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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Do "Tough Teachers" Make Students Learn More?

Do "Tough Teachers" Make Students Learn More?

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I saw a tweet this am that got me thinking and was worth sharing out to the community here:

Tweet:

Heard this "I'm here to teach not to be liked." Does learning happen through someone you don't like? 

There was one reply from Tom Whitby: 

"I know that I said that at least once over my career."

Link to tweets: https://twitter.com/naghma_khn/statuses/502843687361982466

I started reflecting on this and reflected upon my own student experience with the teachers I learned the most from and just like everything in education, it's a complicated answer. :)

The teachers that pushed and challenged me the most, didn't take my made-up excuses, and always expected the best from me were the teachers I ALWAYS learned from the most. But it wasn't just that -- these teachers took the time to get to know me as a person and motivated me to take ownership in learning, based on who I wanted to be. But they were not my friend -- they were someone I respected and wanted to make proud.

So for me..I'm afraid it's not as easy as just saying tough teachers do the best job. It's important to create a classroom community where trust and respect is earned. Being too tough can backfire as well (and I'm sure we've all seen the students just give up as a result).

I'm interested in hearing your thoughts. How tough do you try to be? What's the right balance for student success?

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Comments (30)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Kevin Jarrett's picture
Kevin Jarrett
K-4 Technology Facilitator from Northfield, New Jersey

I think we can sum this discussion up by saying if we agree that 'tough' = demanding + high standards, then yes, those teachers definitely make students learn more. :)

Mrs. Cadet-Henry's picture

I think it is about balance! I am a tough teacher. I don't tolerate disrespect, mediocrity or just plain laziness. My students know that. They know I can be warm and welcoming and I can be stern when I need to be. I know I am tough, but like realestatewritr said "I am fair". That is crucial because students do not like to be mistreated and they want to know someone is on their side. The right balance for student success is a respectful environment where the teacher and student give and earn respect. The teacher has to set that tone from the beginning. When the tone is set, reinforced with awards and consequences, and that teacher lets his/her personality shine, learning can and does happen! So, I agree Mr. Jarrett "tough and likeable can go together!"

Martyn's picture
Martyn
Head of Senior School and Science Teacher

I have a feeling that not caring about being liked by students suggests not caring about the students themselves. Obviously, we shouldn't be aiming to be best buddies with our students and of course it is important to be firm with them when they need guidance towards a better path. But it's important that they know we care about them and that we have their best interests at heart. If I was told 'I don't even care if you like me' by someone, I would have the feeling that they probably don't like me. And, frankly, I'd probably be right. I shudder to think how that would make a child feel.

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Fola Adekeye's picture

Above comments have come from great insights. I joined today and it is my pleasure to be here. I am a college administrator in Nigeria.

On the topic, I believe that a tough teacher that connects well with students and knows individual student's "down" and "up" moments in the class will do. I call such teacher a benevolent "tiger!"

Aida Sadr-Kiani's picture
Aida Sadr-Kiani
Former 3rd grade and current K teacher

thanks for this article. I have thoughts too... I think I'll write about it later this week

Roxann Evans's picture

I believe a student understand when a teacher care about them. They understand that their teacher may be tough, but teacher cares. Speaking from my point of view, I do not take excuses from students who refuse to take responsibility for their actions; therefore, if that makes me out be tough, then I will own it. I will say, my students understand that I love, and care for them. I have seen no indications of students disliking me, matter fact, I have a difficult time getting students to leave my classroom each day. I say this to say, that mutual respect, understanding, and expectations is the big picture here. Great article.

Fatima Alawi's picture

Well, I guess it happens only if students are motivated to succeed no matter what challenges they face. However, in most situations and especially with cycle one starters 1, 2, 3 grades, students should feel safe and secure to perform well. I believe that students are reflection of their teacher's attitude. If the teacher creates a positive and safe environment based on care, compassion, and respect, students would achieve better in school. In my experience, teachers should have a distinct charisma that combines a kind understanding teacher as well as a tough and strong leader.

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Reese's picture

I found this article very helpful for myself personally and also as a mentor to a new teacher! I have always questioned if I am too hard on my first graders. I am very strict on using self-discipline and independence. After reading this article, I realize I am a well balanced teacher. My students know I will hold them accountable, but I will also be available when they need a trusted adult. As a mentor to a new teacher, I have finally found a way to explain to the teacher that she has to be "tough" but not mean. ;) I will be directing her to this blog.

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Media teacher

Reese, I think that's such a valuable concept to help new teachers understand! If we are strict and hold our kids accountable, that doesn't mean we are "mean!" In fact, it is so often those teachers who set clear standards and have firm and fair consequences who are so beloved by their students. Their classroom is a safe place to be since students always know what is expected of them and what will happen if they don't meet those expectations. Same is true in parenting: kids just need to know where the boundaries are and what the consequences are. Establishing those clear guidelines early on make for a much smoother year for everyone.

