This is a post that has been long coming. I write a lot about the importance of communication and clarity in teaching autistic and developmentally disabled students.
A lot of the time I feel like I am fighting an uphill battle in saying this. I ask teachers to stop ridiculing and verbally teasing disabled kids, and they say, “No.” I hear administrators, and behavioral professionals mandate person first language but freely mock students in front of peers and teachers.
I am sick of it. Words matter.
Sticks and stones may break my bones,
but words can also hurt me.
Stones and sticks break only skin,
while words are ghosts that haunt me.
Slant and curved the word-swords fall
to pierce and stick inside me.
Bats and bricks may ache through bones
but words can mortify me.
Pain from words has left its scar
on mind and heart that’s tender.
Cuts and bruises now have healed;
it’s words that I remember.
You may laugh, but this is just a hint at how hurtful and destructive sarcasm can be:
Thankfully these below are from a comedian, but it is alarming how many times I have heard remarkably similar outbursts from teachers:
This is how a lot of teachers in both general education and special education classrooms “communicate” with their students. Snide remarks abound. Direct answers are not provided to direct questions. Sarcasm from teachers is rampant, but the same behavior is not tolerated from students.
SARCASM FROM TEACHERS IS BULLYING
In 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and the Department of Education released the first federal uniform definition of bullying for research and surveillance. The core elements of the definition include unwanted aggressive behavior; observed or perceived power imbalance; and repetition of behaviors or high likelihood of repetition.
There are many different modes and types of bullying. The current definition acknowledges two modes and four types by which youth can be bullied or can bully others. The two modes of bullying include direct (e.g., bullying that occurs in the presence of a targeted youth) and indirect (e.g., bullying not directly communicated to a targeted youth such as spreading rumors).
In addition to these two modes, the four types of bullying include broad categories of physical, verbal, relational (e.g., efforts to harm the reputation or relationships of the targeted youth), and damage to property. Bullying can happen in any number of places, contexts, or locations. Sometimes that place is online or through a cellphone. Bullying that occurs using technology (including but not limited to phones, email, chat rooms, instant messaging, and online posts) is considered electronic bullying and is viewed as a context or location.
Sarcasm is never okay. When we are sarcastic with students it fits both the CDC definitions for relational and verbal bullying.
We are harming the child in front of their peers and we are intentionally denigrating them.
SYNONYMS OF SARCASM
Let’s experiment. Read the following list of synonyms for sarcasm. Then say out loud to someone you trust how many of those are something you would tolerate a peer or supervisor doing to you or to your child. Then say out loud which ones cross the line (from the dictionary associated with Google search).
sarcastic (adj). marked by or given to using irony in order to mock or convey contempt
derision, mockery, ridicule, scorn, sneering, scoffing, irony, cynicism
Recently I called someone out for an aggressively sexist statement they made on Twitter. They responded back to me claiming they were only being sarcastic and demanded I learn how to spot sarcasm in the future. I gave them the above list as to how I detect sarcasm. That set them off, and they demanded I understand that the first thing to come up on google is not appropriate criteria to use to define sarcasm. So I decided to try again, but more rigorously.
sarcastic (adj) Nasty, mocking in speech
acerbic, acid, arrogant, biting, bitter, brusque, caustic, derisive, disparaging, disrespectful, mordant, sardonic, satirical, saucy, trenchant, acerb, acrimonious, austere, backhanded, captious, carping, chaffing, contemptuous, contumelious, corrosive, cussed, cutting, cynical, disillusioned, evil, hostile, irascible, ironical, mean, needling, offensive, ornery, salty, scorching, scornful, scurrilous, severe, sharp, smart-alecky, snarling, sneering, taunting, twitting, weisenheiming
Did any of these words feel good? Are they acceptable behavior? I will save us all from the rhetorical question: No and No. So why do we do it? Why do we expose our kids to this? And more to my point, why do we expose disabled kids to it? Why do we feel we need to teach autistic kids how to be sarcastic?
