I never would have predicted how much I would love my students before I started teaching. It took a few months to settle in, for me to overcome the all-consuming trials and tribulations of neophyte teaching; but then I fell in love with them. And when I speak of love, I feel I must clarify that this is not a romantic kind of love; at the time, it was a love that was distinctly different from any other love I had known. As I have since become a mother (and during the course of my doctoral research on teacher-student relationships), I can now recognize the love for students as akin to maternal love. It’s not as intense, but it is quite powerful in its own right. And today, I think that perhaps this love is our most powerful weapon against oppression.
In teaching, as in life, “real” love is different from a false or contrived version of love. It’s not about using someone else for a particular end, it’s about meeting them as a whole being worthy of the same recognition and care you desire[i]. As Cunningham (2004) notes, “When we choose real love, we refuse to work within the system. We don’t play by The Rules. In real love, we choose to speak not in the language of competition and violence, but in that of cooperation and compassion.”[ii] This relates to Freire’s concept of “radical love,” which is courageous and liberatory, dialogical and anti-authoritarian. Radical love for students means treating them as human beings with voices and experiences that are equally valuable to those of the teacher.[iii] So that when they go out into the world, they can recognize themselves as worthy of respect and love, even when society tries to tell them otherwise. And they can advocate for themselves and others.
When I taught, these wonderful beings were entrusted into my care and guidance for a year or more (as I taught many of them in English and/or advisory all four years). And I felt fiercely protective of them, placed great value on their thoughts and feelings, and worked as hard as I could to ensure their experience in my classroom felt safe and inclusive. My love for the students meant that I listened to them, designed curricula and instruction around their needs and interests, and sometimes broke the rules (by refusing to teach to the test, by not reporting students to the Dean for particular infractions, by letting them eat food in class). The connection was reciprocal, and they often gratified my efforts with hugs, laudatory notes, and smiles. I never felt underappreciated or unrecognized, and I hope none of them did either; still I do not delude myself into thinking I was perfect. Teachers are but human beings, and we make mistakes just like our students. But again, that human connection is what makes this profession special. It’s a meeting of souls.
Research shows that these teacher-student relationships are incredibly influential for students.[iv] But they are equally influential for teachers. Because real love is reciprocal. When my once-freshman class walked across the stage at senior graduation, I too moved on from teaching. But one day soon thereafter, I was overcome with this poignant sense that when I died, I would again see all of their faces again, just as they appeared when I taught them. Because teaching them, connecting with so many wonderful beings, had been the most meaningful experience of my life. I keep in touch with many of them still, over Facebook, email, and when possible in person. Because they still matter to me. And teaching them was never about reaching an achievement goal or doing a job; it was about love. A love that continues to inspire my research.
Many teachers experience this love. And I do not mean to establish myself here as some paragon of radical love for students, but rather as someone who had the benefit of teacher preparation at UCLA to help me understand how I might show love for students whose lives were so different from my own. I am simply someone who was well-prepared for, genuinely committed to, and deeply moved by this work. Moreover, I know numerous teachers who have loved their students similarly and more powerfully. Most of teachers I trained with at UCLA and worked with at the high school in Los Angeles practiced or continue to practice radical love for students everyday. This love is what inspires teachers to stay late or arrive early at school, to spend hours planning and grading on the weekends, to call parents and discuss the many achievements their child has made, to write long glowing letters of recommendation to colleges and internships, to design exciting and responsive curricular projects and activities, to be there everyday – rain or shine, healthy or not – to welcome students at the door with a genuine smile. We certainly don’t do it for the pay, the external rewards, we do it for it for the intrinsic rewards.[v] Because we love them and they make our lives so much more fulfilling.
But with the pressures of increased standardization, top-down instruction, budget cuts and school competition, such a love is much easier named than enacted. Teaching and retaining this love for so many amidst a turbulent sea of political and logistical challenges, can be all-consuming. Many nights, I felt that I had so little left to give to anyone or anything else that I worried about my ability to wake up the next day. And six years later, the political and educational climate in this country has only gotten worse. Teachers are still demonized for requesting cost-of-living increases to their pay, improved working conditions, and more resources (when they should be lionized for doing noble work). But now, forces at the federal level also seek to dismantle the very institutions where this love is cultivated and disseminated, to dismantle the families that we serve and serve us in the classroom. And we must fight it with an even more powerful radical love.
We must listen to teachers, honor them, and speak up for them. We must better support them to do the same for their students, through thoughtful teacher preparation and continuing support at the school-level. We must spread real, radical love, not hate, from the ground up – in our schools and families. Because perhaps only love can truly counter the forces of oppression that seek to dominate this country.
[i] Buber, Martin. (1937). I and Thou. New York: Scribner & Sons
[ii] As cited in Douglas & Nganga, 2015
[iii] Douglas & Nganga, 2015; Freire, 1970, 1993.
[iv] See Cooper, 2013; Fredricks, Blumenfeld, & Paris, 2004; Martin & Dowson, 2009; Sosa & Gomez, 2012
[v] Lortie, 1975