Friday, June 15, 2012

What Love Has to Do with It

And now the long overdue effort to explain exactly how to act on the advice "You can't teach'em if you don't love'em." Feel free to note how far removed this is from the actions of the unfortunate hypothetical teacher featured in my previous post.

Start with a question: How would you treat students if you did love them? How would you make them feel loved?

You would make them feel welcomed, invited, respected. Greet them with warm hospitality. When they enter our clasroom, they shouldn't have the sense that they've interrupted something more important. So wait til later to finish whatever you have going on the computer. You have guests, for God's sake. Put down what you're doing and say hello.

You would be honest with them unless it is impossible to do so. Be encouraging without being hyperbolic. No need to assure a wonderful young person with a weak background in your discipline that she will very likely be admitted to Harvard with numerous scholarships. Be honest, but also tactful and kind, in your assessment of their work. See my post on grading for an elaboration on this point. As for when it's impossible to be honest, I leave it to you to generate your own examples.

You would express gratitude to them at every opportunity. Often when I loan students a pencil or give them a band-aid (hope it's legal!), it bothers me that they don't know to thank me. So whenever they do something to help me -- including showing up for class -- I thank them, both because I appreciate what they've done and because I want to model that bit of civil behavior.

You would listen to them. You wouldn't believe how rarely anyone listens to these kids. Hey, their own best friends text other people during conversations! They're lucky if their parents listen to them a few minutes a day. Many of us teachers are busy composing a response when students speak to us. So, take a breath and give the gift of listening. Sure, it's not a Marzano indicator, but go rogue for just that moment!

You would be flexible in your effort to teach them. Your favorite style of teaching may not be their favorite style of learning. What works well for most of the class may be completely alien to young Herbie in the back row. You cannot squeeze all your students either into your personal pedagogical theory or one imposed on you by the suits, the district, the state. A student will certainly feel loved if you expend the time and energy required to see what works best for him. On a related matter, I will talk about, in a future post, how little I would've liked having me as a teacher. My teaching style doesn't match up well with my preferred learning style.

You would do your best to nurture students into becoming their best selves. We meet them and "love" them where they are when we find them, but how can we not want to see them become aware of their potential and motivate them to reach it? Doing this well may not make us lovable to them, not for a while anyway.

You would care for them as individual selves, but also by helping them become a part of something larger than themselves, in this case a part of a learning community. For example, in The Scarlet Letter, Hester urges Dimmesdale to flee Boston and a find a new and better life. You could assign a personal, informal, journal-like response asking your students to ponder the value of Hester's advice. After each student has had time to be alone with her thoughts and express them in her own voice, ask them all to share their ideas in pairs or groups. Now they see other ways of seeing; and, if the gods of pedagogy are smiling that day, they see how this communal sharing nurtures baby or incipient or still-evolving ideas into maturity when added to the ideas of others.

Finally, because they watch you practice your gift every day (sure, they are somewhat bound by law to do so), you should reciprocate and, whenever possible, watch them practice theirs. By that I mean drag your tired self back to campus and watch them play basketball or perform in a concert or a play or go see their art exhibits  -- anything to show a willingness to know them as they exist outside the narrow confines of your classroom.

There really is something magical about seeing a young person who is struggling in your class and who appears to be happy not to be noticed, stand up in front of hundreds of people and just knock their socks off with a voice apparently sent directly from the heavens. You'll never look at that student the same way again and you'll have a better idea of what it means to actually love him.

Hmm. That's sort of what it comes down to, isn't it? In our line of work, what we mean when we talk about love is the participation of other humans in what we believe is our gift. They are witnesses to it, but more importantly collaborators in it, co-creators of it and recipients of it. And without that kind of love, we can't teach'em.

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