Love. Not a word you will generally find in education blogs, even on Valentine’s Day. And I've hesitated before writing this one – in a world where talk is of grit, resilience, rising to the challenge – where classrooms are described as ‘battle grounds’ and teachers are told to toughen up – where’s the place for it?
Over the past few months I’ve been fortunate enough to observe many hours of teaching (47 since October, to be precise). Welcoming an observer into your classroom is always a challenge, even when it’s just me coming in, your friendly little tutor. I have a lot of respect for student teachers who are observed all the time by their tutors, mentors and peers – sometimes all of these in the same lesson, hanging around in anticipation, like an NHS crash team. I always write a lot of feedback, and the word ‘love’ does not appear on any of my observation forms. Yet despite all the pressure and artificiality of an observed teach it’s usually there, like a big (cuddly) elephant in the corner of the room, colouring and shaping the very best teaching that I’ve seen. I would even argue that it is the key difference between good and great– its presence is vital, yet hard to define. You’ll never put love into a tick-box.
By love, I mean love for teaching itself, of course. I’ve witnessed joy and pleasure in the crafting of a lesson that works, the delight in trying something new, the satisfaction of challenging yourself, excitement at helping understanding, the sheer delight at seeing a stuck penny finally drop.
I also mean love for students (don’t smirk) – shown through the absolute acceptance and celebration of difference, the presence of empathy and kindness, values expressed through caring and the encouraging of independence.
Perhaps the hardest element here (and arguably the most important) is the love that teachers feel for themselves. Student teachers, like us all, are their own worst critics – in shoe-horning all the essential elements into their lessons, embedding so much necessary stuff it all becomes like an overstuffed Christmas cake – with so much going on you don’t know what flavour to concentrate on first. In the midst of all of this, encouraging students to be fully themselves, it is difficult to remember that we need to be ourselves too – in all our failings and vulnerabilities.
I owe a lot of this thinking to Nancy Kline’s ten components of a Thinking Environment - which are all about love, of course. Paying attention, having a place that communicates to people that they ‘matter’, achieving equality of participation, moving beyond competition – at the same time the most simple, and the hardest things we can do. And my ultimate inspiration - @teachnorthern’s four cornerstones of social purpose teaching. Teaching to benefit the world - connecting with our own values as teachers - reflecting on our practice and truly embedding diversity - if these aren't all about love, I don't know what is.
I’ll leave you with this poem by Al Zolynas – and a plea not to 'keep a coward's silence' but to capture and remember those moments of love, which are ultimately, for me, what teaching is really all about.
Love in the Classroom
Afternoon. Across the garden, in Greco Hall,
someone begins playing the old piano–
a spontaneous piece, amateurish and alive,
full of a simple, joyful melody.
The music floats among us in the classroom.
I stand in front of my students
telling them about sentence fragments.
I ask them to find the ten fragments
in the twenty-one-sentence paragraph on page forty-five.
They've come from all parts
of the world–Iran, Micronesia, Africa,
Japan, China, even Los Angeles–and they're still
eager to please me. It's less than half
way through the quarter.
They bend over their books and begin.
Hamid's lips move as he follows
the tortuous labyrinth of English syntax.
Yoshie sits erect, perfect in her pale make-up,
legs crossed, quick pulse minutely
jerking her right foot. Tony
sprawls limp in his desk, relaxed
as only someone can be who's
from an island in the South Pacific.
The melody floats around and through us
in the room, broken here and there, fragmented,
re-started. It feels mideastern, but
it could be jazz, or the blues–it could be
anything from anywhere.
I sit down on my desk to wait,
and it hits me from nowhere–a sudden
sweet, almost painful love for my students.
"Nevermind," I want to cry out.
"It doesn't matter about fragments.
Finding them or not. Everything's
a fragment and everything's not a fragment.
Listen to the music, how fragmented,
how whole, how we can't separate the music
from the sun falling on its knees on all the greenness,
from this moment, how this moment
contains all the fragments of yesterday
and everything we'll ever know of tomorrow!"
Instead, I keep a coward's silence.
The music stops abruptly;
they finish their work,
and we go through the right answers,
which is to say
we separate the fragments from the whole.
Cutts, N. (2010). Love at Work, Fisher King Publishing
Kline, N. (1995). Time to Think, Cassell Illustrated