4 Things to Remember If You Practice Tough Love Teaching

Why the right balance can really make a difference in how students view you.

I am almost paralyzed by heights. I have to take deep breaths while driving over bridges, can’t speak while riding a ski lift, and constantly struggle when a hike with my family nears the edge. Yet I still believe in tough love. This summer, I took the tough love approach with myself, pushing myself to face my fear of heights by embracing the Vermont tradition of jumping off of rock outcrops into clear waters.

The emotions I experienced while getting through those fears are similar to what I see in so many of my students. I watch them taking deep breaths when they sit down to write an in-class essay. I know the wheels are churning in their heads even as some fear or anxiety holds them silent during a discussion, and I puzzle away at how to help them approach the edge and take that leap.

My summer has made me realize a few things about being a tough love teacher. Here are the lessons I’m reminding myself of this school year. From first-year newbies and lifers alike, I hope these help you, too! 


1. A pat on the back beats a kick in the ass

When I first started teaching 20 years ago, I thought that if you push kids hard enough they will rise to the occasion. What I have realized over two decades is that some kids simply crumble under that kind of hard-sell approach. Every year now, I set the goal of softening up a bit. Instead of saying, “everyone else is reading a poem in front of the class,” I now tell my students how positive I am they can do it, how excited I am to hear what they have written. Then I give them the option of an assignment to replace the oral presentation they are so scared of.


I think it’s important to remember that lots of jumpers need some encouragement. Very few respond well to aggressive pressure, and nobody wants to get pushed over the edge.


2. Get comfortable because this could take a while

I once watched a kid stand atop a rock for more than two hours. Peering down the ten feet or so to the water below, he watched a parade of other kids launch off the edge with ease. After each jumper he would step back up, tense his body like he was going to jump, and then back away. For two hours he did this. His family just hung out on the rocks below, chatting and snacking. They said very little, choosing to just give him some time.

Each year, I have debated this approach with my colleagues. I have had several students paralyzed by public speaking, and in the most extreme cases, I have offered an alternative assessment. Several of my colleagues have argued that I need to give a zero if the student won’t present, but each time I come across this situation I choose a different path. Sometimes students just aren’t ready for a particular challenge.

Not everyone is going to jump off of the rock right away. I am 41 years old and just now managing to jump. If my students need a bit more time, I can wait.


3. Community is better than competition

I am a 41-year-old man. When I decided to confront my fear of heights by jumping off of some of these spots, I did not want to start on the rock with the 4-year-olds. I wanted to jump with the big kids. Problem was, I couldn’t move when I tried to scout out the drop from the edge. Eventually, I had to accept it and jump from the low rocks. It was a long progression before I could jump from the big ones.

Call it differentiated instruction or just call it good teaching. In the 20 years I have been teaching I have shifted my classroom away from competition and toward community. The student I have who writes beautiful and technically sound prose can certainly help the student struggling with sentence construction. But, it is not a contest. The student struggling with sentence construction may have a more insightful and original view of the literature we read that can really benefit the more technically proficient writer.

4. We can all use a little more patience 

We all aspire to help our students overcome their fears, take responsible risks, and find the joy of overcoming something that was once a daunting source of fear and anxiety. It is easy for me to lapse into criticism when commenting on student essays, but I keep trying to refocus on pointing out what students are doing well.

It can be exasperating when a student isn’t picking up an idea I am explaining for the fifth time, but I need to remember that after a certain point more attempts are reinforcing failure rather than gaining mastery. I want them all to write beautiful prose, but must remember that it is a process of many increasing degrees.

As you start the year, keep these ideas in mind. Before you know it all of your students will be flying through the air, splashing down into invigorating waters, and coming to the surface with smiles that remind you why you teach.