Education

Help! My Coworker’s Default Tone Is Sarcasm

Dear We Are Teachers,

Everyone on our 10th grade English team has a healthy level of sarcasm. But one coworker’s sarcasm comes off as just plain mean! If we’re late to a meeting, she says, “Wow—look who decided to grace us with their presence.” Once, when a colleague presented an ambitious idea for a project, she said, “All hail, Madam Overachiever!” I know it causes problems in her classroom, too. For example, she told me about a parent complaint she got recently about her telling a student, “Just stop. It’s like you’re in a parallel universe where the correct answer doesn’t exist.” When we’ve told her that her sarcasm veers into mean territory, she just responds that that’s her personality or that we’re too sensitive to understand her sense of humor. How do you tell a person to change a behavior that they believe is their personality?

—h.r.h. Madam overachiever

Dear H.R.H.M.O.,

I used to tell my middle school students that there is an art to both sarcasm and procrastination in the classroom. And being art forms, they both have guidelines, expectations, and are subject to critique. If you’re constantly having to defend your sarcasm or if you use it to make others feel small or if it keeps you socially isolated—you don’t get to use it in the classroom … because you haven’t mastered that art. It’s the same with procrastination. Procrastinating is for people who can produce high-quality, complete work at the last minute. If you’re turning in partially finished or low-quality work, you need more practice with the time management and logistical components (and have to show me checkpoints on the next project). Anyway, none of this is helpful because she’s an adult and not a student, but I just wanted to use it as a tangentially related introduction.

Unfortunately, it’s not your place to inform her that she cannot practice the art of sarcasm at school. But it is appropriate to let her know the impact of her sarcasm.

Find a time for a private conversation the next time her sarcasm turns hurtful. Be kind, honest, and set your intentions. It’s easy to think that people who are cruelly sarcastic don’t have feelings and that you should come in full-force, but it’s usually the opposite. Often, sarcastic people are so scared of feeling vulnerable or rejected that they use sarcasm as a defense mechanism.

“Hey. I really like working with you and I want it to stay that way, so I want to be honest about something. Sometimes your sarcasm makes me feel bad about myself. Earlier, when I didn’t understand the instructions and you said, ‘What, do I need to make a puppet show so you get it?’ it made me feel stupid and childish. I don’t think you meant to make me feel that way, but the impact kept me from getting work done for the next half hour because I was so hurt and frustrated. Like I said, I like working with you and want to keep up a professional and positive relationship—is this something you could work on?”

If it continues after that, it’s fair to talk to an administrator. But honestly, it’s hard for me to believe she hasn’t been checked on this before. Parents are quick to compare, collect, and present complaints. If they haven’t already brought it to administrators’ attention, it’s coming. Maybe in a parallel universe, she’s already been told.

Dear We Are Teachers,

In January, a student is returning from alternate placement education after repeated instances of violence against teachers. I am very nervous to have this 11th grader in my class, especially since our principal actively discourages us from filing police reports when students are violent against teachers. I understand that the overuse of law enforcement and the school-to-prison pipeline disproportionately affect many students at our school. But I feel like this student was violent with another teacher because our principal gave him so many chances (and talked so many teachers out of filing police reports). I’ve had panic attacks thinking about returning to school. Is there anything I can do to protect myself?

—Scared and sad

Dear S.A.S.

For this question, I’d recommend talking to a union rep as it involves policies and legal frameworks that someone local to your state and school district would have a better grasp on than I do. So many pieces of this question—from a student’s plan for reentry to a teacher’s ability to request a student placement change—depends on where you are.   

I do think it’s worth distinguishing the overuse of law enforcement from the proper use of law enforcement.

The school-to-prison pipeline (STPP) refers to a nationwide system of local, state, and federal public safety policies that “funnel” students out of school and into the criminal justice system in ways that disproportionately affect students of color or with disabilities. You’re right to be aware of the very real impact it has. But when we talk about overpolicing and the STPP, we’re talking about policies that allow schools to bring criminal charges against students for violations that would never be considered criminal if adults did them (or, too often, if white students did them). Using a phone. Swearing. Skipping class. “Disrespect.”  

Proper law enforcement, alternatively, is important for public safety. Violence is a crime, so it can be appropriate to involve law enforcement when the school’s policies failed to mitigate the behavior.

Does the criminal justice system always set up juvenile offenders for success with therapy, outstanding educational services within the system, and all the best tools for managing their behavior in the future? No. But we can’t make ourselves and others vulnerable to physical harm because the best solution isn’t perfect yet.  

Dear We Are Teachers,

Every year I try to be better organized with my time and every year I fail. I’m late to meetings, I’m the one teacher who didn’t read the email, and I always end up defaulting to a “system” of Post-its around my desktop computer screen. But in 2024, I’m determined! Please spam me with your best tricks for going from hot mess to success!

—organizationally speaking, the redheaded stepchild on my team

Dear O.S.T.R.S.O.M.T.,

I will ignore that popular redhead insult and help you anyway. Here is some of my favorite content on reaching your highest organizational self:

  • My top rec is to get a planner. DON’T ROLL YOUR EYES. I, too, was once like you—until I realized that I just hadn’t found the layout that worked for me. (Turns out I am vertical days divided by morning, afternoon, and evening with space in the margins for notes.) Here’s the paper planners and the digital ones teachers swear by! A big flat desk planner is handy, too, for mapping out the week-by-week changes.
  • My second recommendation is to create email folders. I had one for parent communication and one for any action items I needed to take care of, but you can create as many as you want. It’s WAY easier to find an email when you do a search through 300 instead of 30,000.
  • Set up phone alarms (and reminders) for anything you’re constantly forgetting—weekly team meetings, daily PLCs, monthly faculty meetings, whatever. You might feel bonkers with a hundred alarms, but it works!  
  • Check out these time management strategies that can be used by teachers or students! (I’m a big Pomodoro fan for big, un-fun tasks.)
  • Some of these bullet journal ideas are perfect for tracking habits, scheduling, and planning for the future

Best of luck—and let us know how it goes!

Do you have a burning question? Email us at [email protected].

Dear We Are Teachers,

Confession time. While inebriated at a bar on a night out on holiday break, I saw the parent of one of my students. She seemed super excited to see me. Caught up in holiday frivolity, I asked someone in her group to take a picture of us and had her hold my leg. When I remembered what happened the next day, I could have died of embarrassment, but that pales in comparison to what happened next. My principal forwarded me the parent’s complaint that, to be fair, said exactly what happened. She attached the photo and added, “You may want to talk to your teachers before your next break about decorum in the community.” My principal’s note to me on the forwarded email: “Let’s talk about this when we get back.” Am I about to get fired?    

—HOLDING MY BREATH … AND LEG

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