Teaching Profession

Why Exactly Do We Ask Teachers to Love Their Students? Educators Weigh In

By Marina Whiteleather — March 14, 2022 4 min read
Illustration of teacher surrounded by students
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“If you love your job and love your students, you shouldn’t complain!” “You teach for the outcome, not the income.” These are some of the things teachers hear in a line of work that is often referred to as a “calling” rather than a profession that doesn’t pay that well.

One educator shared on LinkedIn that, “There seems to be this collective attitude that loving a job or feeling ‘called’ to do a job means you should be willing to do that job by giving until you break and burning the candle at both ends … and all for a very meager salary.”

Is love integral to the role? Melanie Breault, an educator, wrote on Facebook, “I love my students and they know I love them. If there is a day when I don’t love my students, it’s time to stop teaching.”

Decades of research—and conventionally held wisdom—indicate that positive teacher-student relationships matter. But do you really have to love every student? This is the central question of a February 2020 Education Week article in which reporter Madeline Will explores whether love is needed to foster a good learning environment, and what to do if love just isn’t there.

Jherine Wilkerson, an 8th grade English/language arts teacher in Peachtree City, Ga., recently wrote an Opinion essay for Education Week titled ‘I Don’t Have to Love My Students To Be a Good Teacher’ that dove deeper into this question. So, what do other teachers think about this statement?

Education Week’s social media followers weighed in on whether love should be at the center of student-teacher relationships.

Unrealistic job expectations

Some noted that teachers must wear the hats of educator, caretaker, parent, and therapist simultaneously for every child they’re tasked with teaching.

“I care for my kids and want to TEACH them to the best of my ability, but I didn’t get into social work, or fostering, I got into TEACHING. The expectations on us to be parents and therapists is wild.”

- Dan P.

“Also, I take the word love very seriously. I can’t possibly really love 150 kids.”

- Amanda E.

“Love is a word that is tossed around too easily. As a professional teacher, I am employed to help children learn. I want to go home at the end of the day and have a personal life just like any other worker. I do my job effectively and don’t have feelings of love for my students. I enjoy them and work hard to help them. I deserve to make a living wage and to do my job without every armchair teacher in the world criticizing or praising. Until you are a teacher, you have no idea what it’s really like. Pay us a decent wage and leave us alone.”

- Dawn W.

Some teachers join the profession out of love for learning, not children

Loving children didn’t drive some teachers to the profession; it’s their love of learning and deep subject-matter interest that does.

“I am so glad someone actually said what I have been feeling. I started teaching because I love science and learning. I wanted to share my love of learning with others.”

- Tammy G.

“I love science and curiosity. I love the creativity involved in planning and executing solid lessons. I enjoy seeing students enjoy learning. I am a stable adult role model who has their best interest at heart AND I can serve them mainly because I can see them with impartiality and neutrality. They are my clients, not my own children. I wish nothing but good things for them. But teaching is a job; I am not their parent.”

- Mary Beth C.

There’s a difference between caring for students and loving them

Are we really talking about love or are we talking about care and respect? Some teachers weighed in on the choice of the word “love” and offered alternatives that better describe the student-teacher relationship.

“Care and love are not the same. I care about students. I care about my job. I love what I teach and I enjoy the actual teaching. But love is reserved for people in my life who know me personally, not professionally.”

- Heidi T.

“If I loved someone, I wouldn’t see them for an hour a day for 9 months and then, abruptly, never see them again. I also don’t get paid to love the people I do love. Caring, connecting and encouraging growth really isn’t the same as ‘love.’”

- Bridget S.

Do it ‘out of love’

Teaching is a female-dominated profession which can put additional pressure on educators to prioritize nurturing others over personal well-being. Teachers don’t want to be told how to care for their students or be expected to give everything to their job, draining them emotionally and leaving nothing for themselves or their families.

“I definitely see the word ‘love’ shift by the age of kids you teach and by the gender of the educator. The expectation falls heavily on female teachers and those who teach in preschool and primary. By the same coin, most would be bothered by hearing a male educator use the word ‘love’ in reference to any age of their students. Not to mention, be wary of male teachers in preschool and lower primary, in general. The part of this article that resonated the most with me was society’s expectation that women be endless nurturers, and that the ‘innate’ biological need to nurture be the biggest payoff of such a tough profession.”

- Quana H.

“Working in an elementary school, I’ve definitely seen and felt the (heavily gendered) pressure to sacrifice ‘out of love’ for students. That appeal to nurturing or maternal instincts is unreasonable and highly inappropriate in a professional field, yet it’s used all the time at school. It’s so weird that I didn’t recognize it until I read your words.”

- u/boughsmoresilent

In a follow-up Q&A to her essay with Madeline Will, Jherine Wilkerson shared her take on the outpouring of responses to her essay.

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