Teachers love their students. We see the joy they show every year as students return back to school, despite constant beat downs on their profession and struggles for fairer pay. We see it when they dig into their own pockets to buy whatever their students need.
But after traveling the country over the last three years in my mission to ensure all students have equitable access to instruction, I’ve realized that there is an absolute wrong way to love our students.
There are countless examples of the wrong kind of love.
While training hundreds of teachers on practical strategies to teach critical thinking, a first-grade teacher confessed that she “just couldn’t take seeing her students struggle” because she felt like she was “in the business of building their self-esteem.”
A math department chair at a school with dismal math performance on standardized exams shared that it was “impossible” to ask students to do word problems because “they just get too frustrated and give up.”
The Right Kind of Love
When I taught ninth-grade math in Washington, D.C., I had a student who went from doing no work and getting in all sorts of trouble to applying himself in his classes and earning the “most improved student” award.
When I reconnected with this young man 13 years later, I was curious about why he never attended the awards assemblies to receive his honors. And his response was the most powerful indicator that we were giving him the wrong kind of love: “I just didn’t understand why you all were giving me all these awards for just doing what I was always supposed to be doing in the first place.”
If our love for students is about protecting them from challenges we believe they won’t be able to handle, it’s the wrong kind of love. If our love for students is about helping them to the point where they develop a sense of learned helplessness, it’s the wrong kind of love. And if our love is grounded in the soft bigotry of low expectations, it is the wrong kind of love.
This isn’t just a teacher issue. My daughter, Rose, loves pouring on lots of syrup on her pancakes. One morning at brunch, she tried to pour the syrup using her left hand and it didn’t work. She made a confused face and tried to do it with her right hand but to no avail. I looked at her and I saw her head spinning and I started rooting for her. “You got this baby!” I said. I knew she would figure out that this syrup needed to be turned completely upside down for it to come out.
But before my baby girl could experience her victory, her sweet Nana said, “Come here baby let me help you,” and I dramatically yelled, “NOOOOOOO,” causing lots of awkward glares from the wait staff and patrons of this restaurant. Perhaps I overreacted, but at the same time, this was the wrong type of love because it denied my child of the glory of productive struggle.
If we can give our students and our children the right type of love that recognizes the tremendous assets they come in with, the love that values the critical thinking they do every single day just to survive, and the love that recognizes that our kids don’t need to learn “grit,” they just need to be in environments that give them meaningful reasons to showcase their grittiness, then our love is like Mary J. Blige’s “Real Love.”
So let’s focus on the right kind of love and catch ourselves as educators and parents when we are giving students the wrong kind of love. Because the only way we can create a world where all of our students are prepared to handle the challenging world they will inherit in the future is to love them enough to give them meaningful challenges today.