First Person

What Happened When I Committed to Loving My Students Unconditionally

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Many teachers talk about loving their students. In fact, I have made bold announcements to everyone—from my colleagues to my friends and family—about loving my students every year that I have taught. But did I really love them? All of them? Every single student? Not really.

This school year, I tried another kind of love. I wanted my love for my students to be super-resilient and a little bit blind—similar to the kind of love I give to my own children. I wanted a love that could embrace unappealing characteristics and behaviors with humor, tranquility, and curiosity. It would not be transactional or affected by my students’ daily or cumulative decisions. It would accept that they would all disappoint me at various times, some more than others. My disappointment would simply inform my work, not soil it.

The idea came out of new learning about trauma-informed teaching—a method that can help teachers bring more empathy and understanding to students affected by trauma and adverse childhood experiences. My husband, a film director, had recently completed two documentaries that covered the subject: "Resilience" and "Paper Tigers." Trauma-informed teaching is a challenging shift, but it seemed worthy of trying with my own students, regardless of whether they had known trauma in their histories or not.

Students Ask for Love in 'Unloving Ways'

It is often said that the students who need love the most ask for it in the most unloving ways. Every teacher is familiar with that dynamic. I don’t think I am alone in admitting that giving love when students are being openly uncooperative has always been hard for me.

In the past, my love for students was a diffuse kind of love—the kind one feels for teaching in general or the class as a whole. I was committed to being fair and forgiving, but that is not necessarily the same thing as unconditional love. While my most defiant, disruptive, or unproductive students received the lion's share of my energy and thought, I was focused on managing them rather than loving them.

"My difficult students represented puzzles to solve and relationships to improve, not dreaded obstacles that threatened to drain my teacher joy."

Using compassionate curiosity to identify learning and attention issues in students, on the other hand, has always come easily to me. I am a big believer in trying to determine what is behind a student’s struggle to meet academic expectations, pay attention in class, or produce assigned work.

This new "love plan" held onto that process, with the added aim of embracing the kids with personalities and behaviors that had the capacity to trigger my "I wish he or she was not in my class" response. This year, I decided to go toward the most difficult students with additional compassion, rather than retreating in frustration when my initial attempts to change them failed.

A 'Love Plan' for Teaching

The only person I told about my love plan was my husband. I told him because I thought it would be a good idea to have someone hold me accountable for this shift and let me know if I were getting off track. After all, he is the one who hears when I start to lose enthusiasm for any of my students. Would loving each one of my students unconditionally make a difference? Would it change their experience? Would it noticeably improve their learning?

The changes in my teaching were subtle yet concrete. I had always taken students aside when they made poor decisions. But my new plan asked questions that were less canned, free of scolding or shame, and more gentle and genuine. Are you feeling all right? Is something bothering you? What was last night like? Did you get enough sleep? Do you want to talk? These questions rarely led to any big "ah ha" moments, but I treated each repeated conversation with patience.

Additionally, I paused before I defaulted to my typical consequences for poor behavior. When it was necessary to dole out consequences to students, I made very clear that I still believed in them. I even told students when I took them aside that I loved them—something I had never done before.

It was immediately apparent that they had never heard those words from a teacher.

When I asked them to repeat back to me what they had heard in our conversation, they would always say, "You care about me." They didn’t use the word love, but that was OK. They heard me, and it showed.

As the year went on, my conversations with students about their bad choices became increasingly relaxed and honest—and less frequent. Sometimes, students would even preemptively tell me about their bad decisions. Our relationship became more of a partnership and less of a power struggle.

A Win-Win Situation for Students and Teachers

Although my love plan was designed to improve my students' school experience, it radically improved mine as well. It worked magic on my relationships with students and energized me for the school day. My difficult students represented puzzles to solve and relationships to improve, not dreaded obstacles that threatened to drain my teacher joy. By letting go of the assumption that their behaviors were conscious choices, I was able to avoid feelings of resentment when my students blew it. Overall, I felt more peaceful and less angry.

Loving my students also got easier as the year progressed. I had initially worried that my approach wasn't sustainable. But the opposite was true. Love begot love.

Even as I write this, I wonder if this school year was a special class. I worry that the love plan won’t translate to a new set of students. I also worry that the word "love" will be a turnoff for other teachers (because in San Francisco, where I’m from, the word probably rolls of the tongue a little easier than in other parts of the country).

Whatever you choose to call it, this loving mindset has transformative potential. Relinquishing our teacher obsession with control and embracing our disruptors has a powerful effect on students' experiences as well as our own. Less than one year into this new teaching approach, I am hardly an expert, but I am an evangelist. I share my story to show what the power of unconditional love can do in the classroom.

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