard as it might be to keep what we consider to be a snappy comment to ourselves, we have a responsibility to rein in the words that come out of our mouths. Sarcasm should never, never, never be a tool in a teacher’s toolbox. Full stop.

Friendly Trust

Few scenes are more heartwarming than watching teachers and students laugh together in school hallways, enjoying one another’s company even when class is not in session. It is so important for students to trust us and to know we like them. The world does not function in absolutes, and neither do our teaching styles. We might not be able to unleash our darkest humor in the classroom, but being friendly is a lot more important for building lasting connections with kids. We can be genuine without oversharing, kind without being pushovers, and supportive without stepping over any important lines. Finding that balance of friendliness is key to our success with kids, and the ultimate reward is a highly functional classroom community. If mutual trust is our first priority and not obsolete norms that tell us to keep students at arms’ length, we will build the rapport that provides enough comfort for everyone to use inoffensive humor together.

The complexity of how we interact with kids is never-ending, but all of us can work to be ever aware of the impact our words and actions have on students. Judicious humor might have a place in the classroom, but sarcasm never does. If we want to build relationships that are genuinely trusting, we can engage in witty repartee or flip comebacks with our personal friends and not in the classroom. Instead, keeping our friendliness apparent, our smiles full of good humor instead of dryness, and our focus on the kids will ensure that we never, accidentally or otherwise, wind up offending the students we value so much.

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam is a Learning and Achievement Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has worked for nearly 20 years as an English teacher, staff developer and department chair. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, and recently earned her certification in Education Administration and Supervision. She can be followed on Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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