After 4.5 years of teaching, I am still “too nice”

You can listen to the podcast version of this post here.

After staying up until 11:30PM the night before finishing a lesson project for my Educational Technology Masters program, I woke up groggy yet on high alert at the same time. My eye brows creased in fatigue as I drove on the 110 Freeway, willing my lethargy away as I refocus my mindset on teaching. I feel like this most mornings before teaching, no matter what time I sleep the night before.

I told my students a few days ago, during our routine check in, where we use objects as metaphors to describe how we are feeling, that I am a burnt out “chimney,” but I am pretending to be a “windmill” that is full of energy. I have been feeling like this for the past few weeks: drained, but pretending to be okay.

And just last week, someone asked me, “Teaching children is not easy, huh?” When I heard this question, I felt instantly triggered. My pride swelled. My ego hurt. Why?

In my head, I became very defensive, but I did not voice it out. It has been quite difficult to listen to comments made to me by people who have never taught in American public schools as a teacher. I now reflect on my reaction and wonder, are teachers supposed to feel that teaching is easy? We are teachers. We should know how to teach. We are professional who can always manage 30+ students in the classroom, right? I have been fighting negative self-talk as a teacher, of whether I am good enough, and of whether I can ever be that awesome teacher who can handle so many kids without breaking a sweat. In my darkest times, I would even think back to a snide comment made by someone about me behind my back, If I were her student, I would not listen to her. I’m not sure if this was said during my first year of teaching or during my teaching credential days. Either way, it was around that time.

The lack of empathy angers me so much when I think about it.

So, I don’t.

I had taken the Myers-Briggs personality test many times, and I always ended up with the result of ISFJ. ISFJs are stereotypically portrayed as super nice, compassionate, and warm. We are caretakers. I honestly do not relate to the stereotypical image of an ISFJ very much, and especially not at first glance by strangers. However, I am a very agreeable person who can get a long with many other personality types. The perfect teacher type right?

Unfortunately, being “nice” is seen as being “weak” by students, where I teach.

And on a particular day this week, I was reminded of that.

In my after school reading decathlon club, one of my students said to me, “Ms. You need to be more strict. All those boys act like that are taking advantage of you. You are too nice. They do all that because they know you give them many chances. You need to scream at them and send them to the counselor.”

I didn’t really engage much with this topic. Another student who was nearby listening in, pretended to “scream,” and both of them had a good laugh. I merely smiled haggardly and said, “I am not screaming at them.” I know this student meant well. She is one of my top students. However, her comment further proves how being “nice” will not serve me well, sustainably, as a teacher. It is somehow my responsibility to erase a core part of my personality, so that rowdy, unmotivated students can behave more. But this seems to take away the agency and responsibility of said students.

What this student does not know, is that teachers are currently told to not rely on “sending out” students. When you “send out” a student, you lose the chance to build on the relationship with that student. You are giving your authority away to the “outside.” What this student does not know is that many thoughts rage back and forth in my mind, where I try to compute what actions I should take when students act up the first time, second time, third time…

How long should I keep them in here?

I’ll just ignore his phone if he is quiet for the rest of the time.

If I take away his phone, he will start being disruptive.

Should I send them out? But they would just get sent back in later.

If I send them out, I have to stress over writing some office referral paperwork.

How much disrespect or disruptions should I tolerate?

How much energy do I still have to fight this battle?

Every day, I am fighting myself. I can’t be nice without being walked all over by my students. When will this struggle end? When I act extremely tough and “scold” misbehaving students, half of my energy leaves my body. Whenever I put my foot down firmly, over and over again, I gain control and temporal confidence, while losing a piece of myself at the same time. I wish I can exude a naturally intimidating vibe like an INTJ, ENTJ, or ESTJ, but I can’t, without sucking myself dry. Is it having low standards if my classroom management goal is to not have any students stick their middle fingers at me, and not cuss me out? Or should I wear an anonymously written “F*** Ms.**” note on one of my reading books as a badge of an honor, a badge of a teacher who has gruelingly endured verbal abuse from students and survived, for now.

I am not sure if being one of few Asian teachers in the school influences how the students see or treat me. I may be seen as the “nice” Asian teacher, whom you can do certain things to that you would not do in other classes with tougher and stricter non-Asian teachers. How do my students view me? Do they see Asians as people easy to bully?

This is my 5th year teaching as a public middle school English teacher. In retrospect, I can’t really count distant learning teaching as “real teaching” experience. So in reality, I may just be a teacher with 3.5 years of experience. Teaching online gave me the freedom to be as “nice” as I wanted to, without being bombarded with rude comments and disruptive behavior 99% of the time. I was tech savvy enough to block out or mute students before they can ruin the learning environment of the online class as needed. Before COVID shut down schools in March 2020, I was at a breaking point. That year, I had to deal with a fight breaking out during my homeroom, where my students saw me as “not doing much.” Then, I had to deal with a student slightly physically pushing me away, in order to attempt to fight another student. Two weeks before schools closed, I caught a bad cold that dried up my throat, and for the second time in my history of teaching, I took a sick day. I felt so guilty at that time. And then I just came back the next day, 75% recovered. Ironically, the pandemic gave me a break to fully recover from burnout in the past 1.5 years, fueling me up to battle once more into the in-person teaching field this school year.

Now perhaps I let the words of others influence me too much. A day later after this student made this comment, I toughened up in class just a bit more. I gave a hard lecture to my homeroom about some of the students’ flippant comments about how “America is a free country so we should be able to do whatever we want.” To combat this, I drilled in how important a free education is. How if you don’t know what your future holds, you should not start throwing away your future now by wasting time in class and being disruptive and rude. I was sweating and totally exhausted after that 5 minute lecture. Later on throughout that day, I “sent out” two students for major disruptions. They did not come back before class ended for them.

Nevertheless, with each step I take as a teacher, I continue to grow a thicker skin and experience God more deeply in my life, as I turn to him amidst the pain that surrounds me, to hear His voice as He guides me in the deepest valleys of teaching, picking up the broken pieces of myself. Teaching was never my dream. But it was my calling. Since over seven years ago, I felt the calling of God to be a teacher, but for how long? For life? I do not know. I don’t know if I can say I “love” teaching at the moment. How long will I trap myself in this buoying stage? Will I get to a point where I force myself to teach until retirement, so I would not be engulfed in the intricacies of finances? Teaching gives me a sort of financial stability while throwing me into mental and emotional instability at the same time.

I enjoy the pleasant teachable moments. I know I can teach well. But am I really passionate at the moment? I know that I am passionate about writing, yet that passion has a hard time transferring over to my students. Though, I am happy to say that in one of my toughest classes this year, that students can actually see my love for stories. I am trying really hard this year to impart this to them, as much as they hate it. When I first started teaching at this middle school, my passion to write dimmed, but it is now lit up again by the haunting comforts of teaching.

Albert Schweitzer once said, “[God] will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience who He is.”


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2 thoughts on “After 4.5 years of teaching, I am still “too nice”

Add yours

  1. Tell me about it! I haven’t really been a ‘teacher’ per se, but have spent years training others, and I’m the type who can’t be mean too (unlike my colleague who had no problems telling students how much they sucked).

    And what frustrates me the most is that it’s my colleague’s approval that the students crave, not me, who constantly showers them with praise.

    Still, I think we are who we are, and while we can be the best versions of ourselves, it only hurts us to try and be someone we’re not.

    Anyway, thanks for this thought-provoking post!

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