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Teaching Strategies: Notes on Being a Tough Educator

Jordan Catapano

What’s the word on the street about you as a teacher? Do you ever wonder how students and their parents would describe you? Sometimes, as a result of teaching strategies, certain types of educators inevitably gain the reputation of being “tough.” But what does it really mean to be a tough teacher, and is it appropriate to want to be one?

One problem with this label is that it’s too generic. On one hand, it could mean some truly negative things, while on the other, it could actually mean the opposite. It could even, perhaps, mean that students instead perceive positive traits as negative. Here’s what students might mean when they label a teacher as tough:

  • Assigning lots of homework.
  • High expectations for academic performance.
  • Not letting students go to the bathroom.
  • Grading lower than other teachers.
  • Lecturing and giving notes often.
  • Giving painful feedback.
  • Possessing a high vocabulary, or talking about things students don’t understand.
  • Challenging students to do their best.
  • Not accepting excuses for poor performance.
  • Getting disappointed when students let them down.
  • Not overpraising their students.

In short, the tough ones often expect more from students, and know what teaching strategies it takes to push them toward achieving that expectation. Students can’t use the same old excuses and expect to be left alone, or doze off in class, or turn in work of a minimum effort and expect to receive a respectable grade. None of this is to say that teachers should intentionally aspire to be referred to as tough, though. Being tough does not necessarily mean being good, but many attributes that lie with good teachers can also be found in the tough ones.

Teaching Strategies: Negatives Turn to Positives

In today’s age of positive reinforcement, challenging instructors might be entirely misunderstood by others, reviled by students that prefer the smiles and praise they receive from other, “nice” teachers. It can be tough hearing negative feedback, being drilled on rote memorization, or receiving crazy amounts of homework. But in the long term, it may very well be a hard-hitting educator who benefits his pupils the most, because in turn, tough students are created — resilient students, able to tackle any problem, or brave any criticism.

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Sure, they probably won’t appreciate such a figure while enrolled in the course, but as time gives way to hindsight, it might’ve been a worthwhile endeavor after all.

What young minds learn from a tough teacher is how to take honest feedback, how to learn from failure, how to overcome obstacles, and ultimately how to work hard. So while tough teachers may be challenging and uncomfortable in the moment, they may be crucial to develop student strength in the long run.

What do you think makes a “tough” teacher, and do you believe they are effective? Tell us in the comments below!

Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website

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