On being labelled “Nice” by my students

This is what a "nice" teacher looks like...

This is what a “nice” teacher looks like…

I have a sharp tongue and a flippant attitude most of the time. A student pops off in class and I give them shit right back, which works well with this population of students. They enjoy sarcasm, jokes, irreverancy. My crisis-counseling and work with other “at-risk” students has prepared me well for the ‘hard knocks’ aspect of teaching these students, and my undergraduate and graduate schooling has taught me well about how to teach the curriculuum in a way that they’ll understand. I often stand in front of my class and feel like a total badass. I’m teaching the students that others are afraid of…we have instructurs here on campus that hear the name of our program and shudder. I mean, there’s some truth in it (one student had been locked in the state penetentiary for 5 years…he’s only 20…I don’t even want to know what got him there), but I am not afraid to get to know them, to teach them life skills and see them grow into the students I know they can be.

So yesterday, and actually a few times in the last few weeks, I’ve been thrown for a loop…my psyche rocked by, what I think they mean as a compliment, as they say: “but you’re so nice.”


Apparently a large portion of my students think that I’m a nice teacher.

That rocks my world because I was schooled in the “don’t smile until Christmas” form of teaching that is highlighted in the article Some Terrible Advice I got in College that was freshly pressed this week. But seriously, I was given many of those same lessons, so I find myself shocked when my iron fist is really a smile and my students are actually doing their work (reasonably).

So…why do I balk at this description of me? Is it because of what I was taught about being a tough teacher? Is it because I’m a strong woman and being labelled “nice” makes me think of being weak. Or is it because the running commentary in my head that rarely makes it past my lips is…not-so-nice? Or is it because I often feel frustrated and grumpy in my “real life” and think to myself, “if you only knew, kid, if you only knew”?

Maybe I’m harder on myself than others are on me. Or maybe I’ve internalized this idea that I’m not very nice from my childhood, where I was often punished for whining and wanting things my way (yes, I was a bossypants). Maybe it’s like the time I told someone I was “built like a man,” (because I’m 6’1) and she replied “um, you don’t look like  man at all, you’re pretty and have curves).” So if there’s a body dismorphic disorder equivalent, would it be personality dysmorphic disorder, where one doesn’t have a good understanding of their own personality and how people view them?

Also, do I want to be a nice teacher? Can I be nice AND tough?

How have you dealt with student labels or feedback that doesn’t fit your self-concept?


  1. nice is so generic that it’s not the same thing as happy-go-lucky, or weak. i’ve called many people nice who were badasses (like you 🙂 ). no matter how bitchy and tough you want to be, nice is a good thing, especially in teaching. being a tough teacher is desirable, but being an asshole is not.

    that being said, i get where you’re coming from. i’ve had the same reaction to being called “nice.”

  2. Great question. I have dealt with seemingly ‘off’ descriptors by trying to understand the root of the student’s statement. Each student’s usage of “nice” could mean something different…be it, you’re “nice” because you smile at them regularly [I’m alarmed by the slack jaws and frowns amongst most staff members], “nice” could be that you listen to their opinions, and “nice” could easily mean that you see them as individuals.

    Do you remember what it was like to be a student? It’s not easy to give an outright compliment in front of your peers. They may just be reaching you in the way they know how.

  3. Pingback: Mother Identity Dysmorphia « boof & monk-monk

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