Valentine’s Day: Possibly the second-most dreaded day of the school year—after Halloween—for many teachers.
Candy hearts and raging hormones aside, “love” is not a word we often hear in education. But anyone who has spent time in the classroom has seen how it can be a place of incredible love—just not the kind we associate with the gooey and romantic love of Valentine’s Day.
A few weeks ago, I asked readers to send in their stories of love in education, to be highlighted in this week’s article. I was overwhelmed by the thoughtful and moving responses, illustrating the deep connections possible between teachers and students.
Unfortunately, I don’t have space to feature all of the submissions I received. In sharing some of the responses below, I’ve paired them with corresponding scientific concepts of love to validate and encourage what most teachers attempt to do everyday in the classroom—create loving environments in which students both learn and thrive.
We all know that teaching can emotionally drain us to the point where we no longer connect with our students. But Barbara Fredrickson, an expert on positive emotions and the author of the new book Love 2.0, prescribes love as a remedy.
“Your ability to understand and empathize with others,” she writes, “depends mightily on having a steady diet of positivity resonance.” Positivity resonance, or a “micro-moment of love,” is that moment when you and another person attune to one another’s emotions, which then results in a mutual regard and care for each other. Reflecting on these moments, according to Fredrickson, can actually increase our social connections and positive emotions.
A poem sent to me by retired principal, Mary Langer Thompson, illustrates how being mindful of the small joys found in schools can help remind us of the connections we share with our students—and thereby feed our reservoir of love.
Glory be to God for schoolish things—
for glint of slide in sun,
for towheads, redheads, brown, or black hair
flying as they twist down, arms raised.
For glasses on little faces,
legs in shorts with bookbags full of homework
finished and unfinished.
For laughter and touch tag,
Seuss and Potter,
for small chairs to keep us grounded.
Love tears down walls
So many of our students come to us with their defenses up, whether from trauma, family dysfunction, negative school experiences, or countless other reasons. Yet their attempt to protect themselves actually prevents them from healing. “Being less able to connect,” writes Fredrickson, “shuts you and your body out from registering and creating opportunities for positivity resonance, which are both life-giving and health-conferring.”
Getting past these defenses can be incredibly difficult for educators, if not sometimes impossible. But the more teachers can provide caring classrooms where students experience positive emotions and connections, the more likely those defenses will just melt away.
A poem that teacher Ivy Sandz submitted, written to her by one of her teenage students, beautifully illustrates this.
When I first met you
The stony wall around my hands
Was proud and gray, and
Your patience was no small feat.
You took that wall down
Carrying as many stones with it
As you could.
The transformative power of love
One of the most powerful relationships we can experience as human beings is the one between student and teacher. When they operate with love, teachers can shape the minds and hearts of their students.
“A micro-moment of love, like other positive emotions, literally changes your mind. It expands your awareness of your surroundings, even your sense of self,” writes Fredrickson, “Love can even give you a palpable sense of oneness and connection, a transcendence that makes you feel part of something far larger than yourself.”
In her “Sonnet for a New Scholastic Paradigm,” Institute for Humane Education masters student Cynthia Trapanese captures this relationship between teacher and student.
To learn, oneself, while teaching another
Achieves an educational intent.
Authentically relating so other
Students can find their knowledge ascent.
Connected in unity with space and time.
Curious: nature and nurture almost rhyme.
Our most challenging students often are crying out to be seen, heard, and accepted for who they are—to be loved compassionately. And it is at those moments that we, as teachers, become our most human.
To truly understand compassionate love, scientist Lynn Underwood asks audiences to “reflect on a time in the past when you personally felt truly loved, loved for who you truly are, beyond the momentary circumstances, beyond what was expected of you”. Giving and receiving this kind of love boosts self-esteem, self-awareness, spirituality, and positive emotions.
Veteran science teacher and educational consultant Tony Manzanares shared his story of one of those classroom moments with a student when the only thing that would suffice was compassionate love:
Leo was tall, over six feet, towering head and shoulders above the others. He carried so much muscular physical power, and he was bust-the-door-down mad as he burst into my biology class, late, intimidating, and itching for a fight. From shoulder height, he slammed his books down hard upon his desk, standing tall, looking for a target.
“So good that you’re back,” I said to Leo. “We’re about to begin my most interesting lab ever! Let’s get started.”
“I don’t want to get started,” Leo angrily responded, refusing to be seated.
“Would you like to talk? You look unhappy or are you upset?”
“I don’t want to f—ing talk to you, to anyone. Leave me alone.”
So quiet, the clock can be heard ticking softly off the wall.
“Not a good time to talk, I can see that,” I replied. “But if you ever want someone to listen, if you ever want someone to try and understand, sign me up coach.”
There. You could actually see some of the anger melting off his shoulders as he began the long descent into his seat.
What happened? What was essential, but invisible to the eye?
Leo wasn’t angry with me, but with his world. Something had made him bone-breaking mad. I just wanted to get back to my lesson, but there was such a grand “teachable moment” here. I felt compelled to drop a pebble in the pond and see where the ripples went.
Love, perhaps, is the ability to see more deeply, to understand the vicissitudes in the lives of the teenagers that fill our classrooms, and know that love heals their wounds when all else has failed.