May 30, 2011

Please Don't Use Sarcasm With My Students

I wish some teachers and school staff members would stop using negative sarcasm with some of my deaf and hard of hearing students. Sarcasm can sometimes be confusing. Some of my students are not sure how to respond because they may not know if the person is being serious or not. It can be hard for deaf and hard of hearing people to hear the slight difference between a sarcastic tone and a serious one. Many rely on facial expression and if the person says something harsh but is smiling, we may assume that he or she is being sarcastic. But, not everyone express sarcasm or seriousness in the same ways. It can be hard to tell if the person is being sarcastic especially if you are unable to hear the tone of their voice.

I think that when sarcasm is being used with some students, it would be helpful for the person to explain to the students that they are being sarcastic. People should be careful with how they use sarcasm with students. Lighthearted sarcasm is fine, if used in moderation, but negative sarcasm or sarcasm used to put down the student is not all right, in my opinion.

Negative sarcasm can be hurtful and embarrassing. For example, if I were to state the obvious, I think it would be rude if someone I work with were to sarcastically tell me, "Really, Einstein?"

I remember as a child I thought one of my teachers was being sarcastic and I laughed thinking she was only joking. She got angry and acted as if I insulted her, because it turned out she was not being sarcastic. That was a very uncomfortable situation.



  1. Amen! I remember one particular conversation I had with friends where we were discussing an elaborate prank involving a squirrel trap and shiny spray paint. By the end of the conversation I was very confused if this was a "for serious" or sarcastic conversation. I had to pull someone aside and ask. She was shocked that I had thought it might be a "for serious" conversation. It was very awkward.

  2. It shouldn't be used with children at all. Sarcasm is an adult communication and a general put-down as well as being a covert style that is hard to interpret at times.

  3. I find it a puzzle deaf have difficulty understanding sarcasm/irony (Which is an major part of British life I can assure you !). Is this you think an major failing of deaf education in that everything is taught so literally ? They are afraid to encourage humour appreciation unless it is black and white ?

    It makes for the view deaf can never BE topical or understand some very adept and cutting humour aimed to deflate the most upstanding bore. Lampooning/irony/sarcasm is an intrinsical part of our lives, actually I find Americans in general struggle with the British versions of sarcasm which can be very cutting yet very funny, it plays a larger part in out observation of humpur than it does in the Americas...

    Often quite apparently offensive and very unpoliticlaly correct too, no doubt why teachers are nervous to encourage it. Very often you just see puzzled expressions on Americans with Brit humour. Deaf need to learn to laugh too, and appreciate when a point is made it isn't always directly. When did you last see an glut of topical deaf comedians, i.e. those who tell jokes with no deaf basis at all ?

  4. The science of sarcasm:

    You are not as bad as people say, you are much, much worse.

    Now we know why some animals eat their own children.

    Please, keep talking. I always yawn when I am interested.

    Talk is cheap, but that's ok, so are you.

    This is an excellent time for you to become a missing person.

    I'm busy now. Can I ignore you some other time?

    Is it the age-old struggle of deaf educationalists unable to explore detail in depth ? These sarcasms require a lot of explaining.

  5. It has nothing to do with not being able to explain or teach sarcasm to young children. It is a matter of being careful how you use it, who you use it with, and how often you use sarcasm. I feel that most people who use sarcasm will not take the time to explain in detail that what they said was sarcasm and how it was sarcasm. I don't know what kind of family or culture some people or students I work with are coming from. What I think is sarcastic and funny to me may come off as rude and confusing to others.

    I don't see anything wrong with using sarcasm with my friends or people I know well. But, I don't know how some children or people I don't know very well would react, so it is better not to use sarcasm in these situations. I can't imagine saying, "I'm busy now. Can I ignore you some other time?" to some of my students and then have to explain in detail about how I was trying to be funny.

  6. I'd honestly never thought about the difference between hearing impaired people and non-HI when it came to something like the tone of the voice being an intrinsic part of understanding the joke.

    I work to avoid sarcasm; sometimes, I fail. Of course, for most of us, it is a constant temptation. I try to save it for after school, when I'm processing the day's frustrations with a friend (I re-tell it as what I would have LIKED to say).

