Tough Love or No Love

Many people go into teaching, in part at least, because they love kids. But staying in teaching—and being effective at it—has more to do with how you show your love for students than whether you love them. Sonia Nieto speaks to this in her May 2003 Educational Leadership article, What Keeps Teachers Going? (based on her book by the same title) when she says that effective veteran teachers “demonstrate love through high expectations and rigorous demands on students…”

Often, however, holding students to high expectations and rigorous demands means setting limits teachers are reluctant to set. As a new teacher, for example, I lamented that many students didn’t take notes in class (and that those who did rarely used them). But then I bailed them out by answering questions they could have answered themselves if they had taken and referred to class notes.

I’ve known other teachers over the years who’ve similarly indulged students, including some who’ve invoked the word “love” when justifying their action. Yet how can reinforcing students’ self-defeating behavior be a sign of loving them? It can’t, which means it’s either tough love or no love. For me, eventually, it was tough love. With respect to note-taking, this meant responding to students with a simple question when they called me over for help: “Where are your notes?” When students didn’t have any notes, there was something else they didn’t have—my help. And when they complained, I told them the truth: “I love you too much to help you.”

Do high expectations and rigorous demands make life easier for teachers? Not at all. Students will protest at first, especially if they’re accustomed to lower standards and limited accountabiliity for classroom outcomes. But this is about what’s best for students, not what’s easiest for us. Besides, if you hold your ground, students will come around—not because you’re being tougher on them, but because they’ll discover the benefits of you being tougher on them.

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