Students, particularly young students, will often praise the teachers they like as “nice.” In my career, I have often been called “nice,” but I’m not sure it was always accurate. And, more often–when I was actually being nice–I wasn’t always considered nice. Especially not at the time.
So what does it mean to be a truly “nice” teacher, and are you a “nice” teacher? Here are five questions to ask yourself to help you find out:
- Do your students smile or frown when they see you? Do they get more animated or less animated?
Young people and even many adults are very affected by how they are treated in the moment. Many young people have not yet developed the ability to mask their feelings–in fact, many of them haven’t yet learned that they should sometimes mask their feelings–and so they tend to wear their moods on their sleeve. Most teachers know this intuitively. But they don’t always pay attention to it.
When your students come into your classroom, are they happy? Are they smiling? Do they chatter amongst themselves. Do any of them ask you questions on their way to their seats? Are they energetic? Do they ask what you are going to do in class that day? When they sit are they relaxed and open in disposition and body language to what’s about to happen, or do they sit carefully with their arms tucked in and with their heads down, trying not to be noticed? Do they look glad about being there, or are they preparing to be bored–or traumatized?
Look, school is school, and most teenagers are not going to be dancing through their days; however, if students think you are a nice teacher in general, they will show it to you in a million ways, often as they first come into your classroom.
And if you’re a talented teacher, you’ll be aware of what makes your students more animated and happier when they first arrive at your classroom. And if you do those things purposefully and consistently, then you’re probably a nice teacher.
2. Do you know when your students are in a bad mood, or if there is a subtle change in their behavior?
Nice teachers get to know their students very well. Most veteran teachers are good at this because 1) they have a lot of time with the students, often close to 5 hours per week over an entire school year; and, 2) from years of experience, good teachers have learned to pick out archetypes of student personalities, and they have a good shot at using that experience to quickly learn what makes their new students tick. Here are just a few of the many archetypes I’ve come across:
- The rule follower: These are students who adhere to rules very strictly, whether they like them or not. They are frustrated, angry, or fearful when rules aren’t clear or when other students don’t follow them and there are no consequences.
- The emperor/empress: These students appear as if they have the world by the shorthairs. Their body language, their apparent confidence, and the influence they have over other students are clear signs of their high status. These students are sometimes deeply insecure and are sometimes living in surprisingly abusive homes. In those cases, school is their safe zone.
- The teacher’s pet: These students will flatter their teachers and often offer to do things for them. They may show up early to class or to stay after to offer a kind word about how the class is going. These students may be desperate to be liked, and can be unusually sensitive to criticism from a teacher. They are also among the most easily manipulated students.
- The badass: These students enjoy appearing rebellious and they like to be resistant. They are interested in exploring their own power and they want to be able to influence their surroundings in a manner that is obvious to their peers. There’s nothing “bad” about these students; they just like to be seen as people who don’t mind breaking the rules if there’s a reason they feel they should. These students can often be the best classroom citizens if they believe they have actual influence. (Confession: As a teacher, I’ve always been a little partial to the badass, even though I was too insecure as a student to be one myself.)
There are many more archetypes, but this gives you the idea. Also, please know that these are just broad strokes. Real students are far more complicated than these archetypes can capture and many students can fall into more than one archetype at the same time or from day to day, depending on their experiences and mood. And that is the whole point.
Do you know your students well enough to know if they are behaving differently from how they typically do? If so, do you make the effort to try to figure out if your student is experiencing some form of distress, so that you can help? If you don’t, then why not? If you do, then you are probably a nice teacher.
3. Do you give students as much time as they want on assignments?
This is a trick question. If you answered yes, either you didn’t think carefully enough about the question or you aren’t all that nice a teacher: you just seem nice. The problem is with the word want. Good teachers don’t give students all the time they want. They give them all the time they need. And, they help their students figure out how much time they really need. If you give students all the time they want, they often fail because they procrastinate. This is an example of giving someone enough rope to hang themselves with. Some not nice teachers give students all the time they want and then throw their hands up in the air, saying, “Hey, I was as nice as I could be, and they just screwed up!” This is passive-aggressive behavior; not only is it not nice, it’s abusive. Giving students as much time as they need is more supportive.
Learning to figure out how much time one needs to do a good job on something, given the constraints of one’s time and the other obligations and pressures in one’s life, is a challenging skill even for successful adults. And–let’s be honest–some students through no fault of their own have a lot more pressure in their lives than others. Good teachers use their assignments to help students develop the time and task management skills they need.
Here’s how I try to do that. When a student asks me for an extension, I ask them this question:
“How much time do you need to do a really good job on this assignment without giving yourself so much time for it that you procrastinate?”
I find that secure and mature students have no trouble answering, once they trust that I am being sincere. (I don’t blame them for needing some convincing sometimes.) Other students need help figuring it out, and I’m happy to help them. This can take some time–even more than one meeting–but I find it’s worth it for a few reasons: 1) The students generally do a really good job on the assignment; they rise to the fact that they are being treated very fairly; 2) They learn good time management and task management skills; 3) It develops a very strong positive report and trust between the student and me, which puts the student’s learning in my class into turbo mode!
