Seeking a Pandemic Alternative to Tough Love

My teacherly instinct is to embed love and encouragement into my pedagogy. I go out of my way to get to know my students, to learn their extracurricular interests, family structures, social problems, and athletic achievements. I believe that students learn best from teachers who they like and who they believe like them. And I don’t mind if that means that my students take advantage of my goodwill from time to time, including getting deadline extensions or test retakes.
 
When our middle school went into remote learning last spring, I was certain that my supportive approach would be crucial to maintaining my students' academic progress and, perhaps more important, protecting their emotional well-being. I knew that designing a Zoom-based curriculum on the fly was bound to lead to instructional missteps. Thankfully, the bar was set realistically low by all but the most unrealistic parents and administrators. I chose to focus on the social and emotional well-being of my students because I was certain that this would be essential to their academic success. Since going into remote learning in March, I’ve come to realize that my approach is flawed. This realization left me seeking a new path to support my students’ progress as we wait indefinitely for a return to “normal” schooling.

Reaching Struggling Students 

Under ideal circumstances, good teachers thread the disciplinary needle between knowing when to lift students up and when to break them down. One student who steals a literary essay from the internet may need a tearful intervention on the consequences of plagiarism, while another student who sneaks off campus at lunch may need an immediate suspension. Unequal discipline isn’t always a sign of favoritism or inconsistent enforcement. Often, it is evidence that a teacher knows what each student needs in each teachable moment.
 
But pandemic teaching has made it all but impossible to find the eye of that needle, let alone to thread it successfully. I have watched helplessly as some of my strongest students have struggled despite my infinite patience and forbearance. My most engaged students too often have their cameras off. I worry about the formerly garrulous class leader whose voice has been silenced by distance learning. Some of my most dutiful workers miss deadlines. My most disciplined students arrive late. I have seen A-level students accept Bs, B students accept Cs, and my most imperiled students disappear nearly all together.
 
Throughout the spring and well into the new school year, my strategy had been to coax, nudge, encourage, compliment, and occasionally beg my increasingly disengaged and disaffected learners. I’d regularly meet one-on-one with them in breakout rooms for mental health checks. Do you need anything? What are you doing to take care of yourself? What can I do to support you? I know it’s hard, but I really need you to show up, be on time, and participate. Some of them humored me with candid conversation. More of them mumbled platitudes meant to mollify my concerns. Occasionally, I’d catch glimpses of connection, a flicker of longing to share fears or challenges or vulnerability. But the flame went out easily. Screens and masks and nearly 11 months of the pandemic had fractured the connection and trust that I’ve worked so hard to build.
 
Even when my efforts felt futile, I chose to believe that they would bear fruit in the future. Perhaps one of my students will one day remember that they had a middle school teacher who truly cared about them, who cut them some slack when times were tough, who adjusted expectations because we were living through a global pandemic. Perhaps that lesson would be more valuable than the lesson they didn’t get about accountability, consequences, and disappointment. I don’t know.
 
As with nearly every in-the-moment choice I’ve made as a teacher, I’ve relied on past experiences to guide me. This approach has worked before, so it should work again, I think. That didn’t work last time, so I need to try something different. But I’ve never taught through a pandemic. I have nothing to go on. How am I—or any of us—supposed to know how to get through this?

A New Approach 

As this fall semester dragged on, and I saw last spring’s patterns re-emerging, I decided I needed to try tough love. It’s not my style, but I figured maybe it’s what my students needed. I hoped I wouldn’t burn bridges with students who’d come to believe I was on their side. I went to a student who hadn’t turned in an assignment in weeks. I told him that I’d given him many chances to get his act together. I reminded him of all the times I’d offered to work with him. I told him that my patience had run out. I told him that unless something changed, he was not going to pass my class.
 
I went to the student who had stopped coming to class consistently, though she was still turning in work via Google classroom. I told her that participation in class was required. I told her that her grade would be significantly lower regardless of the quality of her work. I reminded her that she had lofty goals for high school admission and she was sabotaging her prospects.
 
One by one, I communicated with my most imperiled students. I didn’t pull any punches. I played the bad guy. I gave it to them straight, hoping fear might motivate them.
 
Then I waited.
 
And waited.
 
And nothing really changed. My failing student promised to meet with me. Then he didn’t show up. My truant student came to class a few times. Then she disappeared again. My other struggling students made efforts to get with the program, but these were unsustainable.
 
Using fear to motivate kids who are already afraid is folly. Making threats about the future (no matter how benign) to a student who’s just trying to make it through the week is piling one source of anxiety upon another. Many of my students had managed remote and hybrid well enough. Some were even thriving. But, in most cases, those who were struggling didn’t respond to my tough love any better than they responded to my kind forbearance.

Back to Love 

After a month or so of trying it, I knew my approach wasn’t working. I began to worry that I’d damaged the trust I’ve spent months or years building. I worried that kids who were struggling might be ready to give up because the one person who seemed to have their backs just told them he wasn’t going to cut them any more slack.
 
I wondered, what is the middle way? What exists in the space between love and fear? Between respect and compliance? Between true connection and a blank gray square on a screen? How can I reach kids who are increasingly unreachable? How do I motivate students who are increasingly apathetic? How do I connect with kids when we aren’t in a room together? How do I inspire students from behind a mask?
 
The truth is, I don’t have the answers. I’m waiting for the day when kids crowd into classrooms again. When they come to school with stories of sports triumphs and birthday parties and Halloween hijinks. Because for all the professional development, for all the Zoom teaching strategies, Flipgrid lessons, Padlet walls, and Kahoot games, for the myriad ways in which I’ve tried to relearn how to teach and they’ve tried to relearn how to learn, we are all really just wishing things were different. And wishing is distracting. And it’s hard to teach and learn when you’re distracted.
 
I believe that the best teaching and learning happen when teachers build relationships with learners. Perhaps those relationships are necessarily altered by screens and masks and distance. I hope not. I often remind my adolescent students to be true to themselves. I tell them that they shouldn't change who they are just to please someone else. I need to take my own advice. I am the teacher I am. I can try to be tough, especially if it serves my students, but that is not who I am. I’ll continue to seek a middle way, but until I find it, I’ll continue to teach with love.
 
Author
Jesse Pearson
Jesse Pearson

Jesse Pearson teaches middle school humanities at Marin Horizon School (CA). He writes about parenting, teaching, and other trappings of adulthood on his blog.

Comments

Sherri Bergman
12/16/2020 11:23:15 AM
Jesse, Thanks for putting into words what so many of us are feeling. Many of us have honed the way we work with students over years and years of trial, error, and adjustment. We cannot expect to find a way to ideally respond to such new circumstances quickly. Let's hope that the need passes long before we can become experts.

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