WHY SARCASM HAPPENS IN THE CLASSROOM
There is a myth going around based on a questionable scientific study with even more questionable pop-sci writeups that sarcasm somehow makes us smarter. Oscar Wilde often gets quoted in these articles as evidence for just how “intelligent” we are when we are sarcastic. What they neglect to state in these studies is that the only reliable finding in the body of research studying sarcasm is this: sarcasm breeds conflict.
Increased sarcasm leads to increased conflict. Any purported benefits aside, are we really going to create conflict in our classrooms intentionally? Classroom management is hard enough without the teacher adding to it!
Unfortunately, based on personal experience with teachers and rampant discussions on the internet, the answer from most teachers is often an emphatic, Yes! Really?! Do teachers want to be the one causing conflict in their classrooms?
Pros of using sarcasm in the classroom:
- It’s part of the real world.
“Sarcasm is my second language,” says teacher Brittany C. “You are just exposing them to various forms of language in which they will use later in life.” Meghan M. adds: “Better to learn how to recognize and understand sarcasm from a caring educator than send them into the world with no idea of how to deal with it.”
- It can build connection
“I teach teens,” says teacher Ayn N. “I think sarcasm, when done lovingly, can be one of the best ways to develop a connection. My trick is to be sarcastic about myself or be super ridiculous about it so that people get a laugh, not a sting. For example, I might say something like: This test is super easy. My dog took it last night and did it blindfolded and passed with flying colors, so you should have no problems.”
“I use it all the time, and the kids love it,” echoes Kimberly T. “Be who you are and who your kids love.”
- It can be a classroom management tool.
“Sarcasm helps me correct students without calling them out,” says teacher Katherine K. “It’s my second language, and teens get me.”
From We Are Teachers.
What is sad is that even the when teachers said no to using sarcasm, they managed to miss the point entirely. They avoid it because they may get in trouble or because famous education researchers like Robert Marzano are emphatic in his appeal to why sarcasm is never appropriate. It strikes me as puzzling that so many people defend using sarcasm in their day to day life as a form of humor, but then immediately turn and say it is never appropriate for a students to be sarcastic back to the teacher. It is a behavior that is a non-negotiable from students.
What’s more, since actions strongly determine thoughts and feelings, when a person consistently acts sarcastically it usually only heightens his or her underlying hostility and insecurity. After all, when you come right down to it, sarcasm is a subtle form of and most bullies are angry, insecure, cowards.
From Psychology Today.
DEFINING WHY SARCASM IN THE CLASSROOM IS A PROBLEM
I have had many teachers defend their sarcasm directed at their students (not just 1-2 teachers, I am well into the double digits now, crossing off all demographic groups I have encountered). Worse, many special education teachers feel that because they are in charge of the classroom, they can speak to the students however they want–and this includes the use of sarcasm and other condescending remarks.
More than a few teachers have notified me that by being sarcastic – particularly with autistic students – they are preparing the students for sarcastic people in the “real world” and these teachers ardently refuse to “coddle” these autistic kids because they demonstrate difficulty with recognizing or learning social cues.
After these interactions, I tend to have a direct conversation with the teachers about just how inappropriate and damaging their actions are to the students. So far nearly all teachers have disagreed with me and argued with me about how they can do what they want in their classroom, and I have no right to try to change how they teach.
Here is another perspective on the same thing (emphasis mine):
First, sarcasm isn’t even the proper word to use. I prefer to call it what it is: cruelty. Far from being a good-tempered, fun exchange between teacher and student, a sarcastic comment (or action) is like poison in the classroom.
If I come across as passionate on this topic, it’s because I am. I’ve had the unfortunate opportunity to work with teachers whose primary goal was to be as sarcastic and snide as possible. The cascading negative effects on their students and classes were palpable. I’ve also had the unfortunate task from time to time defending teachers when parents complained about poorly considered comments in the classroom.
Even the lightest use of sarcasm tells other children that classmates are fair game for fun and teasing. As a teacher you set the behavior and moral expectation for your classroom. By breaking that “law” in your conduct, you’re sending the explicit message that your students can do the same. This downward spiral creates divisions inside a classroom and makes vulnerable students feel even more exposed.
