I suspect I’m getting a reputation for being “the strict teacher” at my school, and I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, being known as strict is positive as it connotes that my students respect the authority of the teacher and my colleagues feel that I am good at managing an orderly class. On the other hand, strict might indicate that I am authoritarian and insensitive to the feelings of young children. (By the way, I think there is a huge difference between “respecting authority” and “authoritarianism.”)
You establish what you establish.
The thing is, strict is not the image I am going for. But I have been consciously trying to cultivate a teacher identity that is what has become known as “warm-strict.” Here are a few links that discuss what warm-strict is:
- Building Character and Trust Technique 45: Warm/Strict
A good, brief description of the warm/strict approach and the rationale for its success
- 10 Seconds in Brittany Rumph’s Classroom: Firm, Calm Finesse & Warm Strict in Action
A great example from a Kindergarten classroom, including a video and commentary by Doug Lemov
- Why all schools should be ‘warm-strict’ on behaviour
Mark Lehain describes the recent successes of the warm-strict movement in the UK.
In simplistic terms, being warm-strict means to be somewhere in between Ms Honey and Ms Trunchbull. But this suggests that being warm and being strict are opposites. In reality, warm-strict means to have high behaviour standards and to establish those standards consistently and to communicate those standards with warmth and affection. The message is: Because I care, I am insisting on the rules because I believe in you and want you to learn and grow.
This is particularly important at the start of the year when teachers need to be mindful of Bill Rogers’ idea that “you establish what you establish“: Regardless of the rules you think you’ve communicated and put in place, behaviour that you accept or ignore becomes established as allowed whereas behaviour that you challenge becomes established as unacceptable. For example, this year I have decided that I want my kids to get to class on time. Following Bill Rogers’ maxim, if I do not challenge students who are late, then I establish that being late to class is totally acceptable. So I have communicated the rule to my students and consistently given a mild sanction to any student who arrives from recess or lunch after the bell has rung. (Bill Rogers reminds us that the “severity of the sanction is less important than the certainty of the sanction.”)
And yet, I have to admit that I have my moments of self-doubt. Thoughts that I am too strict. That I am doing the wrong thing. Here are some things that I think exacerbate teacher guilt:
- SANCTIONING GOOD STUDENTS — Sometimes you have to sanction a student who most of the time does their best to be a good student, and it can feel horrible. This has happened this year when one of my students came back late from lunch because she had left her iPad at Coding Club. I could see the sting she felt when she realised she was receiving a consequence. Moments later there were tears! And seeing those tears immediately made me question myself. However, the warm-strict approach is designed to strengthen relationships — you target the behaviour, not the person; you explain the reason for the consequence; you communicate in a calm and warm manner; and you demonstrate that the consequence is temporary. All this communicates to the student that the teacher cares. But no matter how warm you are, a sensitive student who does their best most of the time is likely to take a small consequence hard and it’s hard for the teacher to implement it, too.
- CONTEMPORARY ATTITUDES TOWARDS NEGATIVE EMOTIONS — I think that our society, now more than ever, is uncomfortable with children feeling negative emotions. Sadness, fear, guilt, stress — if a child feels any of these things, it must be because something has gone wrong. Of course, I wouldn’t want anyone to feel these emotions in excess, but the experience of negative emotions (in moderation and in a controlled, safe space) has great educational value. We want students to feel sadness when they reach the end of Charlotte’s Web, to feel fear of doing the wrong thing, to feel guilt after making a serious mistake, and to feel stress when facing a difficult challenge. But even if this is what I intellectually think, it’s easy within today’s climate that is so protective of children for a teacher to feel guilt when a student experiences any negative emotion in the classroom as a result of their actions.
Staying the course
But even if I feel guilty in being a strict teacher from time to time, I do believe it’s important that I stick to my guns and maintain consistent high standards from students.
The first reason, is that we want students to build resilience and grit. It’s very popular in schools to teach coping strategies as part of a Social and Emotional Learning curriculum. But if schools only teach coping strategies while protecting students from any experience of adversity, students won’t have the opportunity to develop resilience in practice. In my opinion, schools should actively create challenging situations for students with the proviso that there is a high chance of the student successfully resolving the situation through their own actions. It’s extremely easy for a student to get to class on time, so if a student feels a little stressed at being expected to be punctual, that’s a great opportunity to develop resilience. (Compare this with the stress of, say, group work where the ability to resolve the situation is often out of a student’s control.)
The second reason is that when high expectations become routine, that frees up time and mental capacity for learning. Students may find it hard to get to class on time, or show whole-body listening on the mat, or communicate respectfully, but they won’t find these things hard forever. Routines like these take effort, but once established, they happen without much thought. It’s when this happens that the whole business of teaching and learning becomes really enjoyable.
I’m at the start of a journey of figuring out what warm-strict is. I’m sure there is much more to learn. Maybe the guilt I occasionally feel from managing behaviour is a sign that I need to up the warmth. Or maybe I’m plenty warm already and I shouldn’t sweat it. There’s a lot I don’t know.
Here’s the thing though: My students are coming to class on time.