  7. Hmm.I'm with MM here. Children in mainstream settings are around people who will use sarcasm- at school, at home, from movies and tv, and in printed media- and it cannot be avoided. How else will they learn? If we tell people not to use sarcasm or irony with our deaf kids, how will they develop the ability to understand the nuances of language and socialization? I'm profoundly deaf myself, and sarcasm was a big thing in my family. Yes I probably got lost a few times, but I'm also glad for the experiences because it helped enrich my own language use and helped me understand reading better too. Not to mention I have a wicked sense of humor (MM would be proud ;)I do use sarcasm with my own deaf/hard of hearing students, but I only use what I think they will understand, and if I think they do not or will not understand it, I will explain it. Maybe you don't see your students everyday, so you feel less comfortable?

    I think if any, it is better to ask people to be mindful about language and understand that a student with hearing loss might misunderstand sarcasm, irony, idioms, and other language nuances, and if this happens, to take the time to explain. If it's in a school, and the adult won't explain, they shouldn't be there anyway.


  8. BTw, some people here seem to think sarcasm is a negative trait; it can also refer to irony. Let me add, I don't use sarcasm as a negative but more as irony or funny. For example, on Monday morning, I may say "good morning" to my students and they reply with "good evening". Then the next class, I might say "good night" knowing they will say that if I say good morning =)

    I would never use negative sarcasm on my kids as a put down.


  9. I guess it depends on the situation and where you are. Perhaps light sarcasm would be fine, depending on the student and situation. But, to use sarcasm all of the time at work is just plain rude and annoying, in my opinion.

    Many uncomfortable situations have occurred with how some staff members and teachers used sarcasm with some of my students. I think it is better to not use sarcasm when teaching or when working with kids that are not your own. And since they will be exposed to sarcasm outside of school anyway, why use it in school?

  10. By the way, the students I work with understand what sarcasm is, they just prefer not to hear it from some people. Sometimes they don't know if someone is being sarcastic or not; it can be confusing. There are times when even I don't know if some of them are being sarcastic, which can be uncomfortable.

  11. J,

    I think it is fine to joke with students.

    I suppose I should say don't use negative sarcasm.

  12. I can usually detest sarcasm on the internet. But it take for me to know the person first (especially when it comes to politics)

    sarcasm usually insult or mock a person so it can be hurtful anyway. At least in America (probably why British don't find our humor funny)
    Even joking around can be hurtful. It make the person wonder why that person joked about it in the first place??

    There's a lot of book containing sarcasm that your students can read. Teachers can and should use sarcasm but only if it is done right. Deaf students usually learn it from other students.

  13. If you plan on these students someday being successful in life, they must learn to understand what others mean and how they portray their ideas through language. By lowering the bar, and expecting our deaf kids to not understand and use language like their hearing peers, we are doing them a grave disservice.

  14. I can appreciate your concern for your students, (e, but I agree with MM. Although some ways of communicating may be confusing, I believe they should be taught rather than avoided. Each instance of misunderstood sarcasm can be a teaching moment for a second language learner. Sarcasm and other elements of second language, which English is for most deaf and hard-of-hearing people, have to be explicitly taught.

    I sometimes have to reverse myself when I begin to -- forgive the expression -- "dumb down" my writing with deaf people. With certain people, things must be greatly simplified, but with many people I think one should be oneself and let the person figure it out. Most deaf people certainly don't dumb down their ASL for me or slow down their signing for me. I am an interpreter, and they just expect me to understand them and interpret what they are saying. I learn new bits of visual language all the time because of deaf people's being themselves and signing naturally. Don't I owe them the same genuineness of myself? Perhaps the more I write English or -- with the appropriate person -- sign English or fingerspell unusual turns of phrase, the more I express who I am and give them the opportunity to learn how a hearing person speaks and writes.

    It's not that my place is to teach; it's just that everyone--hearing and deaf alike--can learn more about each other and each other's language when we speak naturally. I thank every French-speaking, Spanish-speaking, and ASL-speaking person who has ever spoken to me in their natural way, because that is how I have learned their languages.

  15. Miss Kat,

    How am I "lowering the bar, and expecting our deaf kids to not understand and use language like their hearing peers" by asking others to be a little more respectful towards them by using less negative sarcasm?