Remember, everything you do sends a signal. On that same note, you have a responsibility to call out and correct any behaviors that work against the student.
from Brian Gatens
The following are the points I want to make in response to teachers defending their verbal mistreatment of students but I have never felt responding has been worth the flack I would catch in the aftermath:
Whenever a teacher uses sarcasm and derisive language to a student, they are demeaning them and straight up bullying them.
In academics, we call actions like this “punching down” because you are intentionally attacking or belittling someone you have power or authority over. The victims of this behavior have no means, or recourse other than to quit/leave or else take the abuse and act like they are okay with it and play along as a survival mechanism. What we teach these children is that they are wrong and they have to deal with belittlement as a consequence – they don’t deserve to escape ridicule.
I want to ask, “If you ever have a student respond or fight back to your sarcasm, how do you respond?”
This is an important question because in my experience I have never met a sarcastic teacher that tolerates anything other less than an absolute “yes sir” or “yes ma’am” from the students. Any sass or backtalk is a one way trip to an office referral after a public dressing down. Even frustrated tones from students having a bad day are often met with swift punishment because “you don’t talk to teachers [or adults] that way.”
I make this point because if we are claiming we teach children that people in society are sarcastic, we need to show them how to respond…sarcastically.
We as teachers do not do this. We tone police the students while maintaining whatever toxic emotions, words, and insinuations we want–because we are adults. Here is the lesson we are teaching the kids: It is okay for adults to bully you and make you feel bad. They are allowed to do it, and you do not have the right to fight back or defend yourself, because you will get in trouble. If we extend this lesson to the real world, we are teaching our students that they deserve to have low self-esteem and whatever adults or authority figures do to them is okay. Is this what we want to teach?
I find it interesting that the teacher, when confronted by a parent or administrator, never repeats the actual sarcastic statement made to the child.
Teachers often don’t accept they hurt a students’ feelings with their sarcasm. They deny it by saying, “but they didn’t get that I was joking.” Or worse, teachers will say that people should be able to handle their teasing and “tough love.” They also think saying “just kidding” after a sarcastic remark makes it OK, even if it hurts.
Do you tolerate it when a principal or administrator use sarcasm or condescending language to you (the teacher)?
I happen to know 100% that the answer to this is a definite, “No.” I know this because I have had to put out interpersonal brush fires between administrators and teachers because the teacher took offense and I caught the brunt of it when trying to smooth the relationship over.
My honest – and depressing – response to why teachers use sarcasm is simple: they are insecure in their classrooms and often dislike their students. Sarcasm is a great way to put others down so you can feel in control and superior. Sarcasm lets you vent anger in a way that avoids talking about your real feelings. Sarcasm is a great way to get attention from those around you when others laugh at your joke.
JOKES HEAL A GREAT MANY THINGS – ANGER IS NOT ONE OF THOSE THINGS
I am going to use quotes from Hannah Gadsby’s brilliant final stand up comedy show, “Nanette” (Netflix link here, transcript here) to describe how jokes limit us and over time prove poisonous–especially when we use them to avoid having to tell an emotionally uncomfortable story or reveal how we really feel. They keep us immature and stunt our emotional growth.
Here’s a good description of what is a joke:
Let me explain to you what a joke is. And when you strip it back to its bare essential… components, like, its bare minimum, a joke is simply two things, it needs two things to work. A setup and a punch line. And it is essentially a question with a surprise answer. Right?
But in this context, what a joke is is a question that I have artificially inseminated. Tension. I do that, that’s my job. I make you all feel tense, and then I make you laugh, and you’re like, “Thanks for that. I was feeling a bit tense.”
I made you tense. This is an abusive relationship. Do you know why I’m such a funny f***er? Do you? It’s because, you know, I’ve been learning the art of tension diffusion since I was a child.
Back then it wasn’t a job, wasn’t even a hobby, it was a survival tactic. I didn’t have to invent the tension. I was the tension. And… I’m tired of tension. Tension is making me sick.
This makes two points.
First, jokes require tension and discomfort to work. So we as teachers have to stress the kids out and/or create tension/trauma so we can release it with a sarcastic joke. This is what Hannah refers to as the abusive relationship.