Jeannie's picture
Jeannie
Third grade teacher from Saint Simons Island, Georgia

So well said! I agree completely!

The Teacher Treasury's picture
The Teacher Treasury
Educator, Blogger

Honestly, there has to be some middle ground here. If you dislike your instructor, it can be very difficult to listen to them and be fully engaged in the activities they've prepared. I find that when my students enjoy coming to my class and think I'm fun/nice, they are more willing to participate and are eager to learn. You can still be kind and respected...nice and tough.

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Nandita's picture
Nandita
Education News Editor

This is such an interesting question. Teachers can be tough but at the same time teachers need to ensure that children's emotional needs are being met. This brings to mind a nice piece by Mary Gordon on Empathy http://bit.ly/1qIgFGW

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Denise M. Cassano's picture
Denise M. Cassano
Artist, Educator, Dog Lover

It is more important to you to teach and for students to learn than for you to be 'liked'. If that is someone's utmost concern, that is selfish. I learned the most from strict teachers. That doesn't mean I didn't like them- I respected them more because they expected the best from me. They believed in me. That is empowering.

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Kevin Jarrett's picture
Kevin Jarrett
K-4 Technology Facilitator from Northfield, New Jersey

"Tough and likable can go together." <= nailed it. It's all about having high standards.

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Eric S.'s picture

The post confused me as well. The quote (I believe) was taken from a TED talk about relationships. The speaker replied to the quote with "Kids don't learn from teachers they don't like."

Tough and likable can go together. There are plenty of people in my life who don't give slack - if you are going to do a job you are going to do it right. These same people are also very warm and sincere. I like to think that I reflect these same qualities in my classroom. I may send a student back to their seat for the 9th time to correct a piece of writing, but I am going to do it with a smile, a joke, or encouraging words. You can demand the best out of your students without being an ogre is what I am saying.

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Brian Sztabnik's picture
Brian Sztabnik
AP Literature teacher from Miller Place, NY

What a great question. It reminds me of an op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal by Jeff Lindsey, the author of the Dexter series of novels. He wrote:

"My first true lesson in writing came from Mr. Bowden when I was 16. At my high school, he was the teacher known to be the very best at literature and writing. He was also frankly terrifying, prone to losing his temper at stupidity. But I knew that he had things to teach me, and I wanted to be in his class more than I wanted a car."

Sometimes, in the immaturity of adolescence, we mistake a teacher's terrifying nature and temper as meanness when in reality those are just manifestations of their expectations for excellence and a unwillingness to compromise. Often, teenagers have a tough time swallowing the bitter pills of humility that firm teachers provide, especially when, as Laura points out, they have experienced grade inflation in the past. But, in the end, if those stern souls are really teaching in the best interest of students, students will come to respect the honesty and standards of those difficult teachers. It does not mean they have to be liked, but they need to earn their students' respect. If not, they will have ruined a year-worth of learning experiences for those students.

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Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.

I do think it's possible to learn from a teacher you hate, like Samer showed us, but I do think that being a hard teacher (mean, rigid, whatever) you definitely close down the avenues of learning, reaching only a select few that might like to learn under those conditions.

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Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Media teacher

I agree with all of you, especially the idea that "tough" can be interpreted many ways, and that effective teaching is far too complex to narrow down to one trait, like being tough. I'm thinking that the original tweet ("I'm here to teach, not to be liked") refers to teachers who go easy on kids so that the kids will "like" them (like that might be the opposite of "tough"). I have told every one of my student teachers, don't confuse "nice" with "don't hold them to high standards or accountability;" and don't confuse "tough" with "mean/scary/rigid," etc.

At the start of the school year, I often hear from students, "But I have ALWAYS gotten As in English!" (i.e. "Why didn't you give me an A?") -- and I get the reputation of being a "hard grader." But eventually the students see that they have to work hard in order to learn (if it's easy, do they really learn?), and when they do see that A, they know they have earned it and they thank me for helping them learn through hard work.

I agree with Samer: "The shadow of tough is meanness, rigidity... someone who's insensitive or a bully. I can't imagine any of these qualities in a great teacher." If we want to be tough, we also have to be sure we are fair and kind and many other traits that make our job infinitely complex.

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naghma_khn's picture

I think, a lot, also depend on whether students know the person teaching them genuinely care.

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Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program

I want my students to know I care, that I'm committed to their success, AND that we're both trading valuable days of our lives for the experience of working together so we both have to pony up with our best selves. Sometimes that means I'm tough- but I'm never uncaring, never rude, and never mean.

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