  16. I do not expect students to never be exposed to sarcasm for fear of them not understanding or having their feelings hurt. They KNOW and understand what sarcasm is. They may sometimes, like some of us, be uncertain whether or not someone is being serious or not, which can be a problem and sometimes a learning experience. But, for a professional to repeatedly use negative sarcasm is wrong and annoying. I just do not see why it is necessary to use negative sarcasm when working with students or in what is supposed to be a professional environment. They already have been and will continue to experience sarcasm, so just because I ask others to tone down their sarcasm does not mean I am dumbing down their language or causing a disservice to the students. Would you like it if a teacher or a staff member continuously used sarcasm with your child?

  17. I think I will make some changes to this blog post--perhaps use "negative sarcasm" instead, just to clarify.

    But, as always, I appreciate hearing your thoughts an ideas on this, whether you agree with me or not. Keep em coming!


  18. Daniel said, "It's not that my place is to teach; it's just that everyone--hearing and deaf alike--can learn more about each other and each other's language when we speak naturally."

    Totally agree with you. The best way to learn language is to be around others who use it naturally and fluently.

  19. People here are defining sarcasm as if it was one of the finer points of language.

    Maybe it is in certain situations; in that case it would be better to confine it to the high school level and to literary kinds of situations. As an English language characteristic, it's useful education.

    Certainly in ASL there is also plenty of sarcasm used. I see it quite often as a put-down by the more fluent toward the less fluent. So, in my opinion, it is generally better to be the sort of person who doesn't use sarcasm at all as it encourages trust in people. It's especially important in the helping professions.

    In situations where one is among intimates (i.e. social equals) sarcasm can be funny and brings together people in a humorously self-depreciating way; in a confidential way or to release tension.

    Only rarely is irony used in general situations such as "what a beautiful day to play soccer!" in a speech to a rained-out tournament huddled in the school auditorium. Directed at other than people, it is understood as funny.

  20. (e, if it make you feel any better, I grew up with HAs (profound deaf since birth), went to public school (k-12), and even today as an adult, I can't always detect sarcasms. And I was educated along with hearing kids (they LOVE to pull sacrastic comments on me - ahh, the life of being deaf just for trying to keep up with the world and they think I should know stuffs already)
    I know what it is because I do detect them now and then. Just not all the time.

    I am not really sure why, but I don't let people know. I am not very good with poetry either. I guess it all goes with being deaf (not able to hear the pitches, growing up, I couldn't hear my "s" sounds), being visual, and a late language learner.

  21. Deaf are losing out by not being taught about the different types of responses and how to 'interpret' them, it is a failing if they aren't taught that. Of course sarcasm and irony can be OFFENSIVE and cruel too, more reason deaf are taught examples and differences so they can appreciate that. Life isn't all about the 'bible belt' approach. Negative/positive sarcasm is life frankly. We don't teach children how to swear they still do it, they have to be aware of CONTEXT and this applies to sarcastic asides or anything else, is there even a sign for sarcasm or irony ?

    You can be totally sarcastic without saying anything, an smile in the wrong place, eyes to the ceiling etc, etc, it's essential deaf children understand you cannot protect them outside an class, so enable them.

  22. Even if there are things kids will encounter out in the world and will have to learn about and adapt too, this does not mean teachers should use them/teach them. Lots of things are just not appropriate in a school environment. Maybe teachers should start using curse words? Kids are going to hear them anyway right, maybe they should learn to hear them and not freak out? (<- sarcasm)

  23. Deaf children will grow up language deprived if they don't understand everything is not black and white and not everything is as it seems. It's a basic tenet of any language, obviously teaching profanity is not on, but they will have learnt it prior to school and outside anyway. Sign language will deprive deaf of the wider appreciations of positive sarcasm and humour too. It's an effective way of saying something directly without an immediate and apparent offense.. or able to any other way. It's an language OPTION. It also allows deaf to understand when someone is saying something they are disguising as something else.

  24. There is sarcasm in sign language too.

    Yes, sarcasm is part of language, and my students KNOW and UNDERSTAND what sarcasm is supposed to be, even though sometimes it can be hard to tell whether someone is being sarcastic or not. I don't know why some people are insinuating that the students I work with do not know what sarcasm is and that they are language deprived because I will not use sarcasm with them. They don't always take everything literally.

    Some of them are language delayed for a number of reasons, not just because they will sometimes miss out on certain nuances of spoken language, which often is taught to them directly.

    I knew what sarcasm was as a child. I would have appreciated it if some of my teachers and bus drivers did not constantly use negative sarcasm with me. I would have preferred curse words over annoying sarcasm.

  25. Amen! ^^^

    (e - Your blog was perfectly clear and does not need clarifying.

