I am a strict teacher.
If your child is in my class I have certain expectations of him. I expect him to be on time; I expect him to have his materials with him—no, he will not have time to visit his locker for paper and a pen; I expect him to be respectful and say “please” and “thank you”; I expect him to stay seated and quiet during my lesson—yes, I have a seating plan; I expect him to raise his hand when he wishes to speak—I would like to hear him speak; I expect him to have his homework done—yes, I assign and check homework; I expect him to clean up after himself; I expect him to never trash talk any student in my care; I expect him to put his cell phone away or kiss it goodbye; I expect him not to whine, but to work.
I expect a lot from him.
Because I am a strict teacher, I have a lot of expectations.
Because I am a strict teacher, my expectations are often met.
Because I am a strict teacher, my students, in the process of meeting expectations, become better.
All of this because I am strict.
I was not always a strict teacher.
I used to hate the idea of being strict. At my core, I’m an introverted hippie. In my first few years of teaching, I tried being the introverted hippie teacher. It failed miserably. If you want a good laugh, read about my first year flop.
So, I couldn’t teach as my hippie self. Over years, I researched the finest minds in education, and I became a strict teacher. I thought about the best teachers I ever had (curiously, they are the only teachers I remember by name) and realized they shared one quality—they were strict. Soon enough, I developed the strict teacher mindset. Here is the strict teacher’s manifesto in five truths.
Being strict= having high expectations
When I was a kid, I used to take karate. I had a sensei—an old Japanese woman the size of a 10-year-old boy—who was stricter than any person I’d ever known. If you were late for karate class—even two minutes late—20 laps around the gym for you! If you didn’t do your best in the warm-up—20 laps around the gym for you! If you were chatting while she was teaching—20 laps around the gym for you!
While I was running laps assigned by my sensei for any number of what I perceived to be minor offenses, I hated her. I wanted to punch her wrinkled, 10-year-old boy body to space. I could even picture her as a little prune landing in a dark pothole on Mars. But then a funny thing happened. I kicked butt in karate. I was stronger, faster, leaner. I got a red belt. I was proud of myself. I found out that our karate school had the most competition winners.
Even as a kid, I figured it out:
Sensei had high expectations.
Sensei was strict because she expected me to be great. She wouldn’t tolerate any less than my best. My sensei—strict little biddy I thought she was—was one of the greatest teachers I ever had.
Question: What would have happened if sensei had tolerated my lateness, my side-chatting, my laziness in warm-up not with discipline, but with a soft smile, a side-joke, an approving glint in her eye?
“Treat a man as he is, and he will remain as he is. Treat a man as he could be, and he will become what he should be.”—Ralph Waldo Emerson
Being strict ≠ being a bully
Teachers who know they should become stricter but can’t often confuse being strict with being a bully. They picture themselves as strict teachers only to see themselves wearing the twisted grin of Principal Trunchbull from the film Matilda. These teachers tell themselves they cannot possibly be Principal Trunchbull and spin students around by their pigtails, make them eat inhumane amounts of chocolate cake, throw them into closets decorated with sharp nails, yell insults at students, and engage in other acts of unpleasantness.
But this is where these teachers are wrong:
Principal Trunchbull is not a real strict teacher.
A real strict teacher is strict because he or she loves.
She loves her students, so she is strict. She loves her students, so she sets boundaries in which they can thrive. She loves her students, so she talks to them, she jokes with them, she helps them in every way she can.
She does all this sweet stuff while keeping her students in line.
The best example of a kind but strict teacher in my memory is my middle school music and choir teacher, Mrs. C.
Mrs. C was wicked strict. She wouldn’t start talking till it was dead quiet; she had us practice walking in quietly and straight-backed for performances hundreds of times; she would insist we wear the right uniforms or leave practice; she would not let us repeat the same mistake twice.
Just like my sensei, Ms. C took us middle schoolers to unexpected highs. Because of Mrs. C’s strictness, I was trained so well I was selected to sing on stage for cash. Our choir sang in professional theatre troupes. We made money because we were so good. We won festivals left and right. People wanted to listen to us, and we dominated the middle school choir sphere.
And Mrs. C showed she cared for us. Still to this day, I remember going on one of our singing trips without pocket change because my family couldn’t afford it at the time. When we went as a group to a candy shop nearby, Mrs .C saw me eyeing sweets hungrily; she took me aside, and she put a five-dollar bill in my palm. Sour Patch Kids never tasted so good!
