As A Teacher, I'm Struggling With Tough Love

Ryan Fan

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As a teacher, you will hear all kinds of different advice from other teachers and adults about how to treat kids. Don’t give them an inch. Never let them out of their seats. Don’t smile until December. Emphasize rules and procedures. Don’t be nice to them. Don’t give them anything unless they earn it. Don’t give them an inch. It doesn’t matter if the kids like you. Yell at them when they misbehave.

The overarching emphasis of the above advice is to love your students, but give love in the form of tough love. Tough love is being strict and mean when it’s necessary. It is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “love or affectionate concern expressed in a stern or unsentimental manner to promote responsible behavior.”

But I have had a lot of mixed feelings about the advice I’ve been given. At one level, I’m not the most confident in my teacher voice so I’ve taken a lot of advice from teachers that don’t have quite the same philosophy on teaching.

It may be different at your typical American suburban school, but at my school, a rough inner-city middle-high school, other teachers and adults have argued that treating kids this way is the only way to manage a classroom, even if you don’t like it.

In addition, as a new teacher, I’m very susceptible to what other veteran teachers and administrators think. I’ll do what I’m told and take feedback seriously, no matter how much I might philosophically disagree. I would much rather run my classroom like a positive learning environment than a prison, and I certainly would never raise my kids like I currently run my classroom.

But in my day-to-day operation of a classroom, I seriously struggle with these conflicting feelings of what loving your students requires. Is love the nice, unconditional, “you’re my student no matter what” kind of love? Or is love the tough, authoritarian, “this is how the world works and this is how people are going to treat you” kind of love?

Whether to be a nice teacher or a strict, authoritarian teacher. Of course, we always need firm boundaries and expectations, and very few teachers are at either end of the extreme. It may be the case in the entire world of education, but there’s an expectation especially in inner-city schools to not be a pushover and not let kids walk all over you that can be somewhat consuming.

On a personal level, I could care less about those expectations, but given the role and constraints of being an inner-city teacher and the judgment of your co-workers and administrators pushes you in a direction to not be so nice. I’m struggling with tough love, and everyone tells me that that’s what I need more of as an instructor.

I’m even struggling right now about whether you can be a nice teacher and be a good teacher. I have been told, multiple times, that I am too nice to my kids when their academic performance or behavior does not warrant it. I have been told by people I work very closely with, who I love, that “you’re being too nice. You’ve got to toughen up.”

Yes, I too have had problems of kids not listening to me, and have had problems with classroom management. But being mean isn’t a part of who I am, and I have a hard time yelling and disciplining kids. Yelling doesn’t come naturally to me, and at some level, it never will. Giving consequences doesn’t come naturally either.

Yet giving consequences for kids’ misbehaviors and actions are a fundamental part of the job. I know that if I want to become a better teacher, I have to adapt.

“Do you really have to stop being so nice?” asks Linda Kardamis of ​Teach 4 The Heart. ​She had the same struggle I had as a teacher, but being too nice is also a problem. She states that you have to have a “balance in your demeanor — to keep being nice while also holding yourself and your students to high standards.” To be a good teacher means being respected more than it means being liked. It means being a mentor rather than a friend.

It’s a simple fact of life that tough love is love. But only sometimes. We cannot be all tough love or too nice. There has to be a middle ground, especially for teachers. How I compose myself in my personal life is all up to me, and I am a very accommodating and nice person to my friends and peers. I believe in giving everyone the benefit of the doubt, in giving the gift of grace, and see no problem with being a pushover in my interpersonal relationships. That is why I’m struggling so much with tough love.

But as a teacher, there needs to be a middle ground. Applying my philosophy with my interpersonal relationships with my kids has resulted in my kids smelling me as “fresh meat” and thinking they can get away with things they would never try in the past, including trying to bully and harass other kids in the class and throwing books and pens at each other.

However, we all have our own paths to get there as teachers. Something I can do personally on my pathway to become a better teacher is to stop caring and worrying about what other teachers and administrators think. No one will ever be as critical of my pedagogy or my classroom management as I am on a daily basis. We all have our own paths, and it’s not like with the need in my community that I would get fired for trying to get better at my job.

Being a teacher in the inner-city has taught me that sometimes we need multiple identities. It’s not like we suddenly become completely different Jekyll and Hyde people when we enter different arenas, but we do need to adapt to our environments. That applies to any profession or environment, not only just teaching. We don’t act the same way around our friends as we do our parents, not the same around a pastor as we do our students.

As a teacher, I’m struggling right now with tough love. I am still a nice teacher. No matter how long I stay in the field, I will always be a nice teacher. I need to stop caring so much about what other teachers and administrators think because having higher expectations and being more firm about misbehaviors are things that I’m naturally getting better at without the judgment and input of others. I love the people I work with, from other teachers to administrators. I’ve learned more from them than I could have if I just taught an isolated classroom in the middle of nowhere. But they have their own paths like I have mine.

I have been more consistent in giving consequences and have an actual system in place now. The first violation is a verbal warning, while the second is a phone call home and/or detention, while the third is an office referral. In my second year, I would do everything differently. “Don’t smile until December” is advice that I won’t follow, but advice that I’m starting to see the rationale for. I didn’t set the tone early in the first year and showed that I was too nice and didn’t know the right thing to do when things went south.

I couldn’t have learned these lessons any other way.

Everyone is on their own paths. My path now is to struggle with tough love. I will use it sparingly and sporadically, but I will use it consistently and systematically At some level, the balance is starting to feel natural.

Photo by Jerry Wang on Unsplash

Originally published on P.S. I Love You on February 29, 2020.

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Believer, Baltimore City special ed teacher, and 2:40 marathon runner. Diehard fan of "The Wire," God's gift to the Earth. Support me: https://ko-fi.com/ryanfan

Baltimore, MD
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