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Education Opinion

What’s Love Got to Do With It?

By Karen Engels — August 24, 2016 5 min read
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What is the fundamental goal of K-12 education? In the United States today, we often refer to our collective purpose as “college and career readiness.”

On the surface, the goal of college and career readiness is unimpeachable. After all, we certainly want our students to walk into any university and profession with the ability to think critically and to confront challenges with ingenuity and creativity. But for me, “college and career readiness” doesn’t quite capture my hopes for my students. For so many of us, teaching is a daily act of defiance against the pervasive poverty, racism, and inequity our students confront. When our goal is college and career readiness, we are preparing our students for the world as it exists. But what if our teaching pushed students to create a better world?

For children to truly become builders of the future, it’s imperative that they themselves experience classrooms as meaningful communities. Our classrooms must not be simply microcosms of our larger society today, in which deep racial, ethnic, class, and religious divisions have hardened us into xenophobia and polarization. Rather, our classroom communities must be models of the kind of communities we want our students to nurture throughout their lives.

What our classroom communities need is a word that feels unprofessional—even taboo. It is a word that we rarely discuss in preparatory programs, staff meetings, professional development courses, or in education literature. It’s the word love.

Why love?

Love motivates.

Quite simply, students want to be in places where they are valued and cherished. Don’t we all?

I recently reached out to some of my first students. They were middle school students in the Boston school district during my novice teaching years and they are now young adults in their twenties. I wanted to hear their perspective on the importance of love in the classroom. Torraine, an artist and model based in New York, told me,

“I could always tell when a teacher actually saw me as a human to be invested in ...who really saw me as an individual. There are maybe three teachers in my life who have stood out to me as incredible influences on the person I am today. They made me feel understood and listened to. They made me feel like my life mattered. ...
When someone invests in you in that way, you want to make them proud. But beyond that, when you feel that someone truly believes in your potential, you then begin to have more confidence in yourself...who pushed me to keep going when I wanted to give up on myself.”

Mikel, a bus driver in Boston and a mom, added,

“Love matters. Love made us into better human beings. Even when we felt hopeless, what mattered the most was to come into school and feel loved.”

If students feel loved, they can open themselves to joy. Joy is another word we don’t talk about very often in public schools these days. Joy feels soft. It can’t be easily measured. It is often seen as antithetical to the word we do love to talk about in public schools, “rigor.” Yet joy is what allows students to reach their highest potential, to push beyond “what is” to “what isn’t.”

Love allows a growth mindset to flourish.

It’s not enough to teach and model a growth mindset in our classrooms. Students need to feel safe making mistakes, whether it’s a computational error in a math problem or a loss of self-control, like backtalking disrespectfully.

But sometimes, in our effort to validate mistakes, we inadvertently convey insufficiently high expectations. It takes a loving relationship to convey the message, “I’m going to hold you accountable for your best because I care about you.”

Love is a value we want our students to bring forth into the world.

Our national culture is undeniably adversarial and combative. In this context, even politicians are starting to see the importance of the word love; the Democratic Convention in July saw the word spoken over and over, by Cory Booker, Lenny Kravitz, and of course, Hillary Rodham Clinton. And as educators, the job of ensuring that future generations value love and kindness falls to us.

Classrooms hold unique conditions for loving communities to flourish. In many other community contexts, similarity is a binding force (neighborhood communities that are characterized by people of similar ethnic, racial, or class backgrounds; churches, mosques, and synagogues that connect people of similar religious beliefs). But increasingly in today’s public school classrooms, diversity is the basis for community. In my own classroom, students come from Southeast Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. Our class is comprised of more Muslims and Jews than Christians. It’s comprised of students of privilege and students of poverty living in worlds that are physically proximate but worlds apart.

When students experience diverse contexts as places of connection, they will inevitably move into the adult world with optimism about their ability to solve our world’s most stubborn challenges. They will know how to value rather than fear difference.

Love and Looping

If we truly value loving classrooms, then we need to prioritize the structures and practices that support loving classrooms. For example, I teach in a looping 3rd and 4th grade classroom. The structure of staying with one group of twenty students for two years is an example of a structure that supports love. The luxury of two years allows us to take the time during that first September to really invest in community building, knowing that taking this time up front will pay off for the next twenty-two months. Our curriculum for those first weeks is us—our cultures, our strengths and challenges, our likes and dislikes, our hopes and fears. We share stories of our lives and find what we value most about each other.

And as the loop unfolds, it’s those relationships that enable deep learning. Knowing that Jorge needs to clench my hands inside my fists when he gets especially anxious. Knowing that Devonte will have something brilliant to contribute if we can just convince him to push past his shyness. Knowing that Amira needs to run up and down the stairwell a few times if we’ve been sitting for a while. Knowing that Anissa will do best if she can tell her story to a voice recorder before writing it down in her notebook.

Teachers from traditional, non-looping classrooms often ask me how I respond when I have a particularly challenging child and I know that the child will be with me for two full years, six hours every day. And I always respond that the looping structure pushes me towards connection with even the most oppositional or withdrawn of our students because we both know that we’re in it for the long haul.

Relational Aspects of Teaching

When we are intentional about infusing a classroom community with love, we can see the impact in myriad ways. Sometimes, the evidence is small but profound: A student’s parents translate a birthday party invitation into Arabic to ensure that every single child in the class feels included in the celebration. Sometimes, the evidence is overwhelming. An entire class attends the funeral of a classmate’s mother. A group of students hear the news of a student’s family suffering in an earthquake around the globe, and work together to plan a school fundraiser to support relief efforts.

Unless we are willing to talk about the relational aspect of teaching and learning, we cannot hope to meet the goals we have for our students to be change agents in our world. We cannot continue to talk about “achievement” and “results” without returning our focus to the learning conditions in which students either flourish or flounder. We need to talk about love.


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