Loving the heck out of our students

February 01, 2019

Enjoy this week's Ta Shma here.

Dear Beit Rabban Community,

When our wonderful teachers returned to school in late August, I welcomed them with this introduction: "Our job is first and foremost to love the heck out of our students. In a few minutes, we start summer in-service and we will get into the weeds. We will obsess over lesson planning; over pedagogy; over assessing student growth... All this is necessary and we will approach these processes with rigor and fidelity and with the goal of ensuring that each student is getting what they need and deserve. But as important as each of these investments is, they will not do enough to serve our students. In fact, all this effort will not make a lasting difference in any child's life unless that child also knows that their teacher loves them."    

Some of you may completely agree with me, maybe my welcome back message to teachers seems obvious to you. But I am sure there are people reading this email to whom these words sound like ridiculous hyperbole. Sure a sense of belonging is fundamental to a student's social-emotional wellbeing, but haven't we all learned from people with whom we had no personal connection. Maybe we even learned from certain teachers or professors who used strategies like public shaming. Forget about loving your students, maybe being nice to them is not even essential to their learning.

First, I want to be clear that loving someone, whether that person is a friend, child or student, does not imply coddling them or lowering your expectations of them. Quite the opposite. Second, the kind of love that mandates high expectations or sometimes requires a firm response is not the same as "tough love." Shaming, minimizing, and scaring are not characteristics of a loving relationship, and those tactics do not lead to intellectual growth. They may motivate us to accomplish specific tasks, but they do help students develop the skills they  need to be independent learners with the capacity for mastery: skills like curiosity, wonder, perseverance, and creative problem solving. 

The field of brain science is having an increasingly significant impact on education, elementary and beyond. Obviously understanding how people learn in general, and specifically at different stages of development, is critical to designing effective teaching practices. One of the amazing things we are learning is that science supports the value of emotional connection between student and teacher as an essential feature of the learning process.

You may have read David Brooks' opinion piece on this topic in the New York Times. He sites some of the neuroscience research driving the increasing focus on social-emotional learning. He writes that "what teachers really teach is themselves - their contagious passion for their subjects and students... children learn from people they love, and that love in this context means willing the good of another, and offering active care for the whole person." This article affirmed things I already believe, and so I loved it. Who doesn't love to be affirmed by the Times! But, I do think there is a leap between the need for a personal, trusting relationship and the need for a loving relationship. 
I  hope the neuroscience catches up and bridges the leap so that state education standards require all teachers to love their students. Until then, I continue to believe that a personal relationship of trust between teacher and student is necessary but insufficient. To stick with a child on their educational journey--through changing needs, changing attitudes, changing hormones, and changing stages of brain development--must be a labor of love. I do not believe a teacher can sustain the necessary level of commitment to a student's intellectual, emotional and spiritual growth without loving that child. And, I am confident that a child is far more likely to stick with their teacher--and with all the challenging skills, knowledge and dispositions the teacher is trying to impart--when a child feels their teacher's love. 

We are in evaluation season right now at Beit Rabban. Teachers have completed student progress reports, administrators are working on teachers' annual reviews, and everyone is about to take part in 360 reviews of the members of our administration. We also recently came together as a staff for a mid-year check in on our school-wide goals for the year. With all this evaluation, it occurs to me that we are not assessing how well we are doing at "loving the heck out of our students." 
The part of David Brooks' piece that I appreciate beyond enjoying the affirmation is when he asks "Do you have a metric for measuring relationship quality? Do you have teams reviewing relationship quality?" In fact, we do have this in place for relationships between students, for co-teaching relationships, and for administration-teachers relationships, but we do not have a formalized system to asses the strength of  our teacher-student relationships. I am internalizing David Brooks' questions and implied rebuke, and we are going to do something about this. Stay tuned.
Wishing all a restful and rejuvenating Shabbat,