The second point–and the one I grasped onto the first time I watched the special–is that if we have disabled kids in our class, they come with their own pre-packaged tension and stress…and they are likely sick of it. Some of them are literally made sick by it. They spend every moment of every day as the tension because of who they are.
Teachers who use sarcasm in their classroom, especially a class with disabled kids, are just making things worse. I go back to my statement that teachers that use sarcasm in their classroom are teachers who are insecure. Why add more tension to an already tense situation?
Later in the show, Hannah explains a bit as to why comedy has led her not to be the hero of her own story. Regarding coming out as lesbian to her family, and particularly to her mother:
How did my mum get to be the hero of my story?” She evolved. I didn’t.
See… I think part of my problem is comedy has suspended me in a perpetual state of adolescence. The way I’ve been telling that story is through jokes. And stories… unlike jokes, need three parts. A beginning, a middle, and an end. Jokes… only need two parts. A beginning and a middle.
And what I had done, with that comedy show about coming out, was I froze an incredibly formative experience at its trauma point, and I sealed it off into jokes.
And that story became a routine, and through repetition, that joke version fused with my actual memory of what happened. But unfortunately, that joke version was not nearly sophisticated enough to help me undo the damage done to me in reality.
Punchlines need trauma because punchlines… need tension, and tension feeds trauma.
Here we see that being sarcastic and telling jokes prevents us from being able to express how we feel and learning from the expression as a result. When we tell jokes, we choose to omit information that detracts from the joke, namely the end of the story.
In a classroom, this often means we as teachers do not express to students if we are frustrated, happy, etc. We instead apply a flip remark and move on freezing a potential socio-emotional teaching moment at the quintessential trauma point for the child.
The child knows we are mad at them, but we make a joke and move on. They do not understand this. They cannot. They lack the life experience to realize that jokes are lies we tell to hide our feelings. So they internalize our anger along with their frustration and confusion.
Over time, as we are repeatedly sarcastic with students, the jokes and the structure of the joke (beginning, middle) take the place of the legitimate story (beginning, middle, end) about the situation.
That means that over time, we forget the truth and replace it with the joke and the sarcasm – and all the emotions, anger, and frustration that was an underlying factor in the jokes get suppressed rather than dealt with overtly. Disabled kids internalize this. They assume it is their fault.
Heaven knows we as adults are rarely adult enough to explain to them that it is not their fault, we do not want to deal with our discomfort. So instead of teachers dealing with their emotional tensions and insecurities and frustrations, they instead pile it on the students through sarcasm and jokes and make students deal with it.
I discussed above why jokes/sarcasm instead of clear communication is detrimental and harmful for students. Now to why the same is harmful to the adult delivering the snide remarks.
Jokes heal many things but are not capable of healing deep-seated frustration or anger.
This is Gadsby’s denouement after retelling a particularly traumatic series of stories she played for laughs earlier in the show and then, when the room was particularly uncomfortable, refusing to relieve the tension via a punchline.
But this is theater, fellas. I’ve given you an hour, a taste. I have lived a life. The damage done to me is real and debilitating. I will never flourish. But this is why… I must quit comedy. Because the only way… I can tell my truth and put tension in the room is with anger. And I am angry, and I believe I’ve got every right to be angry! But what I don’t have a right to do is to spread anger. I don’t.
Because anger, much like laughter, can connect a room full of strangers like nothing else. But anger, even if it’s connected to laughter, will not… relieve tension. Because anger is a tension. It is a toxic, infectious… tension. And it knows no other purpose than to spread blind hatred, and I want no part of it.
Because I take my freedom of speech as a responsibility, and just because I can position myself as a victim, does not make my anger constructive. It never is constructive. Laughter is not our medicine. Stories hold our cure. Laughter is just the honey that sweetens the bitter medicine.
This take home is where I point at teachers. Sarcasm and jokes always come from a place of frustration and anger. Even though the laughter feels good and most of the students will relax with laughter, but as teachers, we do not release our anger/frustration. We hold that tight.
