Okay with Being Labeled “Tough”

by Janet Mizrahi

Perhaps I’m a “hard” teacher because I went to college when it was unthinkable to turn in a paper late or not complete assigned readings. I hold my students to the same standard. Or maybe it’s my mother’s influence. A 30-year teaching veteran, she advised me to always start out tough and set high goals. You can always get easier, she’d tell me, but you can never get tougher.FEB2016_shutterstock_93835213

Mother knew best, and I wear the mantle of a tough teacher unapologetically. As an instructor whose students will likely never have a writing class again, I feel it is incumbent upon me to show them a slice of real life, where bosses will have little patience for late or careless work. I know I do, and my courses reflect my expectations.

It’s not easy, granted. We all live or die (or at least stay employed) by how students rate our courses, but I’m certain driving students hard is in their best interest. Not long ago, I read an essay in the Wall Street Journal that backed me up. Here’s what it said that corroborated my approach.

Constructive, even painful feedback is key to achieve expertise. Research has shown that top performers in every field pick “unsentimental coaches” who challenge and drive them. While my friend Amy didn’t pick her first writing teacher, she does credit him with teaching her to write—and that was after he marked her first college paper with a “D,” crossed it out, and replaced the “D” with an “F.” Was she mortified? Absolutely. But when she recently reread the paper, she agreed, with chagrin, that he was right.

Rote learning has gotten a bad rap. Rote learning is not much in favor these days. Why make students memorize anything if the answers can be found in a calculator or by searching online? Because research shows that repeating skills leads to mastery. I’ve watched students learn. As writing instructors, we know that the more students practice, the better their work. Is it fun? Maybe not, but it’s crucial to learning a skill.

Failure IS an option. What message do we send our students if we allow them to think their poor work is acceptable? What good do we do their future employers by sending these students into the workplace unprepared? Knowing failure is an option keeps my students from thinking they can disregard assignments or expect passing grades from sloppy, careless work. I’ve found that just their knowing I’d fail them makes them do their work.

Strict trumps nice. See above. If you believe your students have the potential to be better, it’s up to you to hold them to that standard. That’s hard to do when you’re their buddy.

Grit wins every time. It takes tenacity to make it through a tough teacher’s class, but research backs up the notion that students whose teachers push them hard make the greatest gains. My youngest daughter started at the bottom of the heap in her college ballet class. Still, she looks back fondly on her first-year ballet teacher who repeatedly told her, “That was HORRIBLE. Do it again.” His bothering to correct her meant she wasn’t hopeless, and she knew that. I’m convinced her grit, her sheer will to improve, took her through four difficult years until she received her BFA in Dance.

Praise should be earned. I remember being crushed when I received a B on a college English paper. But I got over it and went on to become a professional writer. I wholeheartedly believe giving false praise hurts more than it helps. When I tell a student “You nailed it!” that student beams because she knows I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t mean it. If you really want to boost your students’ self-esteem, teach them to be better writers so they feel the confidence of achievement.

Resilience comes from coping with difficulty. We keep hearing about the stress our students are under, and I see it regularly. But we also know that learning to cope with stressors and life’s challenges makes us stronger and more resilient. Isn’t that the goal? Offering our students the support to improve while honestly assessing their work will net stronger, more resilient citizens.

My experience tells me my mother was right about starting tough and just as right about easing up once the standards have been set. I know this because at the end of each quarter, my students write confidential narratives assessing their experience of my course and of me. I don’t expect 100% positive ratings, and I do not receive them. But the majority give me high praise for forcing them to work hard. “Definitely challenging, but worth it” is a common refrain. I also regularly receive unsolicited e-mails in which former students tell me how grateful they are to have learned the skills I taught them. I even get and return hugs as the students file out on the last day of the quarter.

It’s not always easy being the tough guy—but it’s worth the effort.

How do you feel about being labeled tough or easy? Share your views with us!

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