On Love and Teaching

Me tearing up at graduation after my students presented me with a book of Dr. March-isms they secretly collected for three years

The holiday season seems like the right time to reflect on the place of love in my work as a teacher.

I began thinking about this back in September when I read that one of the goals set by DC Public Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson is that “all students feel loved and supported at school.” The article explains:

While this idea might seem a bit idealistic, he believes without that love, students won’t be open to allowing others to challenge them academically. Wilson wants to change school culture through an increasingly popular movement in schools called social and emotional learning.

I’ve found this to be true. Strong working relationships with teachers give kids the confidence and motivation to take academic risks. Students show up when they know they are cared for.

I’m inspired everyday by the large and small ways my colleagues care for our students. Art teacher Danielle Ferrin brings in extra food for kids who forgot to pack lunch. Academic Dean Sylvia Israel talks kids through their stress and anxiety, helping them find solutions and strategies. Latin teacher Michael Hendry gives students unexpected gifts perfectly suited to their idiosyncratic interests. History teacher Jim Percoco shares stories from his difficult youth to show our students they are not alone. Teachers like Rita Lahiri, Wendy Huth and Carmen Carraway – and many, many others – arrive early and sacrifice lunch to help struggling students. And just in time for our holiday party, Director of Operations Maureen McCrae, who loves our kids in a thousand thankless ways, had students make “kindness chains” for each other, featuring thoughtful notes for each of their peers.

Red and green “kindness chains” my colleague Maureen McCrae compiled for each student, featuring compliments from their peers

The kindness and care of my colleagues challenged me to consider the broader impact of their work. What does it truly mean for all students to feel loved and supported at school? And how can teachers work toward this goal more purposefully and systematically?

Earlier this year, my colleague David Romero talked to our students about dignity and grace, and he opened by showing that beautiful moment from Dead Poets’ Society in which Keating puts quiet, shy Todd on the spot and has him create a poem in front of the class. Todd doesn’t think he can do it, but Keating insists, saying, “I think you have something inside you that is worth a great deal.”

David noted that Keating chooses to believe there is something great inside Todd without any outside information, without knowing it for sure. He asked our students, “What if Todd had given a bad poem? Would that change the meaning of what Keating said, that there’s something valuable inside Todd?” Through discussion, they decided that Todd may need time to develop that poem, and it may be longer than Keating is around, but there is something of value inside him, and inside all of us.

And that’s what I think of when I consider what it might mean for students to feel loved at school: it’s all the adults in the building making sure our kids know there is something of value inside them.

We can do this by practicing openness, commitment, and enthusiasm.

To love means to be open – to risk vulnerability and to make new things possible. Because he values Todd as a human being, Keating makes space in the classroom for his voice and ideas. Keating opens himself to Todd’s insights, listening intently, asking him questions, prodding him further.

To love also means to commit – to act in concrete and meaningful ways on behalf of the person or thing. Keating won’t let Todd off the hook. He takes the time to develop Todd’s voice, insisting on its value. He stands beside Todd and stands up for him when his peers laugh.

Finally, to love means to be enthusiastic – to care deeply and to show it unmistakably. Keating takes the work seriously – and takes Todd seriously (no matter how much Todd initially wishes he wouldn’t). He celebrates Todd’s greatness before Todd himself knows he’s great. Indeed, Keating’s praise and enthusiasm are the first signal to Todd (and to the class) that his voice is worth listening to.

That’s what my colleagues are doing when they show love to our students.

Of course, there’s another way to think about love and teaching: it’s also clear in this clip that Keating loves what he is doing. Just as we are called to love our students, I believe we are called to model a love of learning.

As I visit other schools (shoutout to Harlem’s Democracy Prep, DC’s Washington Leadership Academy, and Baltimore’s Lakeland Elementary and Middle), I find that the most important instructional question I can ask myself is, “Does this work seem important to the teacher and to the students?” This is another way of asking: do the people in this room love what they are doing?

There’s a classic and moving piece in the 25th anniversary edition of NCTE’s Voices from the Middle journal in which English teacher Maureen Barbieri reminds us:

In the classroom, we have no choice. No matter what our curriculum, no matter what our methods, no matter what our philosophy, we bring our truest selves into relationship with students. Whatever we are passionate about, whatever we value, whatever we dream of or yearn for — all of this will be revealed to our students, will be impossible to disguise, and will be our ultimate gift to them. Our students will know who we are by understanding what it is we love. [emphasis mine]

Revealing our passion and geekiness is a way of sharing a bit of ourselves with our students – and inviting them to do so, too. It’s through that moment of shared exuberance that kids find a way in to our subjects. They may not love reading poetry, but they love what they see in their teacher when he talks about Whitman. And it’s that human connection that draws them toward the study and practice of the discipline.

The truth is, loving something publicly is risky. It makes us vulnerable to ridicule and rejection. Most of us are less like Keating and more like Todd, timidly hiding what we care most about.

But there is so much more to be gained when we show up and love boldly. When we model that boldness for our students, and help them know that they are valued, we prepare them to build a better and more beautiful world.

And since the holidays are all about family, here is a clip of my mom and uncle talking about the rewards of strong working relationships with students:

Daily happiness is an important part of what makes us different. Find out more here: https://www.loudounschool.org/community

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