The Tough Teacher

Throughout our educational careers as students, the whisperings of the “mean and scary” teachers always happen. Each year it seems that there is one teacher in the bunch that you could possibly have that will be the hardest teacher EVER. You hear tales of his or her wrath with students’ emotions and grades, and horror stories of the unbearable stress the previous year’s students endured. This occurrence is one that always caused me anxiety around the summer months in high school when class schedules were coming out, or had me coming up with the backup schedule to my backup schedule during registration for classes in college. And at least once per year some scheduling conflict, work conflict, or full class size would end in me having that dreaded, distressful teacher.

I am now a graduate student studying curriculum and instruction, and have found myself very often reflecting back on my previous student experiences. Similar to many other educators, I have teachers that I remember vividly due to the lasting impact they have on me. More often than not, I’ve found that these teachers were the ones I was frightened to have. What I realize now is what those other students were speaking of in fear as they shared their tall tales. The ‘frightening’ teachers held each and every one of their students to a higher standard.

I’ve had several of those tough teachers over the years I’ve spent as a student. I won’t do them the disrespect of ever, even for a second, suggesting that their class was easy. Their classes were some of the toughest I have ever participated in. But that is just the thing–I was engaged and participating in those classes. I didn’t just take it. I wasn’t just another student sitting in a desk, going through the motions, freaking out about the upcoming test. I was listening, hanging on to every word of their instruction, answering and asking questions throughout lecture, and completing activities with earnest during class time. Was part of this due to the fact that I was nervous about the reputation he or she had earned as the hardest teacher EVER? Sure. But mainly, it was a direct result of the fact that they knew the content, had a passion for it, and man, could they teach. They inspired me to want to do well. They motivated and encouraged me to challenge myself. These teachers were difficult, but it was because they expected their students to perform, think, and actually learn instead of regurgitate information and get good at the game of school.

To this day, I never quite understood the ‘mean’ description of these teachers. Of all the classes I have engaged in, the hardest teacher EVER was usually the one with the most accessible office hours, quickest to answer emails, and available during their lunch to answer any and all questions. They required us to actually think and make attempts, but never would they have let a student flounder. These teachers worked hard to ensure their students found success in their learning experience with their respective content, and that doesn’t always mean earning an A+ on every test, homework assignment, or even in the class. They deeply and genuinely cared about the students in their classes. They were tough because they expected critical thought and true effort, but never would I classify them as ‘mean’.

I remember how nervous and anxious I was to have some of these teachers. I walked into biology and honors lit in high school, math methods and analytical geometry in college, expecting the absolute worst. Literally figuring out how many days I would be enduring this dreadful experience that would most certainly be so stressful I would surely not make it out alive (I am was a little dramatic back then). When I walked out of those classes, I had such a feeling of pride and accomplishment. Not only had I made it through the perceived terror of the hardest teacher EVER, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought. I had actually learned something about the content, some of which I still remember to this day and can apply to situations in my life now. Shouldn’t that be the goal of all teachers? To impart knowledge of their content that is lasting and transferable?

As a teacher, I’ve modeled some of my practice after these teachers. Their passion and expectations of excellence are admirable, as is the support they gave to helping their students be successful. In these classes, I learned much more than biology, geometry, and literature. I learned to think critically and persevere, and what’s more, I wanted to meet the expectations of these educators.

The word tough is one I’ve chosen specifically to describe these influential educators. One definition of tough is “requiring great determination or effort”. These tough teachers expected greatness from each student, and achieving this goal did require more than just rote memorization and completion of homework. They were most certainly some of the hardest teachers EVER in my time as a student. However, they are the teachers from whom I learned the most. The teachers who gave the most. The teachers who enlightened my passion for education, before I even knew what they were doing.

As I go forward in my career, both as a teacher and as a student, I hope to embody some of these tough teacher qualities. I aspire to challenge my students to grow and to think and to ask questions. I wish to inspire, motivate, and support them as these teachers supported me. And when faced with a difficult situation, possibly even the most difficult situation EVER, I am going to choose the challenge.

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