it’s tough to be tough

I could smell it right away. I knew what it was but couldn’t tell where it came from.  So I walked from table to table nostrils flared up like a miniature dragon. My feelings were a mixed bag. On one hand, there was disbelief and unease due to the fact that I was caught totally off guard. On the other hand, there was anger at the students’ audacity to think they could drink alcohol during their lunch break, then come to the lesson tipsy and act as if nothing was amiss.

I could have closed my eyes (and nostrils) and pretended that I didn’t know. I could have given my lesson, called it a day and gone home feeling smug and ready for a weekend. But I didn’t. I took the steps I deemed appropriate for a teacher who is responsible for a class of teenagers. My choice of action will not increase my popularity among these students, it might even get me several nasty looks next week, lots of gossip behind my back and less enthusiasm in class. Maybe … But at the end of the day I will feel at peace with myself and proud that I don’t shy away from taking tough and unpopular decisions.

As you all know so well, being a teacher entails much more than transferring the knowledge we already have. Taking up the responsibility of guiding young people means becoming educators in a very wide sense. I have no moralist in mind, far from that. Rather someone older and hopefully wiser, who helps determine limits which create an atmosphere of security. Within these limits a lot is possible. But these limits teach respect, responsibility and the simple fact that all our actions have consequences.

Sounds pretty confident and simple, doesn’t it. But writing these lines is a sort of self therapy for me. It’s not that I completely lack natural authority but I have found this aspect of the teaching profession always tricky and confusing. My first students were adults, so discipline was not an issue. Lessons were always gratifying, laughter constantly present and I felt that simply by making lessons interesting would help me get rid of any behaviour issues.  But then I started work in an art college where students’ ages ranged from 16 to 22. I found myself in an entirely new universe with strict timetables, end-of-the-term exams but more importantly still with sometimes recalcitrant students, laziness, cheating, well-pretended innocence. Well, the usual. And suddenly my recipe of hopefully gripping lessons didn’t suffice.

My first year at the new school was pretty much a chaos. I learned the hard way that old ways won’t work any more, I got cold feet whenever a new conflict was looming ahead, and students didn’t have to try hard to destabilize me. On the one hand I wanted to please, I wished so much to be this cool new teacher in town who would later inspire a famous film director (Michelle Pfeiffer and Hilary Swank, you have a responsibility here !) But on the other hand, I realized very quickly that being cool alone won’t do the job. My students didn’t need a new pal. They needed a teacher who would help them improve their English skills and guide them with reassuring confidence till the final exam.

So I began my journey of growth. I learned from the wiser, I listened to the other, more experienced colleagues, I read and reflected. But most importantly, I started slowly to detach myself from the belief that being a great teacher means being a cool pal.  I cannot say I master the art with ease. Not yet. But I guess I have been able to come a long way. And there are principles I try to stick to. Here are some of them …

  • Set the rules before you begin the game. Some rules can be a fruit of cooperation with your students. Others, like guidelines and marking system might be your expectations as a teacher. Once you have the rules, stick to them.  It can be hard at times. There will always be the smart someone who will try to sneak past the rule (the excuses can be quite « heart-rending » … ) but remember, you did say what is expected. They knew it.
  • Sometimes you will cause frustration. But it doesn’t mean you are a nasty witch. It means you help your students learn to handle the tools that will help them later.
  • Your target is not to increase your popularity. Your aim should be helping the young to become indipendent and responsible adults.
  • Clear rules and limits create the safe space where creativity can flourish.

You know what, I feel much better now.

What about you ? Do disicpline issues cause similar inner fights in you or have you mastered the art yet ? What is your golden discipline rule ?


11 thoughts on “it’s tough to be tough

  1. Hi Sirja,
    thanks so much for this post. I especially like the title since this aspect of teaching really is the most difficult. Although I’ve been teaching English to teenagers for twenty years I don’t think I’ve mastered the art yet, but I’m improving each year. I liked your list of principles since I have a similar list I try to stick to.. I’d only like to add: develop your own teaching style without imitating anybody, stick to the rules you set the first class and try to be friendly but strict.