Much like Hannah Gadsby and leaving comedy because she no longer feels justified in spreading her anger by telling her story for laughter, as teachers, we need to find another outlet or means to replace our sarcasm so we can start the healing process rather than spread our anger and frustration. Teachers who hold on to their anger and spread it through sarcasm and jokes not only harm students, but also don’t help themselves. Burnout is real. That anger spreads and causes everyone around the school to be angry. That doesn’t make for a good classroom, work environment, or school culture.
LONG TERM EFFECTS OF SARCASM FOR STUDENTS
From the department of health and human services website (for students without any special education classifications):
Young people who are both bullied and bully others are at the highest risk for negative outcomes such as: increased anxiety and depression
- increased suicidality
- increased substance use
- decreased academic achievement
- diminished earning potential
These outcomes may persist from childhood through adulthood. However, while media attention has often focused on the link between bullying and suicide, most youth who are bullied are not suicidal. Those who do engage in suicidal behaviors often have other risk factors such as underlying mental health issues which can be exacerbated by bullying.
Over the past 10 years, rates of bullying have significantly declined: 21 percent of youth ages 12 to 18 reported being bullied in the 2014-2015 school year, a decrease of 11 percentage points from the 2006-2007 school year.
Still, 21 percent of youth equates to just over 5 million students being bullied in a single school year. Within that number, some groups are significantly more likely to experience bullying. In a 2015 national survey, nearly 34 percent of high school students who identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual reported being bullied, compared to 19 percent of their heterosexual peers. These students also are at significantly higher risk of reported suicidal behaviors, substance use, and depression.
Also, while the number of students who report experiencing cyberbullying (11.6 percent) continues to be lower than other forms of bullying, cyberbullying presents unique challenges, including the evolving nature of technology, the potential for anonymity, and the viral nature of online postings.
These are statistics for autistic students based on the results of a Kennedy Krieger study.
Participants in the study included parents of 1,221 children with ASD recruited through an online questionnaire. Researchers utilized the Bullying and School Experiences of Children with ASD Survey, a 63-item questionnaire, to collect key data from parents regarding their child’s school environment, involvement in bullying, and the child’s educational and psychological functioning.
Additionally, researchers used the Parent Observation of Child Adaptation (POCA) to reflect parents’ ratings of their child’s behaviors and level of psychological distress after a bullying incident. The study’s findings on the characteristics and psychiatric comorbidities most associated with bullying are below
Characteristics of Children with ASD Involved in Bullying
- Over a one month period, 38 percent of children with ASD were bullied, with 28 percent frequently bullied [based on the questionnaire frequently=daily].
- Immediate consequences of being bullied included emotional trauma (69 percent) and physical injuries (8 percent)
- Nearly 14 percent of children who were bullied reported being scared for their own safety
- Eighteen  percent of children were reported to have been triggered into fighting back, with 40 percent having an emotional meltdown or outburst that resulted in disciplinary action from school staff.
- Nine percent of children with ASD acted as bullies, with five percent identified as frequent perpetrators of bullying.
More to the point, the Ian Community Foundation found 63% of 1,167 children with ASD, ages 6 to 15, had been bullied at some point in their lives and almost 40% reported being currently bullied at the time of the survey.
Here is Hannah Gadsby explaining how she perceives her childhood and how the criticism and jokes of others formed it. To be blunt, she was traumatized, and it has taken a lifetime of struggle for her to gain a modicum of self-esteem.
When you soak a child in shame, they cannot develop the neurological pathways that carry thought… you know, carry thoughts of self-worth. They can’t do that. Self-hatred is only ever a seed planted from outside in. But when you do that to a child, it becomes a weed so thick, and it grows so fast, the child doesn’t know any different. It becomes… as natural as gravity.
When I came out of the closet, I didn’t have any jokes. The only thing I knew how to do was to be invisible and hate myself. It took me ten years to understand I was allowed to take up space in the world. But, by then, I’d sealed it off into jokes like it was no big deal.
I need to tell my story properly. Because I paid dearly for a lesson that nobody seems to have wanted to learn. And this is bigger… than homosexuality. This is about how we conduct debate in public about sensitive things. It’s toxic, it’s juvenile, it’s destructive. We think it’s more important to be right than it is to appeal to the humanity of people we disagree with. Ignorance will always walk amongst us because we will never know all of the things.
