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Keeping Love at the Heart of Teaching

Often at the beginning of each of my courses, I ask my students to do one of two things. If it is a larger class, I'll ask the students to share three words that they hope their students will use to describe them/their class and if it's a smaller group I ask them who their favorite teacher is/was and why? Without fail the words "caring", "passion/passionate" and "loving" are among the top-mentioned words. In a system dominated by practices rooted in uniformed, test-/data-driven approaches to teaching and learning, it's no surprise those that resonate most with people are those that act in opposition, emphasizing love, care and humanity. In fact, while it may seem odd (again due to negative images and stories portrayed in the media) to discuss the act of showing love to students in the classroom, I argue that this is exactly what is needed to develop truly transformative educational experiences.

This is especially true for students of color and/or who live in low-income areas as traditional practices rooted in dominant (read White, affluent) norms of society often frame their ways of knowing and being in the world as "deficient", "problematic", "disruptive", etc.

By now, y'all should know I LOVE a list of tips, strategies and suggestons. So, today for my Valentine's Day-inspired post, I am sharing some ways to center love and care in your practices:

  • Talk with students not to, at, or about them. Dialogue is crucial to building relationships-how do you expect to get to know someone if you never talk? But also remember: Dialogue is a two-way street. If we want to truly get to know our students (or anyone for that matter) and build authentic and meaningful relationships, we must engage in bi-directional dialogue in which students are actively involved in not only receiving, but sharing personal narratives (be sure to check out my upcoming post on a really cool approach to doing this), feedback on and suggestions for effective instructional and classroom procedures/practices, and ideas for how to improve the overall classroom culture and school environment. This concept is at the core of every critical and culturally relevant approach to education, and it hinges on the belief that effective, transformative teaching should not frame students, particularly those who have been historically and continuously marginalized, as passive in the teaching and learning process.

  • Show love & support OUTSIDE of the classroom/school. As a former elementary school teacher, and a lifelong learner/educator, I know that when that final bell rings, the main thing you're thinking about is getting home and getting to the many things you need to do outside of the classroom, especially on a Friday. However, it's important to show students that you care about and support their interests and activities outside of the classroom as well. Again, think about the relationships in your life that mean the most to you. They're often characterized by one or both members sharing in each others' interests and activities, showing support and love even when they're a little tired or feeling out of place. So every once in a while go to events in students' communities (sporting events, concerts, festivals/fairs), especially those they invite you to-and if they like you, they WILL invite you. Show up, support, listen and observe. There will be so much in these events that can help you gain necessary insight into who your students are while also showing them that you care and love them enough to show up and talk about the things THEY value.

  • Welcome students' out-of-school interests/lives/communities INTO the school and classroom This is one I've talked about many times on the blog already, and I think it's impossible not to mention it each time because it is such an important aspect of cultivating loving, caring, welcoming and validating environments. Many students, particularly students of color, rarely see their authentic selves and communities reflected in curricular designs, instructional practices or in the physical and cultural landscape of schools. As mentioned earlier, it is more often that instead of receiving messages that schools/teachers "love" and "care" for them as they are, students of color and/or living in low-income areas receive explicit and implicit messages that their teachers/schools "love" and "care" for them enough to push for them to change who they are to better fit with dominant (read White, Affluent) norms and expectations. So yes, go out into the community, support your students in their element, but remember, that's all wasted energy if you still require that they shed those aspects of their identities when they walk into your building each day. Check out the previous post for more ideas on how to actively teach through practices that welcome and value students' authentic identities into the classroom space.

  • Co-Construct Dynamic, Creative, Passion-filled Learning Experiences. Again, this is one that is going to come up often on the blog, but if you want students to feel a passion and love for and within education, they need to experience it in a way that evokes that those feelings. For this reason I often use the phrase "learning experience" instead of "lessons" or "units" because it emphasizes that teaching AND LEARNING are ACTIVE processes and students need to EXPERIENCE them as such. Teaching from a place of love requires a shift away from approaches that have teacher literally depositing information into students' minds (shout out to Freire and his criticism of the banking model of education). Create experiences that push students in their thinking, engage them in critical dialogue that ask them how to apply various concepts and topics to real-world situations rooted in their daily lived realities and disrupt dominant narratives about appropriate and valuable forms of knowledge acquisition and expression. This sends the message that you love them enough to provide the type of learning experiences they deserve and engaging them in the process of co-creating these experiences with them sends an additional message that you care that their voices and perspectives are front and center.

  • Share who YOU are/Display your own humanity. I saved this one for last because it was the one that took me a bit longer to get to in my own development as an educator. In general, people will often feel more comfortable opening up about themselves if they see that you are being open and honest about yourself. Centering love and caring in attempts to humanize your practice, requires that you practice what you preach, by showing students your humanity. Often teachers enter classrooms with that whole "check your emotions at the door" or "don't smile until December" mentality that leaves students feeling like they're learning from emotionless robots. Open up! Let Loose! Students should see you make mistakes, show vulnerability, see your passions and sense of humor, and have a little insight into the experiences that you may share with them (personal narratives from when you were their age go a LONG LONG way). In doing so, you not only open up to students but also shift the culture from one that is more EFFECTIVE because it is also AFFECTIVE, where the emphasis is not only on developing students' cognitive abilities but also attends to the emotional and social aspects of the human and educational experience.

So this is just a very short list of some of the ways that you can communicate and demonstrate your love and care for your students. While I once again echo educational scholar and all-around dope human, Gloria Ladson-Billings in that these approaches are effective for transforming education for ALL students, they remain absolutely CRITICAL for the development of equitable practices aimed at increased feelings of belonging, acceptance and validation for the predominantly Black and Latinx students in traditionally underserved communities. As I told my students in a recent class, tolerance was once the primary aim of social justice-oriented work. We are now in a time where we MUST move beyond that into acceptance, value and, of course, love.

Happy Valentine's Day everyone!

Let's continue to build and grow together!

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