I worked on a research project in graduate school that involved me observing teachers in a couple of reading classes at a high school. I didn’t know anything about this place and I’d only met the teacher whose classroom I would be visiting a couple of times. The school was housed in an ominous building with numerous unmarked entrances, all locked except for a single red door in the back by the teachers’ parking lot. The inside was just as confusing. Staircases led to the main floors of one of four schools in the building. There were no signs to direct me where to go. I asked security guards and other adults for directions but they all pointed vaguely over their shoulders. Now I was lost and late and found myself in a dark corridor with nothing but lockers. A student seemed to have appeared from nowhere to usher me to the class that had already begun.
This dark building contrasted this one special room. It was bright as if the teacher had brought in extra fluorescent lights for the lesson. With all of this brightness, it was warmer too. The teacher, I still remember that her name was Annemarie, told me I could sit where I wanted and quickly turned her attention back to her students. Hers was a class for students with special needs so it was much smaller than the typical size with only about 15 quiet young people, all boys. But Annemarie was not quiet. She hustled around the room with loving urgency, squatting to speak to each student. I realized that the warmth wasn’t coming from any extra light. It was coming from her. After Annemarie spoke to each student, she offered them a high five. She praised them for trying and taking risks. Her smile was broad and radiant.
After only being in the room for a few minutes, I realized what this warmth really was: There was a lot of love in this classroom.
I sensed the kind of love that someone exudes when they mean to say: “I see you” and “we’re in this together, every minute and every day.” I wish I could tell you that it was in what she said or how she moved or what she wrote on the board. I wish I could tell you that because it would mean that a classroom that exudes love is replicable and teachable. But it was in the way she was. I felt the love I’m trying to describe again on the second day of school this year when I walked into a teacher’s room at East Side and she was doing the ordinary work of reviewing class rules and consequences. Again, it wasn’t so much in what she was saying or doing, but her presence and energy communicated love. There was nothing ordinary about that.
You could argue that it’s not necessary to account for love in classroom practice, and maybe to be considered good you don’t have to love your kids. But when I think about the teachers I have researched, taught, and coached, the ones who have been the most memorable—the ones that unequivocally had a positive impact on kids—I remember them because they loved their students and, more importantly, their students knew it.
Today in schools, we use language to describe whether or not teachers are good in ways that sound like they work in a factory: Are they effective or proficient? Did they think about the assessment in their instruction? What about the objective—is it measurable and actionable? While these features of classroom practice can be important, none of them do well to account for whether or not the teacher loves their students. The same goes for some lines of research that view schools as organizations with products that have efficient practices. We’re missing a lot in our understanding of good teaching when we steer away from the endeavor of love in our practice.
Cultivating love in our classrooms feels important now more than ever. This year I’m continually reminded of how differences in race, class, gender, sexual orientation and even learning style can mount walls of hate, particularly between those with power and those without. But throughout my career, I have witnessed how teachers like Annemarie, in just the way they are, can affirm who their students are by listening to them, by learning about their hopes, strengths, fears, and curiosities, and by seeing them for all of the amazing beings that they are. It’s worth it to love the students we teach. And what are we doing, really, if we don’t?