Monday, March 28, 2005

Tip #3: Say what you mean and mean what you say

It is a rainy start to Spring Break here. Luckily by this time to tomorrow I'm supposed to be in Texas, shopping with my mom and eating all the refried beans I desire.

For now, here's a tip I learned the hard way:

Every teacher has his or her own personality. Everybody knows that. You have to discover what works for you and stick with it. Few people recommend faking it because the kids notice when you are being insincere. That said, even if you are a jokester you must be careful.

Students like to know they will be respected. If you want to have a classroom where people are engaged and taking risks, the students must feel safe. If you've chosen to become a teacher, you can assume you respect kids. You have to show that respect, though, and kids can interpret things differently. For that reason, I recommend holding off on sarcasm until you really, really know your kids (and maybe still holding off, even then.)

When I was in high school, I completely understood sarcasm. My friends and I made sarcastic jokes all the time. I didn't realize until I was a teacher that most kids do NOT get sarcasm or irony at ALL. This is why their English teachers have to point it out to them all the time. I think Piaget would back me up on this as well. Since the kids aren't in the final state of operations, they see everything as black or white. There is no reason for saying one thing and meaning something else. Additionally, there are certain forms of autism that allow only for literal comprehension, and we are seeing more of those students in our classrooms.

When I was student teaching, I learned that sarcastic remarks were highly insulting to my students. Sometimes I wasn't meaning to insult them at all, and at other times I was just trying to tease them a little. Either way, it didn't work. The kids simply felt they were being made fun of. And, if students feel their teacher is making fun of the students, everything else hits the fan. A culture of disrespect is born. The kids will then insult the teacher and each other. (and they are good at it too! It can sting!). In fact, I think it opens the door for students to play with their own forms of sarcastic comments. They say rude things to one another and then say "I was just kidding!" or "That's not what I really meant!" If you have found yourself using the same excuses in your classroom, it looks hypocritical when you tell your students that it isn't an acceptable excuse for them to use.

To take it a step farther, this kind of kidding can be a safety issue. Many of our schools have adopted "zero tolerance" policies. Just "kidding" about wanting to shoot one is not acceptable. I have also seen students literally come to blows about something that was really just a miscommunication.

It doesn't set a great tone for academic learning either. A lot of times, I would exagerate a story to make a point, but some kids didn't pick up on the fact that I was kidding. Later, I would read in their essays about Teddy Roosevelt eating 7 dozen eggs (he only ate 1 dozen, which is still not great but....) or some other joke.

I find it is most efficient to say what I mean and mean what I say. Even with my so-called "gifted and talented" kids, I can't always be assured they will understand the real meaning of my words and it is just not worth the risk. It's fun to joke around with the kids sometimes, but we must find a way to do it that allows everyone to feel safe and respected. If you want to make fun of someone, make fun of yourself. All other subjects are off-limits.