Also, you should know that I tell students I can’t give them any more time than I need them to take because I have to grade the assignments and I don’t have unlimited time either. Students seem uncommonly understanding when I say that. Far more so than colleagues, to be honest.
Finally, you should know that I tell students that they must get me the assignment by the deadline they agreed to, or I won’t accept it, unless there are truly extenuating circumstances (serious illness, a death in the family, and so on). When students fail to turn in their extended assignments, which happens rarely but often enough, and they admit that it’s not because of a serious extenuating circumstance, then I become a brick wall. I am polite about it and not judgmental, but I don’t give in. I’m like a brick wall surrounded by a nice, thick layer of memory foam. You can push at me as hard as you can, and I won’t hurt you, but I’m not going to give in either. That’s one of the times when it takes genuine effort to be nice. It’s not easy or fun.
If a student makes an agreement and then breaks it, that student should suffer the reasonable consequences of that action. Of course, if a student’s grade is hugely affected, that’s probably not reasonable (in fact, your assignment was probably too high-stakes to being with). So there’s a bit of critical thinking needed by the teacher on a case by case basis here.
In general, though, if you give students the time they need (not want) for their assignments, then you are probably a nice teacher.
4. Do you give students mostly positive comments on their assignments?
Truly nice teachers don’t do things to be nice because they want to be thought of as nice. They do nice things because they know those things will help their students learn better and faster. There is simply no question that all people learn better and faster when they are feeling good about themselves. You will NEVER find a study that says students learn better and faster when they are feeling bad about themselves. They may be more manipulable or more easily brainwashed if they are made to feel bad about themselves, but they are not able to truly learn better or faster.
Given that, it’s axiomatic that students will learn better and faster if as they are learning to improve, they are also learning more about what they are already doing well and feeling better and better about themselves along the way. If your comments on students’ work points more often to things they are doing well than things they are doing poorly, then you are probably a nice teacher.
In my experience, this is where most even well-intentioned teachers fall short. And truly mean-spirited teachers–alas, there are some–simply enjoy making young people feel bad about themselves; of course, they should be driven from the profession as soon as possible. And good riddance.
5. Do you set and enforce boundaries with your students?
Young people explore their power and their relationships with other people. Naturally, they test boundaries all the time. This is typical and healthy. Nice teachers provide clear boundaries that do not fail when students test them. This is nice because it means students can be themselves, can push at the boundaries and learn from those experiences as they should, and yet will still feel and be safe and respected.
Some teachers who appear nice are in reality not nice at all because they are not providing clear boundaries. They are the teachers who confuse students about whether they are friends or authority figures. They are also the kinds of teachers who let students’ behavior escalate, without a word of rapprochement or stern advice, until the student does something so beyond appropriate that the teacher then calls out the student harshly (perhaps even reporting them to the principal or even the police–I’ve seen it happen). I made this mistake early in my career, and I still feel bad about it.
I ran the high school’s first writing center, and we had four computers set up. This was in the late 1980s, so the computers were clunky and hard to use. One of the students was a real computer whiz, and he played a joke on which the computer screen saver said something mildly insulting (and very funny). I thought it was great and I encouraged the student to do it more. Eventually, the chair of the department saw one of the screensavers and got furious at me. Immature and easily frightened, I immediately threw the poor student under the bus. To my credit, I was able to convince the chair to let me discipline the student, which I did. I felt awful, but I did discipline the student. I acknowledged that I was also to blame, but the student felt betrayed (as he had every right to). What I should have done was laugh the first time I saw his clever screen-saver joke. But instead of encouraging him, I should have advised him not to do it again. I seemed nice as I laughed with him and encouraged him, but really I was not being nice because I didn’t create a clear enough boundary. My fault totally.
My mistake was fairly mild, and the student did eventually forgive me (once I sincerely apologized). But sometimes the negative results of unclear boundaries can be extremely bad. In some of the worst cases, a predatory person might allow a student to go so far in crossing boundaries as to make a sexually charged comment or gesture or more, accepting the “act,” but maintaining an implied, passive-aggressive innocence. “I didn’t touch her, she touched me. I never told her that touching me was acceptable. I don’t know what made her think it was ok!” (Yeah, right.)
The Importance of Being a “Nice” Teacher
It matters if you’re a really nice teacher because students don’t always know if you really are a nice teacher. Sometimes teachers seem nice, but they are really just too self-centered, too lazy (or too legitimately overworked), or too mean-spirited to actually put in the work it requires to be truly nice to students.
Nice can look harsh (sticking to agreements), or it can look rigid (maintaining boundaries), or it can look like coddling when it isn’t (making a majority of positive comments on students’ work).
Not nice teachers can look accommodating (allowing students all the time they want on assignments), easy going and friendly (not maintaining appropriate boundaries), or academically rigorous (hammering students on their mistakes).
Nice teachers have to put up with these inaccurate appearances sometimes. It’s not easy being a truly nice teacher. Luckily, students usually eventually come to understand who the truly nice teachers really were. And in these cases, the nice guys finish first.