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Teacher to Parent - Discipline, toughness and strictness are not the enemy of education

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Q: My high school son has one of those teachers who has a reputation for being too tough. My son is working hard and still getting C’s. He says he doesn’t want to go to the teacher for extra help because he’s afraid to. This obviously isn’t working and I want a schedule change. Am I wrong to demand it?

Probably. I’ll grant there’s a possibility that the teacher is horrible. But in my experience there’s a greater chance that he’s just a good teacher.

There was a time when tough wasn’t so bad. Parents wanted their kids to be challenged. They wanted their children to go through a little adversity to earn their grades. They saw personality conflicts as opportunities for their children to learn to get along with different kinds of superiors.

Today we aren’t so open-minded about tough teachers. Parents want high grades, and the easier they come, the better they like it. They also have an acute repulsion to anything their children don’t like. That’s a perfectly natural emotion, but reacting to it by giving into the child’s perfectly natural lust for comfort is a perfectly natural way to end up with a spoiled child.

Believe it or not, in some quarters, tough teachers are actually sought out. I heard recently about a dance instructor who worked at a certain company. The dancers hated her. She was too tough, too brash, too critical. But when she left that company to start her own, most of her students followed her. How was she able to do this when she was such a bear to learn from? Simple: The dancers wanted to get better. And she excelled at getting them to improve.

It has always been that way in competitive areas. Many of the best coaches in sports would be canned a week into their tenures if they tried to employ their same no-nonsense, high-criticism techniques in a public school classroom. In today’s schools, it has become more fashionable for teachers to be cloyingly nurturing and accommodating, even if it means nobody learns very much that will stick.

I’m not saying that technique doesn’t ever work. Some of the greatest teachers are natural nurturers. But there is more than one way to skin a cat. For years we’ve denigrated our tough-minded teachers while shaping new educators to become the kind of adults that kids want to have ice cream with. At the same time, research shows that we’ve gotten dumber. Why? Maybe because we’re ignoring the huge group of kids who respond better to Annie Sullivan than Miss Honey. Why cut our children off from the opportunity to learn from a variety of effective styles?

Personally I am grateful for my tough teachers. Even when I could only eke out C’s, I benefited from having to work harder. As for my nurturing teachers, I confess I frequently took advantage of them. The only one to suffer for that, of course, was me. But when you’re a kid, you’ll always take a shortcut over a steep incline, no matter how much it impoverishes you in the long run. And that’s why the kids who aren’t self-starters thrive with tough teachers.

Mrs. Ratliff was the quintessential example. In the classroom she was hard as nails and took no prisoners when it came to ignorance. Where most teachers shy away from teaching at-risk students, she thrived on it. She had the room next to me, and I’ll never forget the looks on those kids’ faces that first week of school. They looked like Sylvester Stallone at the end of Rocky IV. But by the end of the year, those same kids wept when they had to say goodbye to Mrs. Ratliff. They believed in themselves and had confidence that they were ready for high school. I still envy her ability to transform them.

Discipline, toughness and strictness are not the enemy of education. Apathy is. And as long as a teacher truly cares for students, his or her style can work. But it will take some encouragement and direction from you.

If it were my child, I’d make him stay. Give him some strategies to deal with people he doesn’t like. Encourage him to step out of his comfort zone and ask his teacher for help. Let him know that it’s okay to get a C as long as he is giving it his very best. I’ll bet a few years down the road, he’ll look back at his experience and say, “Man, I hated that teacher at the time, but I sure learned a lot in his class.”

One of the little-known secrets of modern education is that the worst teachers are the ones where success comes easy. Students may think the teacher who gives A’s for very little effort are the coolest, and parents may gleefully assent. But it’s the courses where we have to exert maximum effort that make the most lasting impression. It’s the teachers who push us further than we thought we could go whose lessons will stand the test of time.

Your son, like all of us, may like a lot more “there, there” and a lot less “wax on, wax off.” But if the idea is for him to grow stronger, smarter, and more independent, it would be a big mistake to indulge him.

Jody Stallings has been an award-winning teacher in Charleston since 1992. He has served as Charleston County Teacher of the Year, Walmart Teacher of the Year, and CEA runner-up for National Educator of the Year. He currently teaches English at Moultrie Middle School and is director of the Charleston Teacher Alliance. To submit a question or receive notification when new columns are posted, please email him at For easy sharing and notifications, follow Teacher to Parent on Facebook:

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