Early in his book A Sustainable StartJohn T. Spencer asserts that “love” is one of the most important parts of teaching – if you love your students, he claims, then you can’t go far wrong as a teacher.

This notion – and I think specifically, Spencer’s use of the word “love”, generated a surprising (to me) degree of push-back from my teacher-ed cohort during our conversations this week.  This comes on the heels of a very timely and productive – if stressful – discussion we had recently about professionalism in (our) classroom, discussion norms, and the dichotomy in our profession between professional dignity and the need for emotion, connection, and caring.  These two conversations had a lot of conceptual overlap, and generated a lot of profound thoughts.  Here are some of mine.

1.  In your teaching career, you won’t always be able to be genuinely sunny, happy, and “apparently” caring – this job will be hard, and that’s where professionalism comes in, because you have to perform anyway, and part of that means appearing to care.

2.  Nevertheless, here and now sitting comfortably, we can all agree that we wouldn’t be getting into this profession if we didn’t care about all of our students doing well.

3.  You can’t make caring effective if you aren’t relating to students on a personal level – getting to know them, letting them know you, really developing a connection.  To many (including myself), that sort of relationship – with caring, mutual knowledge, and vulnerability as hallmarks – that looks like “love”, and would be labelled as such.

4.  “Love”, perhaps, is a social construct and a cultural concept – something with a very relative definition.  Not all of us will apply “love” as a label for what we do in our classrooms.  It should be up to every one of us to define what we do however we wish to – what’s important is what we do, and whether our students learn/are served/grow as humans.

According to physics, any effect which perfectly simulates gravity may as well be gravity, from the perspective of the entity experiencing it – i.e., if your car’s accelerating so fast that it pushes you back in your seat, from your perspective, the car may as well be standing on its rear bumper – if all your windows were blacked out, you’d technically have no way to tell for sure which was the case.

Likewise, perhaps any effect – any emotional state or professional practice – which perfectly simulates love, may as well be love, if the result is the same – whether you feel comfortable defining it that way or not.  Students who feel safe, cared for, and pushed to succeed; teachers who ardently pursue their students’ success and agonize over whether those students are being properly served.  It amounts to the same effect, no matter the emotion behind it, or the label put upon it.


8 thoughts on “Loveducation.

  1. Veritably Clean

    Your corollary with physics brings a new argument in favor of the idea of love in the classroom. I get that the word love means different things to different people, so I try not to press too hard on the term. With that said, what we are supposed to be giving students in our classrooms looks and sounds a lot like love. So, if it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck…well, there are a few exceptions but let’s face it: It’s probably a duck. I think the bottom line is we all know what is best for kids in the classroom, we know the conditions under which they flourish. If someone wants to call it something else, I’m OK with that, but I think the definition of what we give students when we are at our best fits most closely with the common definition of love.

  2. Jarucia (@Jarucia)

    I wasn’t there for the discussion on professionalism, but I appreciate how you tied the two together. These are powerful conversations to be having in the ‘safe’ setting of our cohort. Given the range of thinkers and learners even in our group I doubt we’ll ever fully agree, but coming to a place of consensus seems like a good goal.

    Plus, as Dylan noted, your physics analogy was spot on. How someone experiences something is more relevant to the reality of their experience than whatever is the cause of it. It can get slippery, however, if they perceive an intent that isn’t there…this is especially the case when love is ‘felt’ though it isn’t intended the way the recipient has received it.

  3. Escaping Flatland

    I agree with your first two points. Yes, if you don’t care for kids then this isn’t your profession. But why is it so essential that we get to know students on a personal level? That is where the semantics of this word become interesting. The word love is ambiguous but the way it is defined can bring a lot of insight. Martin Luther King Jr. worked hard to distinguish his definition of love as used in his philosophy. He considered it “agape” as opposed to “eros,” “utilitarian,” “humanitarian,” or “philia”. By clarifying the term we come to a better understanding of our common belief about selfishness, respect, power and privilege as these relate to this profession. To be sure though, love may be necessary for teaching but it is not a sufficient condition. You can have all the love in the world for kids and be a bad teacher. I’m curious how you think Spencer defines this word. I was also interested that you define a hallmark of the teacher/student relationship as vulnerability. In what ways are teachers vulnerable?

    1. 1bluedot Post author

      I think Spencer probably means “agape” – unconditional love, as the biblical Paul might have used it. Again, when I define love, I focus mainly on the effect, not the cause, which is where I pulled that physics analogy from. I agree that love can’t be the sole quality of a good teacher – we’ve discussed all along the necessity that we have, know, and do more than just that.

      Knowing students on a personal level seems elementary to me – knowing who they are, what they know, how they learn, what they aspire to. Limiting yourself in this regard seems a dicey proposition, at least to me. At the same time, I can see the dangers of taking it too far. I resolve to seek the happy medium, rather than be afraid of the condition of excess.

      To me, vulnerability is a component of caring. We seem to get a lot of encouragement in our classes to share with students our own learning process; that to me requires comfort with vulnerability, and I know from experience that being able to be vulnerable is one of the core components of earning a person’s trust. For example, my CT and I found ourselves one day recounting our memories of 9/11. It got unexpectedly emotional, but somehow was completely appropriate; and not only did our students have an opportunity to learn things they may not have otherwise, but they got a chance to see us as human beings, and that, I think, is a good thing.

      At the same time – we all have our own style. I know that my style dictates a more personable – and personal – approach, which is why Spencer’s words resonated so deeply with me. (This does not mean I constantly have a tear in my eye in class, or that my students are my best friends; I’m a professional.) 🙂

  4. achall28

    As I read through the above comments, I was also curious to see how you felt teachers were vulnerable, 1bluedot. I agree that vulnerability is a component of caring, it’s a part of love. When we build authentic relationships, I think there is always vulnerability that comes with that. When you open yourself up, you are exposing yourself.
    I think its interesting too, how our own backgrounds cause us to think about concepts like love differently. For me, the term agape, carries with it the sense of wonder, celebration and togetherness. Interesting to think about that in terms of the classroom.

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