Question: What would have happened If Mrs. C had kept up with her sky-high expectations and strict attitude and never smiled or talked to us?
Answer: Hatred, rebellion, mutiny.
“Rule your class like an iron fist in a velvet glove.”
Aim to be revered, not liked.
Would you rather be respected or liked?
If your students like you, they find you to be “agreeable, enjoyable, satisfactory.”
If your students respect you, then they will “admire [you] deeply, as a result of [your] abilities, qualities, or achievement.”
So, would you rather be “admired” or “agreeable”? Respected or liked?
Put your ego aside for a moment and think: What do your students need?
Do they need a teacher they find “agreeable” or someone they “admire”?
Your students need a mentor; they need an example of a self-possessed adult with clear boundaries; they need an example of a person who sets high standards for others and herself; they need a teacher who values knowledge and education so much that she treats it as sacred; they need a teacher with a backbone; they need you to be strict.
Be strict, committed, and principled, and you will win student respect.
The best example of a strict and respected teacher was my high school English teacher, Mr. K.
Mr. K had a terrible reputation in the school halls. Some claimed he used to be in the military. Some claimed he used to be a general in the military. Despite the variety in gossip, nearly everyone agreed that his expectations for writing and behaviour were crazy. if you want to stay sane or get an A—student wisdom said—drop Mr. K’s class.
I almost took the advice and dropped Mr. K’s class. But I’m glad I didn’t. Yes, Mr. K was the strictest English teacher in the school. Yes, it was impossibly hard to get an A in his class. Yes, he assigned way too much homework. Yes, he would move us around in seating plans like a cruel puppet master. Yes, we feared him.
But Mr. K also had an intense passion for English. We were lucky he shared his passion with us. He had high standards. To get an A in class, I had to sweat and hustle for the first time.
And so, Mr. K became one of the few teachers I admired.
Out of curiosity, I checked out Mr. K’s ratemyteacher.com page. Just as I expected, students either love him or hate him. “Too strict, too demanding, too high expectations”—are the whines from the students who fail him as teacher. “Amazing, most inspiring, most dedicated, learned the most from him”—these are the comments left by his student who adore him as a teacher.
Are you going to be a Mr. K and be respected for the impact you made? Are you ready to shrug off the haters and do what you know is right?
“It is true that integrity alone won’t make you a leader, but without integrity you will never be one.”– Zig Ziglar
Aim at being friendly, not a friend.
Similar to truth 2 (being strict ≠ being a bully), you need this reality check if you are on your path to becoming a stricter teacher:
Students don’t need friends. They already have friends.
What students need is an adult who sees they are working below their potentials and is willing to pull them up out of the gutter by imposing high expectations and uncompromising standards.
Too often, I see new teachers fall into the friendship trap with students. They want to be adored as the popular kid in high school. These teachers do friend-type things like give out praise that is not earned, candy that is not earned, information that is private. To achieve popularity, these teachers are often quick to waive homework and lower academic expectations.
What new teachers need to do instead is adopt a friendly but distant attitude appropriate for a teacher-student relationship: talk about student interests, share some of your own, ask about their weekends, talk passionately about a great book.
But don’t dab on the dance floor or wear ripped jeans. And keep the expectations high.
You can be friendly without being a friend.
“Respect yourself, and others will respect you”—Confucius
Aim for their success, not their acceptance.
Don’t let your ego take over.
Your ego wants likes, adulations, praises, smiles, and so on from your students, from everyone. It wants quick, cheap, and easy positive feedback.
Your ego wants acceptance.
Let your heart and soul take over.
Your heart wants to love your students and see them grow.
Your soul wants to you to live your purpose as a teacher that transforms lives.
Your heart and soul want what is slow-in-the-making, hard, and costly:
Your heart and soul want your students to succeed.
You can love your students best by maintaining classroom conditions conducive to learning; by teaching them life skills to dominate in the real world; by making them better at writing, speaking, thinking; by pushing them past the limits of what they thought possible for them.
You can fulfill your purpose as a teacher that transforms lives by being a strict teacher, and by sharing your passion without apology.
Teachers, dare to be strict without apology.
By being strict, you will not likely win the favour of many students.
Some students will certainly hate you. Many will gossip about you. You won’t win “most popular teacher of the year” awards. Some parents—protective, permissive parents—will protest you. And no student will smile at you as you impose the rules. You will sometimes wish you could take the easy path and have students smile at you.
But by taking the harder path of the strict teacher, you will be making a difference.
And many students– as a bonus– will respect and even like you for it.