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Over the next few months, Robert Ahdoot, a high-school math teacher and founder of YayMath.org, will be sharing singular, bite-sized morsels of inspired education strategies. These aim to be juicy, yet easily digestible pieces of teaching wisdom. Ahdoot believes the supreme way to establish inspired learning comes from the strong human bonds educators create with their students. What follows is a menu of ideas to help you usher in those connections. Enjoy.

Sarcasm RULES.

As in, it doesn’t.

Last week in all my classes, I ran a curiosity field test. I asked students to raise their hand if anyone happened to be a fan of sarcasm. Sure enough, almost every hand went sky-high. They’re teens, after all, and sarcasm affords them the chance to explore various communication techniques. Those techniques may be humor, provocativeness, and their unique process of individuation. I too LOVE a shiny, sparkly sarcastic quip.
But with regards to learning, I say to my fellow teachers: Leave sarcasm out. This includes any of the following situations, and more:

  • When students ask a sincere question
  • When students are confused
  • When students are frustrated
  • When your seemingly harmless remark, in any way remotely has a chance of causing offense

We need to understand that the core act of learning is really an act of vulnerability. Students expose themselves to potential embarrassment, shame and failure when venturing into the waters of what they don’t know. And they need to learn the stuff you’re offering, under a time crunch, through fatigue, stress and pressure. Within this framework, present yourself as their ally. Allies, by nature, must make the lives of their partners easier. Forcing students to decode what you may mean — especially if they’re already baffled — inevitably makes their lives harder.

For some of us, it’s hard to resist the temptation, because they set us up so perfectly for sarcasm. For example, an anxious student may ask, “Wait, do we have a test tomorrow?” when you just answered that question a billion times, and it’s written on the board, and posted on the online class calendar. To say sarcastically, “Yes, and it’s gonna be a big one, covering everything from the beginning of the year” will freak that student out at first, but upon realizing he is the receiver of ridicule, that individual will come to resent you. By extension, so will other students who witness the exchange. And let’s be frank, it’s our frustration that drives that sarcastic remark. Instead, I advise to either play your position (that of the patient teacher) and answer the question again, or reply in a kind, plain tone, “please learn to listen to what we say in class, or feel free to check the online calendar.”

Then during learning, tune into the face of semi-confused, semi-“I think I get it now…” student. It’s stunning: They are so immersed, so in-the-moment, and thus so pure. In this space, stay literal. Misconstrued jokes can shatter this sacred demonstration of the pure learning experience. Once you return to “real life,” after the learning time has concluded, then feel free to converse using any sarcastic panache you feel appropriate. Funny is good, even a little controversy can be good, as it adds to the complexity and realness that is you. Just remember that for anything related to learning, simply stick to full truths.

Robert Ahdoot is a high-school math teacher and founder of YayMath.org, a free online collection of math video lessons filmed live in his classroom, using costumes and characters. Robert has been teaching high-school math for 10 years, has given two TEDx talks, and travels to schools promoting his message of positive learning through human connection. He is the author of One-on-One 101, The Art of Inspired and Effective Individualized Instruction.

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