“Tough” Love: The Risks, Rewards, and Resilience of Teaching At-Risk Kids

Andrea BitnerBlog, Connect Better, Engage Better, Manage Better


  • Working with at-risk students takes a desire to understand who they are.
  • A revelation of working with at-risk students: They don’t mean it. They don’t see it and don’t realize what they are doing. Developmentally, they may not be able to see you.
  • Ruby Payne’s book “A Framework for Understanding Poverty” helps us see “hidden rules” and how they impact students not knowing how to navigate communication with others who are different from them.
  • What they need from us: Don’t give up, even when you are weary.

A True Story of Tough Love

Carly and Bernadette were seething. The moment they walked into my freshman English class, I knew that something was up. Glares were zipping around the room from corner to corner. Anger was vital and present. I took a deep, nervous breath. It was May of 2001…7:59a.m…my first week in my new career of teaching, and nothing had prepared me for what to do when two teenage girls walked into my room, ready to brawl. My lesson plan was all set for the day, and navigating drama was not written on that paper! Before I could pick up my chalk to review the agenda for the day, a book soared past my head. A desk flipped over. A student screamed. Game on.

In the brief moments that followed, there was an office call, a police presence, a suspension, and an exit. In the brief moments that followed, I wanted to exit. The classroom. The kids. The school. The profession. Twenty-two teaching years have passed since that momentous introduction to education. I’m still here.

As I began to fall in love with working with some of the kids who were deemed “the toughest in the building,” I became curious about why it was so tough for people to love teaching them. More importantly, why it was so difficult for the “tough”  kids to show love, respect, and appreciation back? After all, their teachers and administrators tirelessly put forth their best foot for them every single day!

After many conversations with those kids, who are now in their early 30’s, their answer was clear:

“I didn’t mean it. I couldn’t see it. I didn’t know how to be it.”

Tough Love: They don’t mean it.

When I talk about tough love today, I don’t mean educators providing it. I see so many educators receiving it. The kids that walk in screaming at you, running out of the classroom as fast as they can, putting their heads on their desks and sleeping, begging for extra snacks, avoiding school and staying home, refusing to comply with dress code regulations, not making eligibility for their activities and sports. It’s soul-crushing to witness. At times, it weighs on your spirit. Some weeks, it makes you question why you sat in that interview chair and took on the work in the first place. I’m here to thank you for taking the risk and sharing with you on their behalf: “They don’t mean it.”

Their ask? Don't give up, even when you are weary. Why? You are their ticket! For every tough kid, the reason is different. Click To Tweet

In Ruby Payne’s book “A Framework for Understanding Poverty,” she discusses “hidden rules” and how they impact students not knowing how to navigate communication with people who are different from them. There are three mental models for students born into poverty, the middle class, and the wealthy. Their ways of approaching situations are vastly different, misunderstood, and often not explicitly taught to students when they transition from one environment to another.

In short, students can’t do better if they don’t know better. Learning more about this work has been a game-changer for me. It allowed me to shift my lens and support our tough kids during their daily wins and losses in a more effective way. It allowed me to realize that even when they are sending tough love your way, they don’t mean it.

Tough Love: They don’t see it.

Speaking of lenses, tough kids “don’t see it.” Teachers are masters at resetting our emotions and staying calm on the outside when chaos is exploding on the inside. It’s one of our superpowers. Our toughest kids appreciate that low-tide response. It may be one of the reasons they felt safe bringing their emotional tsunami into your classroom. They aren’t aware that you may be drowning.

Developmentally, they may not have the capability to see you. Payne goes on to describe that in a study by Mary Kishiyama, she found that when comparing children in poverty to children in the middle class, “patterns in the brains of most children from poverty were very similar to those of adults who have had strokes…this is the part of the brain that handles executive functioning, impulse control, planning, and working memory.” Some of our toughest kids have lenses that have been clouded. They are struggling to see.

In the beginning, it’s difficult to ask a challenging student to dip their toe into an ocean of opportunity that is asking them to learn how to “be.” Be on time. Be prepared. Be participatory. Be a reader. Be a leader. Be kinder. Be more mindful. Be responsible.

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Tough Love: Don’t give up.

They want to. They are just not sure how. Without prior exposure to processes and habitual practice, asking them to take on a new routine will take them some time. Expect peaks pitfalls and plateaus. They will scoff at the modeling that you deliver for them and grunt during the practice but do not doubt that they are watching, listening, and learning. Their ask? Don’t give up, even when you are weary.

Why? You are their ticket! For every tough kid, the reason is different. Their ticket to fun, safety, motivation, determination, relaxation, learning, leveling up, and so much more. They know they are tough to love. Also, they know that they weren’t capable of sharing their respect and admiration towards you that you surely deserved. They thank you for navigating the muddy waters of their lives as they transitioned through their childhood and became young adults.

Tough Love: The Future

I often see Carly and Bernadette around our small town outside of Philadelphia, PA. They are strong leaders, independent young women, successful mothers, and devoted to their professions as a salon stylist and computer engineer. I am proud to have been a very small chapter of their time in school. Their world was just beginning, and they were learning how to navigate it. During that first week of teaching twenty-two years ago, it would have helped me to keep all of that in mind…and to have put down the agenda and chalk.

About Andrea Bitner

Andrea Bitner is a proud wife and mother of two beautiful daughters. She lives on the East Coast among some of the fastest speaking people in the country! She has worked with students in grades K-12 through her twenty years in public education from all around the world. Her work as an English Language Teacher, Reading Specialist, Literacy Coach, Presenter, and High School English Teacher inspired her to continue to share the great news: Learning a Second Language is an asset, not a handicap! She hopes to inform, influence, and inspire all readers and leaders to continue to be a champion for all stakeholders in the education community around the world.