The Love Principle

In which I reveal my own failure to love in a very epic way….

This is @edpsychprof's weekly newsletter for those interested in transforming schools to become places where children (and adults) can thrive.

This week is the first in a five part series on principles that I believe are essential to creating a school culture that helps children thrive. I developed these principles to serve as the foundation for the charter school I founded, yet the principles are universal, based in robust theory and research from psychology and education.

Photo by Anna Kolosyuk on Unsplash

Today we start with Nurture, or what I refer to at Galileo School as the The Love Principle. Though this may sound “sappy” (so I’ve been told), it is critical to creating a positive learning environment for both students and teachers. Love, as used here, is not defined as a feeling. Rather it is a verb: love is actively seeking out another’s good. Love is a willingness to help others, even at a cost to oneself.

Nurture means that the focus of this active love ought to be on what helps the people in the school grow and thrive. Research in developmental psychology shows that the foundation of a healthy childhood is a sense of trust in the caregiver. The same goes for schools and teachers, as research on caring schools shows. Positive student-teacher relationships are the foundation of student engagement in learning, and student engagement is a strong predictor of kids’ academic success. So love is not touchy-feely but essential to creating an environment where kids can succeed.

Teachers and staff must be included in this because if they don’t feel supported, if they feel oppressed or miserable at work, how can they treat their students well? Ensuring that schools maintain a positive, caring climate ought to be the number one priority of school districts and school administrators.

Sadly, many schools are places of fear, judgment, and misery. Ask any kid attending a typical public school if they like going to school. Far too many will say no. And sadly, hating school has become normative in our culture. Such dislike of school has consequences throughout the child’s life, including an anti-intellectualism that does not bode well for the future of our country. High stakes tests, assignments that lack meaning, low pay and difficult working conditions for teachers and staff: all contribute to an unhappy atmosphere.

Let me tell you a story about my own epic failure to love and nurture. I was a green and naïve teacher when I began teaching at an barrio school in Santa Fe, New Mexico. And then I met Russell. Russell was a Native American student who told me he was going to be a movie star. He was small for his age, quiet, and very sweet. But he did not do any work. Not homework, nor classwork. His parents never attended any parent-teacher conferences nor answered my phone calls. Russell was failing 4th grade, and I was determined that he would succeed. I decided I needed to have a serious talk with his parents about Russell’s lack of initiative. I was so full of myself, ready to tell them a thing or two about their-and his-lack of responsibility! Well, unable to reach them after repeated tries, I decided to go to Russell's house myself. Approaching the door of the address I was given, I was stunned to realize it was a homeless shelter. When I knocked and asked for Russell, his sister came to talk to me. She was young, 15 at most, and she was the one in charge of Russell. His parents, she told me, were not in the picture. She apologized for Russell not doing his homework, then shut the door. I left red-faced and ashamed, sure that I should have been the one apologizing. That incident changed my perspective on teaching, and I became resolved to create a classroom where the each child would be met where they were at, holding my expectations as an invitation, and not as a cudgel.

So, the Love Principle. Schools exist to serve the kids they have, not the kids they wish they had. I have taught a lot of teachers in my 17-plus years of being a professor. I have heard many complaints—that kids these days have so many problems and needs. Yes, that is true. Public schools are highly diverse (or ought to be) and contain kids with all kinds of issues. Here’s my perspective on this: We must love the kids we have, with all their difficulties and problems and gifts. And we must focus on the good in these kids, seeking to uncover their strengths, talents, and uniqueness. We keep shining a light on that goodness, allowing room for its expression and development, until everyone sees it. We also help them get the help they need, advocating for them as their ally. So the whole school culture then is one of service, with teachers on the front lines, serving kids, and school staff and administrators serving the servers—doing whatever they can to help the teachers help their students. That is what the Love Principle looks like in action.

To create this culture in classrooms, we must address the hidden norms of behavior, expectations for what is appropriate, and underlying beliefs about learning and achievement that undermine nurture and love. This includes norms for how we treat each other, such as adopting the norm, “No yelling at each other; speak with respect to children and adults alike.” I was surprised on my tour of great schools during my sabbatical how much kids still get yelled at, often for minor misbehaviors. Norms for students’ behavior (that they are invited to help create) include things like no teasing others, and that it’s ok to struggle. Most of all, be kind to each other.

Also hidden in schools are underlying beliefs about teachers and students that affect the school culture and whether it is one of caring and nurture. Core beliefs about learning must be examined and replaced when they are found to be detrimental to students’ success. One belief that is essential to hold is that all children can learn. Not just those who understand the material quickly. All children can learn. Ability can be improved with effort, appropriate strategies, and support.

Kids need to move and be outside. Taking away recess is a cruel and unloving consequence for kids. They ought be be able to sit where they are comfortable and have time to delve deeply into subjects of interest. I could go on and on….but I think you get it. So much of good schooling starts with creating learning spaces where the needs of the people in the school are taken seriously. That should not be a radical idea. That is the foundation of ethical treatment of human beings. The consequences of not creating schools based in a nurture approach are far too egregious, and even inhumane, especially for the least privileged among us. As Alfie Kohn once told me, “it's appalling that kids … are basically treated like pets with a combination of bribes or threats to get mindless obedience.” He was speaking particularly about underprivileged kids, but I think his admonition applies to all schools that make controlling kids, rather than nurturing them, their priority.

So, what do you think? What are some things you have seen in schools that create nurture and what works against it? I would love to hear your thoughts--they help clarify my own thinking and contribute to the larger discussion on this topic. Plus, your responses help create community around this idea of school transformation. Who knows what good we can do together?

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