On Learning and Love

"...what teachers really teach is themselves — their contagious passion for their subjects and students. It reminded us that 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." David Brooks

Isn’t that beautiful? 

As my teaching practice has matured, so have my students: what began as a career as a primary school specialist has necessarily evolved into secondary school specialism. Last week I helped clarify the failure of the League of Nations, iambic pentameter, coastal erosion and research variables. I use the word clarify, because I am not a subject specialist per se.  5 years ago, my knowledge of European history, poetry analysis and physical geography were rusty, to say the least.

I remember the first pupil who heaved his physics book on the table and asked for my help. I had taught him to spell and now he had grown and needed help with something new. It was a teaching milestone for me – I could have said ‘I don’t teach physics’ and meant it. There are some secondary teachers who would have preferred I say no, preserving the sanctity of the subject. But what would I have modelled in the moment?

My students, all special and different, come to my table with a sense that things are out of their reach. They have an educational history of finding learning and remembering very difficult, and immense frustration that they can’t express what they know. They arrive vulnerable in some way, and it is an awesome and sacred responsibility to meet them there and walk them forward towards self-belief. What does that look like in practice?

I looked this young man in the eyes and said “well, I know nothing about this either, but I’ll have a go.” We searched the internet. We decided which sites were easy to understand. We read and we discussed and tried to teach each other. I found my understanding of velocity improve, and so did his. Neither of us has come to love physics, but we share a commitment: to learning how to do what we don’t know how to do - yet. Yesterday he said to me, regarding a quote bank for a book he doesn’t like (understand), ‘I hate this book, but I believe you. So if you say that’s what the author means, I’ll believe you. We’ll start there.’

That one act, exposing my vulnerability as a teacher, endeared me to him. I showed my lack of ability like it was no big thing. Every week my students bring their vulnerability to me. They hate that they find learning difficult. Their pride takes a beating, as does their self-esteem. For someone to show themselves to you like that, especially a teenager, is an awesome thing. To be vested with that trust is an awesome thing.

So every week I do the same. I show who I am, too. I’m great at geography, my maths is appalling, and I try extra hard with physics. No one can read my handwriting. I have no idea where I left my glasses. I’ll go to places I’m not skilled in with you. I’ll bring my understanding of neurodiverse learning patterns and you bring us what we need to learn. I’ll explain it in the way you understand. I’ll teach you to remember it in the way that suits you. You are grateful I get you, I am grateful you let me. You trust me with your learning difficulty.  How can that not breed love? ‘I believe you’ and I believe in you go hand in hand.

Students Learn From People They Love : Putting relationship quality at the center of education.