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Tough Minds, Tender Hearts

By Dave Stuart Jr.

I've been thinking lately about prioritization. Many teachers who subscribe to this blog — colleagues like you — write about how little time they have, how overwhelmed they are, how difficult it is to do all they're expected to do.

I don't just read their frustrations — I feel them. And it especially pains me because right now I teach in a place with strong leadership and living collegiality, where teachers are viewed and trained and treated as professionals. If I struggle with prioritization and lack of time in a place like this, how much worse must my colleagues feel in places where the leadership is poor or the collegial spirit is dead?

That would be so frustrating that I think it could lead a teacher to quit her job. And, anecdotally, I know that it does lead to this outcome because I have readers who write to me every year saying that this is exactly what has happened to them.

So what I have been thinking more and more is that I need to get clearer about how we can rightly order our teaching lives — and our lives in general — so that we stick to the work. I think that it's important for us to do this for all kinds of reasons, including…

  • Our students need teachers who stick to it.
  • Difficulty doesn't mean defeat; frustration doesn't necessitate that we have to flee.
  • Every school in the world — whether the leadership is poor or good, whether the collegial spirit is alive or dead — NEEDS flourishing, professional educators in its classrooms teaching its students.

So, here's the question:

How do we wisely prioritize our work so that our time and effort and attentions are spent on the things most likely to yield long-term flourishing results for us and our students?

I don't have all the answers now, but here's something I came across in Martin Luther King Jr.'s classic, Strength to Love. We're wise to cultivate tough minds and tender hearts.

King contended that those who would be most successful at seeking justice in the Jim Crow south would have tough minds and tender hearts. This internal disposition was at the root of his core strategy: nonviolent resistance. The root cause of many of society's ills is that too many people have the opposite internal life: their minds are soft and their hearts are hard.

Whether it surprises you or not, King's prescription is more relevant to the work of the teacher than much of the content of our professional literature.

Soft minds vs. tough minds

The soft mind, as King defines it, is the one that prefers not to think. It is ruled by emotion and a desire for comfort rather than by intellect and a desire for flourishing. It is the soft-minded person who Hitler alluded to, King explains, when he said, “I use emotion for the many and reserve reason for the few” (p. 4, Strength to Love).

The tough mind, on the other hand, is typified by “incisive thinking, realistic appraisal, and decisive judgment” (p. 2, Strength to Love). It is the tough-minded person who “always examines the facts before he reaches conclusions; in short, he postjudges” (p. 4). Meanwhile, the soft-minded “reaches a conclusion before he has examined the first fact; he prejudges and is prejudiced” (p. 5).

And so it is that, in teaching, we practice soft-mindedness when we enter a professional development without any plans to pay attention, or when we neomaniacally subscribe to this year's new approach to teaching simply because it's new. And we demonstrate tough-mindedness when we discipline ourselves to always listen, always weigh the evidence, always be open to the possibility that our views and strategies may need revision.

Do you see how cultivating a tougher mind is a wise investment in any teaching situation? When our minds are sharp, we're better at picking the things that matter most. Every one of our teaching contexts is unique. There is no classroom like yours, no matter how much they script the curriculum or seek to standardize it. No single person can tell you exactly how to do your job well.

And so it is that you have to become the kind of person who is mentally tough enough to tell yourself how to do it. And despite the saccharine truisms that clog up our professional literature, not every way of teaching is the best way. Some are better than others.

King is right. If your goal is worthy work, then you've got to get mentally tough. To get you started, here are three practical ways for starting down that road: fewer shallow things, more deep things, and more writing.

Hard hearts vs. tender hearts

The tough mind by itself, however, isn't enough to teach well. Just like boldness without humility, tough minds without soft hearts are a recipe for frustration and burnout.

If we are tough-minded and hard-hearted, King warns that we'll “never truly love… [and we'll] engage in a crass utilitarianism that values other people mainly according to their usefulness” (p. 6). We'll start, King argues, to “never see people as people, but rather as mere objects or as impersonal cogs in an ever-turning wheel.”

I remember, early in my career, finding it shocking that there were teachers who could not remember the names of all of their past students. But now, more than one thousand former students into my career, I get it. I, too, will run into students at the supermarket or at our town's Big Boy, and I'll be unable to remember their names. Human though this might be, it pains me because I do not want to forget the people into whose well-being I've invested a year of my life.

Until I find a system that makes it possible to recall the names of 1,000 kids, I'll content myself with even caring about remembering their names.

Teaching is a tough career in that it lends itself to hardening our hearts. There needs to be a certain professional distance between us and our students, just as the doctor must have a distance between herself and her patients. And so ours is hard, internal work — cultivating hearts that care, that feel compassion, while simultaneously not letting this care consume our lives at the expense of our long-term work.

(For help with softening your heart, try showing appropriate affection. This post can help.)

The best teachers, I'm finding, are marked by what King calls “strongly marked opposites.”

“The idealists,” King claims, “are not usually realistic, and the realists are not usually idealistic” (p. 1). But the flourishing and competent teacher tends to be a realistic idealist.

“Seldom are the humble self-assertive,” King says, “or the self-assertive humble.” But the great teachers tend to be marked by humble-boldness.

And the tough-minded don't tend to be soft-hearted, nor the soft-hearted tough-minded. But King claims that “the good life” combines both toughness and tenderness.

I think he's right. It's not easy, but it's worthy.

Vale la pena.

4 Responses to Tough Minds, Tender Hearts

  1. Erica Beaton (@EricaLeeBeaton) January 29, 2019 at 6:43 am #

    A few years ago, I broke the rule. My “word” of the year was TENDER and BOLD (not exactly “strong” 😉). I couldn’t contain all the goals for that year into one side or the other. But how can you focus on two things? In the end, those two words, so much like Dr. King says, served me the most by thoughtfully slowing down my reactions. They caused me to regularly turn over opportunities and experiences and listen to both my head and heart before my gut could interrupt with calls to be timid or callous. Thank you for the reminder, D.

  2. diannespinoza January 30, 2019 at 8:13 am #

    Dave you have been inspiring me to be a teacher that is more sane and now I have decided not to run away but to stay and work on making the adjustments necessary for my students’ and my own long term flourishing. This article on hearts and minds is very relevant to my current struggle with students. Thanks for being the channel for true wisdom. God bless you and your family.

    • davestuartjr January 31, 2019 at 10:15 am #

      Dianne, thank you so much my friend. Much blessings from Him to you and yours, too 🙂

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