[Man pushes the handicap button on a door]
GIRLFRIEND: What'd you do that for?
MAN: For you! You're handicapped mentally AND physically.
The above conversation happened while I was at the local library. The location is not what makes this post academic (although, I suppose one could compose a clever enough argument). The boyfriend's quip makes it so.
A quick tongue is one of the best ways to keep classroom order. This is good advice for secondary teachers as well. Students often test authority by making borderline comments that aren't necessarily insubordinate yet aren't necessarily deferential. In these moments an instructor can cement his or her control. Instead of letting a student smudge the line of classroom discipline, a teacher's well-placed remark can quell an avalanche of future borderline comments. The question then is how do you know what to say in a given situation? Follow these 3 easy steps, and you won't have problem.
1. Remember that speed is more important than quality. Responding quickly, even if it's mediocre, has a great deal of impact. Even if your quip is generic, the faster you say something, the more confident it sounds, and the more people are likely to buy it. You're a teacher, not a stand up comic. Any well-timed line that comes out of your mouth will be greeted w/ a positive response. In the world of comebacks, timing trumps quality.
2. Sun Tzu says, "if you know what your opponent is going to do before he does it, you can defeat him." Prepare ahead of time. Whether it's in-class comments or typed essays, students generally say the same things. This means you can anticipate what's going to be said, and provide an adequate defense. This is especially useful for females. Male students tend to make sexist--even sexual--comments. You can deflect those and in the process, get some of the female students on your side by rolling your eyes, looking at a few other ladies, and saying something like, "We all know what to expect when a guy talks like that."
3. Know your audience. Comebacks are about subtly defending yourself. So you never want to use them as offense. Smart aleck teachers are a turn off. But quick-witted ones who can keep trouble makers in check are enjoyable. But you must be aware of what you can say. You don't want to be offensive (At the secondary level, it will definitely get you in trouble). And you don't want to be incindiary (At the post-secondary level, that could lead to more, not fewer verbal battles).
Ultimately, the key is to needle them to the degree to which they needle you. Not more. It's not about out macho-ing someone else. It's about reducing distractions, so you can focus on what's important. That's why I like to chuckle, make my comment, and then continue with what I'm discussing almost as if what the student said was as harmless and unthreatening as a lady bug crawling across the floor.
Hope this helps!