    Dianrez said it straight away, the use of sarcasm with children is unnecessary. Its use by teachers has been long since deemed as an inappropriate way to communicate with any student.

    Correct me if I am wrong here (e but your blog refers to the use of flippant remarks directed at students in regards to their behaviour/work. The teaching of language and its use in text or drama work is in the curriculum. It is taught through text study of character speech or author voice or through watching theatre or movies.

    The above comment made me chuckle, it reminded me of that idea of using the eff word to teach verb tenses since children are so au fait with the correct usage of all the different forms...

  26. oh yeah, especially from a teacher. I understand MM's point but I think in American, we do value student's feelings so sarcasm is not a smart thing to do from a teacher. We trust them to be respectful and not to laugh at us or anything like that but to teach us. Plus, we are suppose to take teachers seriously, so any sarcasm would confuse us and ask "was she joking??" you expect sarcasm from a friend or something like that, but can people really expect it from a teacher? for MM: can the Queen or anyone with higher power use sarcasm without offending anyone?

  27. Indeed she can and does, if there is someone who has made an faux pass or annoyed here, she can beat Oscar Wild at the game. As for others being annoyed she is too aloof to care, and I doubt they would make much of it either. She is quite adept to making people feel small with just an glance... which is an conundrum as she is hardly tall enough to see my chin anyway... She could do with a few of Lady Ga-Ga's platforms...

    I prefer on reflection to read this as at least one plausible explanation of sarcasm/Irony:

    "Irony and sarcasm are not the same. An ironic word is born; a sarcastic one is made. Irony is expressed spontaneousiy; sarcasm can reflect upon its words. Irony sees the caricature and expresses it simply. Sarcasm sees the caricature too, and passionately reinforces it. Irony is lofty, and it exalts; sarcasm is low, and it abases. Irony attends the wounded, but sarcasm, as they say, is biting. One is gripped by irony, but one grasps at sarcasm. Irony observes something comical, but from a height which the "comedian" cannot reach; sarcasm sees something comical too, but from so low a level that the "comedian," the clown, is safely out of reach; it cannot even dress itself in the harlequin's outfit, for sarcasm can only weave transparent robes."

    You can see why teachers to the deaf opt out. Sarcasm to make an point is valid enough with children assuming you promote the positive aspect. I think effective use of sarcasm is quite an art form personally... you need to study words and situations and then promote a response with the same words saying something totally different. It can be very subtle or quite in your face. It's a pity ASL/BSL has no similar access to its own sign...

  28. Most kids can't understand sarcasm until they are older anyway. From a Comm. degree it is when your vocal inflections do not match your facial expressions and they are not linguistically mature enough to understand. What kids end up doing is taking everything said as fact which is why we hear these cute kid stories from time to time where they seem to believe everything. Yes they will get it eventually but I wouldn't use it on any kid until they seem able to understand because the laughter when they don't get it will make them feel like you are making fun of them.

  29. The problem I have is that you were asking that people stop using this type of language with YOUR students alone. If you had said that a teacher was using inappropriate sarcasm with ALL students, and were calling for the end of it, I would have been totally on your side. However, it seemed as though you were trying to shield these students simply because of their hearig status, and to me, that isn't ok.

  30. I did not mean to seem as if I was protecting my students only because of their hearing status. Earlier, I should have explained what kind of sarcastic statements some people were making around them.

    As always, anything written will often be misinterpreted.

  31. Wow chill out Miss Kat! The only kids she CAN speak for are hers. Most teachers wouldn't take kindly to being told what to do with their own students. What other group do you think is her job to advocate for? This is from the perspective of an educator who only has (limited) influence over a small group, most teachers do not appreciate criticism, even if you are right and your mission is holy.

  32. my opinion "educators" and parents teach "their kids" to advocate for themself, and not to "speak" on their behalf. And why would a teacher not appreciate critism? Why would a parent not appreciate critism? I respect (e's blog and I read her blog. I also respect the comment from Miss Kat as well as all the other comments in this blog. if we continue to "protect" deaf children from the world of "reality" are we "educating" them or "enabling" them?

  33. Because "people" who toss their "opinion" in agressively rather than seeking clarity. This is not about "protecting" children from their education it's about the the way in which they are spoken to.

    Are people seriously suggesting sarcasm as per (e's example - "Really, Einstein?" is a good way for a teacher to speak to a pupil? ANY pupil?

