Teachers: how to stop using sarcasm and start building better relationships with students

Great teachers have outstanding relationships with their students. 

Never underestimate the value of these relationships. Whenever you approach a student, start with the heart. That phrase comes from one of my all-time-favorite books, Crucial Conversation, Tools For Talking When Stakes Are High (referral link). And make no mistake, stakes are always high when a teacher approaches a student.

Start with the heart refers to the idea that healthy dialog starts with good motives. Before you enter a conversation, take an intentional moment to ask yourself what you hope to get out of the conversation. When you approach the student, first identify your shared goals and then your intention:

Jay, both you and I want you to get the most you can out of this project, and want the process to be as easy as it can for you. I broke the project up into small pieces so that it is easy for you to complete each part. Yesterday, when you did not submit your outline, I began to worry about whether you would be able to keep up with the project. Can you help me understand what happened? How can I help you get this outline completed and submitted?

Note the difference between the above approach and a common misstep below:

Jay, where is your outline? You will lose 10 points per every day that it is late and I will not accept it after Friday. I also am e-mailing your mom so she is going to ask you about it tonight. I expect it on my desk tomorrow.

The latter example may occasionally get the outline turned in, but it never gets the relationship strengthened. You want both. Do not settle for less.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, do not use sarcasm. Not ever. Especially avoid sarcasm with anyone below high school, but even in high school, sarcasm is a terrible, yes terrible, communications method. The Crucial team identifies sarcasm as a form of violence, and the Greek root means to tear flesh. Sarcasm is, by definition, not genuine. Healthy relationships thrive from genuine communication. Do not get caught in this trap.

If you need a trick to work on your sarcasm, try wearing a rubber band around your wrist for about a week. Each time you see it, remember that you are trying to avoid sarcasm. When you are teaching, or in a meeting, and your hand flashes in front of your face as you gesture, let it remind you of trying to be more straightforward and clear with your students and peers.


Try this for one week. Give it your full effort. Come back and let us know how the experiment worked.

If you dug this post, I hope that you will share it broadly, and sign up for my new newsletter on becoming a great teacher leader.

arvind s. grover

I am a progressive educator, a podcaster (EdTechTalk.com/21cl), a blogger, and dean of faculty of JK-11 school (building a high school) in New York City.