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:


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:

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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Kevin Jarrett's picture
Kevin Jarrett
Teaching Middle School 'Technology, Engineering & Design' in Northfield, NJ

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 Steiner's picture
Martyn Steiner
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.

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.

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
Third grade teacher from Saint Simons Island, Georgia

So well said! I agree completely!

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