    Perhaps you think they should reserve their sarcasm specifically for their HOH/deaf kids, just so they learn about "reality".

  34. Interesting (Beth) in that you suggest there is an visually expressive/recognition system equivalent deaf are aware of, to the spoken/written aspect of sarcasm. I would think it demands an considerable knowledge of body language personally. Do deaf have this skill generally ? They don't appear to be taught about it.

  35. Margarita - No teachers do not like it when the non qualified tell them how to do their job. I quit teaching for grad school, but parents, tell me what I am doing wrong from watching me for 5 minutes with your vast Oprah/TLC/USA Today expertise (/sarcasm). Tell me about your kid though and I will write it down and thank you.

    MM - yes there is always signed equivalent, you can actually email people from the Gallaudet linguistics dept and they've always answered my (dumb) questions.

  36. I agree that generally negstive sarcasm has no place in the classroom. And many peole have touched on other aspects of sarcasm -- in ASL, in "the real world" and so on. I just wanted to point out an inability to understand saecasm is by no means limited to the deaf (in fact I don't usually have trouble with it). I have seen many hearing people flounder with sarcasm, too. I think there is a certain temperament disposed toward sarcasm (plus exposure, environment at home and so on). Tone of voice isn't the only way to convey sarcasm -- there is a whole area of it that depends on saying it with as straight a face and normal as a tone as possible (this is the sort of humor/sarcasm the British employ which stumps many Americans).

  37. This is coming from an English teacher of 15 years: I've taught both hearing students and Deaf students...adults and children/teens. I'm Deaf. I don't believe that it's a "Deaf problem", MM. Hearing students have just as much difficulty understanding sarcasm as Deaf students do. That's just speaking from my experience. Sarcasm is not popular in America, period, so people often don't understand when sarcasm is used.

    However, I do want to say that there are ways to show sarcasm in ASL and many teachers (especially hearing ones who learned ASL later) do not know how to use ASL appropriately when being sarcastic. This does lead to misunderstandings and hurt feelings.

    Hearing students are not taught sarcasm in school and teachers are generally encouraged not to use negative sarcasm or negative ANYTHING with their students. Sarcasm is usually learned outside of the classroom and at home. We shouldn't expect things to be different for a Deaf student.

  38. (e,

    In my opinion, sarcasm among peers is normal and to be expected. *However* that changes once the power relationship changes. Sarcasm from a person of lesser power toward one of greater power can be taken as insubordination. Negative or biting sarcasm from one of greater power toward one of lesser power quickly becomes a form of abuse. A teacher should not use negative or biting sarcasm toward a student and if he or she does, he or she is an abuser. I tried never to use negative or biting sarcasm toward any employee or anyone who reported to me.

    Also, once students get to college and post-graduate level, abusive sarcasm results in an enormous loss of respect for the professor or lecturer. I cannot remember when that might have started in high school. MM, in college and post-graduate work, when we had visiting faculty who used biting sarcasm toward us (they were often British) I saw my fellow students lose respect and faith in that faculty member. His or her lectures were dismissed and not believed until a real person or another reliable source had confirmed the information. I suspect this might have lead to negative performance reviews. The British faculty who stayed rarely used negative or biting sarcasm toward students.


  39. e), we would like to reprint this excellent article in The Hearing Blog, as we have a number of hearing helathcare and education professionals as readers.

    Dan Schwartz,
    Editor, The Hearing Blog

    Add me on Facebook!

  40. Sarcasm should always br used with children. According to a study at cambridge university, children who learn to interpret sarcasm earlier have higher test scores as an adult.

  41. Of course children should learn what sarcasm is. The point is, my student KNOW what sarcasm is. They UNDERSTAND it and will use it with me sometimes. What I am talking about is using sarcasm inappropriately and in a confusing and negative way. Please read my post and the comments to understand what I am trying to explain here.

    Thanks for your comment.

  42. These kids who can interpret sarcasm and have higher test scores, what kind of schools do they attend? What kind of families do they come from? What is their socio-economic status? What about language? Culture? Diet?

    A lot of factors come in play to determine how a child will score on certain tests.

    I never did well with certain tests (SAT, GRE, ACT, etc.)--but I had a very good understanding of sarcasm. Shouldn't I have gotten higher or decent scores because I am able to interpret sarcasm or because I was able to as a child?


Keep it civil.