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Teachers Don’t Have To Choose Between Kind and Strict

By Lauren Bleser

“Miss Bleser is strict!”

I’m never quite sure how to respond when I hear that. The word carries such a negative connotation. Strict makes me think of a scowl that intimidates children. I picture a stifled classroom environment where students are afraid to make mistakes.

But if you walk into my classroom, you’d sense a comfortable atmosphere where children are laughing and engaged in the lessons. There is both joy and order.

We have a misconception that kind teachers are pushovers and strict teachers are mean. But it’s possible to create positive connections with students and still have high standards for them.

Here are a two ways that I try to strike that balance of building rapport with students while remaining firm.

Building relationships with students

As teachers, we have an incredible ability to influence. Grades alone won’t motivate students to challenge themselves. They need to know that someone sees them and believes they are capable.

We communicate this with more than just words. Even when we’re flustered because we’re rushed for time or distracted by personal matters, we still need to make an effort to look each child in the eye and smile as we interact with them. They pay attention to our tone and demeanor, and they notice when we take genuine interest in them. I have a quote hanging up in my classroom that reminds me how to invest my time and energy each day. “We teach students, not subjects.”

The most powerful words a child can hear is that you’re proud of them. When giving praise, I emphasize the process of learning, not just the final results. I’m always looking for specific ways to recognize the character of my students and praise their effort.

Taylor, that was brave of you to take a risk by sharing your thoughts in the literature discussion. I appreciate your courage.

Jason, you paid close attention to detail on your test! I’m impressed.

Samantha, I noticed you were persevering with that writing assignment even when it was challenging.

Alexis, what a creative way of doing that science project! You came at it from such a unique angle. Clever!

My third-graders regularly share their writing assignments with the class. After each student speaks, audience members give specific compliments. When I point out someone’s vivid figurative language or creative cliffhanger, they beam with pride. Every other child in the class is more likely to try that technique in their next assignment because they heard me acknowledge it. Words of encouragement help students rise to their potential. Recognizing progress and celebrating success is motivating.

Effective classroom management

Keeping my class running smoothly can be done with both authority and warmth. In my morning reading class, I see 3 more hands in the air, but it’s time to go to PE. I show genuine disappointment and say, “I wish I had time to hear all of your thoughts, but we need to get going. Please come share your story with me during snack time.” Their ideas are valued while I still maintain the pace of the lesson.

I’m ready to give instructions for our science experiment, but some students are distracted. Instead of chiding them by saying, “Obviously there’s something more important than what I have to say,” I simply acknowledge those who are meeting expectations. “I see Jessica has all her materials ready. And Jason does, too. Oh good. Looks like we’re all ready to go now.” I don’t drop my expectation of having complete attention, but I can communicate it in a goal-oriented by giving the specific next step towards obedience. “I’m still waiting for 3 students to face forward before I begin. Thank you.” We can keep the standards high while still demonstrating a positive demeanor.

School should not be a guessing game. Giving clear and simple expectations with consistent consequences provides students with a predictable structure that helps them learn. I remind students regularly what I’m looking for and always emphasize the character traits and reasons for each rule. “Please show respect for classmates by patiently raising your hand.”

 If I’m not going to follow through, then my words carry little weight. Having a plan in place for discipline removes the emotions. Instead of losing my temper, I can simply focus on the consequence in place while still communicating to students that I believe they’re capable of improving. With a gentle tone, I can say, “I’m sorry you chose not to obey. You’ve lost the privilege of working with a partner on this project. I’m sure you’ll be able to earn it back by showing responsibility this afternoon.” Keeping order in the classroom can be done without anger or sarcasm.

Handling issues with kindness

Occasionally, a situation requires more than a reminder or a simple consequence. When I recently saw a student react towards his classmate with anger, I needed to diffuse the situation and protect the dignity of the child, so I spoke with him privately in the hall.  We all deserve the benefit of the doubt and should be given a chance to explain.

Me: Tell me what happened in there.

Student: He called me a name, so I kicked him.

Me: That must’ve been very hurtful. I would’ve been upset also. I totally understand your emotions. What is a better way that you could’ve handled that?

When a child feels heard and their emotions are validated, they are more likely to be reasonable to solve a problem. Letting a child troubleshoot gives them an opportunity to correct their mistake while still facing the consequence of their action. When students know that you’re on their side and believe that they can improve, they begin to take those steps and make wiser choices.

A warm teacher acknowledges each student’s value and potential. A strict teacher expects students to take responsibility for their part of the learning process and challenges them both academically and behaviorally. As teachers, it’s possible to be both warm AND strict to help each student succeed.

Lauren Bleser can’t stop moving!

She grew up in upstate New York and taught 1st grade and 4th grade for a few years until she got the itch for adventure. She moved to a beautiful valley in southeast Oklahoma and used her teaching expertise as a full-time private tutor for a few years.

When she finally admitted that she wasn’t a country girl at heart, she packed up and moved to the city of San Antonio, Texas where she spent 10 years cursing the heat and humidity. She taught 3rd and 4th grade and became an academic dean. Lauren has spoken at conferences and written study guides that are used by teachers around the world.

Lauren now resides in Portland, Oregon and is thrilled to experience four seasons again. She works in higher education and loves supporting teachers in one of the most difficult and important professions. She also leads food tours and gets to show off this wonderful city’s history and cuisine.

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