    • Hello,
      thank you so much for responding to this post. This is what I like about PLN. You might be wondering alone in your corner, thinking if you are getting anywhere close to the right thing, and then someone out there calls back to you. This is so empowering!
      Sunny greetings

  2. Funnily, I just posted something on classroom management myself, saying many of the same things, then happened on this! So I had to comment!

    “My choice of action will not increase my popularity among these students, it might even get me several nasty looks next week, lots of gossip behind my back and less enthusiasm in class”

    I strongly disagree. Pretending to ignore the problem would be more likely to lose your respect, in my experience. MOST of your students were not drinking in the break, most of them probably wouldn’t, and most of them expect you to do something about it when people break the rules.

    Children and teenagers have a strong sense of justice. If you did nothing, they would probably feel somewhat cheated. You did the right thing and probably won more respect from your class.

    Remember when you were a student. If you were working hard and there were some other kids misbehaving, and the teacher did nothing, how did you feel? Did you respect the teacher more or less if he dealt with the problem? What about when YOU were misbehaving? Would you respect a teacher more or less if he did something about your behaviour? The answer in both cases is probably MORE!

    • Hi Jonny,
      Great to read your lines! And yes, just like you said, it’s not only about the misbehaving ones, it’s about everyone. And I agree that taking no action would be dishonest towards the rest of the class.
      Thanx for stopping by.

  3. I agree with Jonny. I teach adults, but knowing when to assert yourself is still an important issue, for the good of the class as a whole. If you don’t address something that needs to be addressed, it could have much worse consequences further down the line.
    You point about not wanting to be unpopular is very important. I think a lot of teachers feel that part of their role is to be the students’ friend. It’s nice to be nice, but it’s wrong to be too nice, as I blogged recently:

  4. I loved the post you mentioned! It is very refreshing to read these thoughts and I can only sign it 🙂
    Thanks for stopping by and making me thus discover your blog.
    Sunny greetings from the Alps

    • Thanx, dear Naomi for your feedback!
      If reading this post gave you even a tiny bit of strength to tackle discipline issues, well, I can call it a day 😉

  5. What a tough decision dear Sirja. I totally agree with John! You made the right decision.

    Discipline issues? Lack of motivation? Boredom? The looks? The comments behind our backs? Being unpopular? uhmm who hasn’t got those from teens? And there are those who give in. As for me I think It is tough to please them anyway ( I have a 16-year-old daughter that says her life is hard because she has to do the dishes – lol ). And if our job is to please, well, I might as well change jobs. I sometimes joke around that I would be in the entertainment business instead. My main rule is to remind them that it is all about learning and learning together. When they request something like songs and movies because they like it, they also have to give a reason for it. Not just I like it. “How do you think this would help you and your classmates”, I would ask them. It is also about values: Respect, care for each other, etc. and AGAIN focus on Learning!

    I don’t usually set rules in the beginning of a term. I build them along the first couple of months with them. Through activities, questions, reflection we learn about each other and we shape our short and long-term goals. Something quite informal most of the time.

    Teens are my favorite age group. But the most challenging group too.

    Keep Calm and TEACHER ON! 😀 ( I wish I could embed those cute posters here. 😀 )

    • Dear Rose,
      I love your comment! And your daughter certainly rocks 😉 Her life philosophy made me grin from ear to ear yesterday evening.
      I like what you write about teens in general. But what I like most is that reading about other teachers’ experiences and views on teaching gives strength and so many new ideas! So many thanks for that!!!!!
      Hugs from the Alps

      • Same here Sirja. That is what I love about blogs. The more I read and relate to other classes around the world, better understanding I get from theory books. Even though context, culture, age groups may be different, I still get a lot from the reading and writing blogposts. I’m so glad I started doing it. Thanks for sharing!

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