WHAT CAN I DO TO HELP?
Unfortunately, in my look around the internet, there is a relative dearth of resources about how to handle situations where the bullying is coming from teachers or adults in the classroom (Link).
I am not entirely surprised by this because few teachers want to admit that they pick on particular students. Administrators and peers (other teachers) most often do not want to tone police their peers, so they turn a blind eye and deaf ear to sarcasm until it becomes a problem and adults in the community and PTA lodge complaints. More to the point, no data are kept on adult teacher behaviors regarding students until long after the teacher’s behavior has been identified as a problem (i.e., there have been enough complaints that the administration has to keep disciplinary data).
Any one of us who have worked in schools has seen systematic bullying of disabled students (especially those with mental health complications). Other adults keep out of it and try to route their preferred students away from that situation and away from that particular teacher without directly addressing the problem.
Adults in schools, this is what you need to do to combat teachers bullying students:
Do not confront the teacher. You will not change anything unless you are their supervisor.
Go to the department lead teacher (if secondary), the vice principal, then principal and work up the chain of command.
Be clinical in descriptions, do not interpret behaviors (never use the word “because” or a word that describes an emotion while reporting, just clinically describe what happened like you are telling a doctor about a symptom).
Be as specific as possible.
- Keep simple notes or a tally that can be turned over to administrators needing data to implement a correction plan for the offending teacher.
Parents of a child being bullied at school (I include chronic sarcasm directed at a student as bullying because it is):
Document your child’s reports of any bullying and BELIEVE WHAT YOUR CHILD IS SAYING
Go to your state’s respective Parent Centers or educational advocate organizations first, even before going to the school. These folks exist to protect your child’s rights
- Start by asking school psychologists, counselors, or social workers about the adult behavior in confidentiality
- Talk to the vice principal or principal (not the teacher). Let the administrator set up meetings with the teacher to discuss their behavior wherein you can have a parent advocate and an administrator in the building
- Move up the ladder in the district if bullying is not addressed
- Parent Centers know this hierarchy
- If a child has an IEP, this hierarchy is in the procedural safeguards covered at the beginning of every meeting
An alternative hierarchy for how to report bullying in the school system that escalates less quickly is (here).
Important note: Your child is powerless in this situation. They have absolutely no responsibility with regards to correct the behavior of the adults. It is contingent upon the adults to act right and teach the kids social and life skills. If anyone suggests the child needs to change their behavior to become less of a target for ridicule, protest.
Adults need to adult. Let the kids be kids for a little while longer.
Teachers, stop using sarcasm. Now.
Your supervisors are not happy with you about your attitude, whether they have directly spoken with you about it or not. Your peers do not like you or seek you out for advice because you make them uncomfortable. Your students are scared of you. They do not know where they stand in your class. Your disabled students are made acutely aware they are not welcome near you.
We need to start addressing early attrition and the alarming teacher shortage in this country. It is important that we help teachers understand how their behaviors may be contributing to negative classroom environments and poor working relationships with others. I realize this post is mostly aimed at protecting students, but the flip side is also about giving teachers good mentorship.
When we say we are preparing our students for the real world by being sarcastic, what do we mean? Do we mean that we are teaching them to lay down and take abuse from authority figures because authority figures are allowed to denigrate and insult us without consequences, or are we teaching them to be sarcastic to others and placing themselves at risk of being fired because they were taught adults are sarcastic? Instead, I say we prepare students by showing them the optimal route for life is to be respectful and kind to others.
We need to nurture environments of mutual respect in school that build our students up and allows them to grow as people as they build character. This is the only way our students are going to learn how successfully navigate social interactions in the real world. As teachers, we need to be protagonists, not antagonists.
I am not saying we need to stop having a sense of humor in school; quite the opposite, laughter is important in a respectful classroom. Being playful and silly in school can be quite funny when they do not require or create victims, and they do not signal any individual up for ridicule. Sarcastic remarks make your students into the victims. This is not the lesson they signed up for when coming to school in the morning.