I’d like to talk for a moment about love and education. In his book To Know as We Are Known, Parker J. Palmer notes, “Most of us go into teaching not for fame or fortune but because of a passion to connect.” And that is where love comes in, for what meaningful connection is not infused with love?
Yet I think we need to dig a little bit deeper into what exactly we mean by love and how that influences our daily teaching practices. Growing up, I remember hearing teachers talk about how they “loved kids” or “loved their subject.” I attended La Salle High School in Milwaukie, Oregon, where I knew that my teachers loved me. How did I know this? My teachers did not just know me; they knew my parents and my siblings. My teachers showed up: They came to the theater productions I was in, offered to help when a friend and I wanted to start a school newspaper and made me feel special by telling me how proud they were of me. I didn’t need to do anything to receive any of this love; it was just given to me. When I return to La Salle to visit, the love is still there. I can feel it.
To my mind, loving people and knowing them are intimately intertwined. For the social justice educator, this means that we come to love our students by learning about who they are. In my classroom, I start learning about my students through the curriculum. Using a technique called Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS), I am able to ask students questions in Spanish in a way that controls vocabulary while simultaneously expanding my knowledge of who they are as individuals. I know which students prefer soccer to football, who dreams of becoming a pharmacist and who I can count on to dramatize the stories we tell in class.
I have grown to understand, however, that knowing my students as individuals is not enough—it doesn’t produce the type of meaningful connection that will create a more equitable and just society. So part of my practice as a social justice educator has been to educate myself. What is the history of segregation in Portland—where my students and I live—and how does it affect the present-day realities of my students? Where are some of my blind spots about race, religion and ethnicity, and which books can help me be aware of them? Who are the colleagues I can trust to tell me hard truths? Love in the classroom means taking a hard look at the interwoven realities of our students, the community and ourselves. What we are not aware of in ourselves, we pass on to our students.
This point was made incredibly clear to me this past year, when one of our vice principals called me into his office to discuss a phone call that a student’s parent had made. De’Shaun’s* mom wanted to know why I was picking on her son. I was perplexed: What did she mean I was picking on her son? To my mind, De’Shaun and I had a great relationship—that was why I could joke around with him. Yet as I reflected on what I considered to be jokes, I started to see things from his perspective, and when I did that, I felt crushed. I had never intended for De’Shaun to feel picked on, but that was the impact. Now that I had messed up the message, how could I repair the damage?
I decided to talk one-on-one with De’Shaun and ask for his forgiveness. Then I said, “Listen, we both know that sometimes you get a little off-task, and as the teacher it’s my job to keep everyone moving toward the goal. How would you like me to redirect you when that happens?”
“You could just say my name.”
We agreed on the plan and put it into action. I had thought that I knew De’Shaun, knew his humor, knew his strengths, but that situation caused me to reevaluate what I thought I knew. This is love in action: a constant shifting of what you knew to what you know, a practice of asking for and extending forgiveness, and a commitment to showing up for each other, even when situations get intense.
I believe that, consciously or unconsciously, love is a choice. There may be days when I don’t like my students, and there are definitely days when they don’t like me. Yet there has never been a day when I did not love them. I choose to love them because in loving, I get to truly know my students, their families, their goals and dreams. And once you know someone, you can’t un-know that person. Their story becomes interwoven with yours. My students’ stories have inspired me to grow, change and become a more loving, connected person. The lessons they have taught me will stay with me long after they have graduated college and established their careers.
What does it mean to love your students? How will you know they are receiving the message you intend? Asking these questions is of the utmost importance because, at the end of the day, it’s the lessons learned through love that last.
*not his real name
Nicola is a Spanish and language arts teacher at Bridger Elementary School in Portland, Oregon. She is also a recipient of the 2014 Teaching Tolerance Award for Excellence in Teaching.