The other day, I overheard a student share with his classmate that he liked my class because, he said, “It’s chill.” I have been turning that over in my mind for a few days now. Does he think my class is too easy? I used to be tough! I used to assign homework and even gave daily “Habits of Work” points. Have I gone soft on my students?

Steel Velvet

In my twenties, a colleague nicknamed me “Steel Velvet”— I had a bubbly demeanor and a tough-as-nails approach to behavior management. There were rules and I was intent on enforcing them — with a smile, of course. I could be counted on to successfully and safely tromp a group of students through a crowded May day in Washington DC — even without colorful matching shirts to know precisely which students were mine. We left each building on time, each student was properly in dress code, and we were silent while the docent gave a tour. My students even ate some veggies. I was a hammer, keeping every nail in place. I’ll admit, I once was so upset with a student that I had them wait in the hall and then forgot they were there.

Looking back on those years, I remember the exhaustion I felt then. I would return home tired and unfulfilled. I was burnt out like most new teachers become. In 2018, 44% of educators left teaching after only five years in the classroom. I can see why. When I was a new teacher, I poured everything into lesson plans, materials prep, grades, narrative comments, dismissal duty, student-teacher-parent conferences, field days, committee work and more. I couldn’t keep it up and left full-time teaching.

But eventually, I returned to the classroom. Older now, with children of my own, I had far less energy to spend on parlor tricks to get a student’s attention and buy-in. I began working full time with middle schoolers, often considered the most challenging group of students. At first, I tried the Steel Velvet approach: class started on time, ended on time, and I hammered away at my students for respect and obedience. My reward? Students who resisted and resented me. There were tears and often they were mine. 

Throwing Out the Hammer

In life, you can only keep fitting a square peg in a round hole for so long. Eventually, the edges of the square soften or crack. Mine softened. I began to take off the armor with my middle school students. The classroom became a bit noisier, the supplies a bit messier. The occasional student would come in late. No longer would they be instantly issued a consequence — instead, they received a smile or even a goofy eye roll. I would catch them later and make sure everything was ok. To my surprise, my new approach did not promote collective or excessive tardiness. Instead, it lowered the walls between us, and I could feel their armor falling away, too. 

I recently listened to Brené Brown talk about having a strong back, soft front, and a wild heart as a way to envision remaining open as well as strong. I instantly connected with her description of how to be vulnerable while also setting boundaries. My students know that they can make a mistake or take a risk and as their teacher, I will help them and provide a soft and supportive place to land. I still have some steel armor left but I only use it as needed, to  keep them safe and hold them accountable. The COVID-19 pandemic has magnified this approach for me. The outside world, with all her heartbreak, loss and disappointment, has now daily found her way into our schools. There is not a single student, colleague or family that hasn’t been affected. More than ever, it is imperative that I lead with a soft heart.

My wild heart has returned, too. I am taking chances and exploring new things in a way that I was afraid to do before. I’m about to embark on an entirely new unit exploring the evolution of graffiti, street art, and the social justice movement. By giving up a need for complete order, I am finding the space and energy to follow new passions in my curriculum. I now see my teaching role as holding my arms out to guide my students to make smart choices, no longer to hammer them into place. My caring feels more full of care. We still accomplish a lot. We learn, we laugh, we even tell stories and jokes and listen to music. My students know the names of all my pets and I can tell by the slouch in their shoulders when they are feeling overwhelmed, and I adjust my approach accordingly.

Strength From the Heart

After reflecting on my twenty plus years working in Pre-K -12 education, I realize that I am a totally different educator than I once was. Gone are the intense cheerleader-style presentations along with the power struggles which occasionally led to heated moments and the need for disciplinary assistance.

My need for control of the classroom has been replaced by a collective, shared attitude. It is no longer me versus them — we are on this journey together. Now, I feel more connected, open and confident in my role as a teacher, and I see that my students respond in kind.

I have become, in the words of that eighth grade student, “chill.”