There’s an old adage in education that was once told to new teachers. It was, “Don’t smile until December”. The concept was that you wanted to start out heavy handed and restrictive in your classroom management so that you could eventually, by December, start to unloosen the ties that bind your classroom. There was always caution about doing the reverse - being too friendly would lead to an out of control classroom. The danger was that you could go from being a dictatorship to a democracy but not the other way around. As obscene as this metaphor is, I’ve experienced a lackadaisical classroom try to restore order. It is damn near impossible.
To wit - there is truth in the statement, “There is no ‘one way’ to do everything”. Absolute pedagogies are, in general, not the most useful ways to approach teaching. I’ve long advocated for a melting pot approach in teaching and education. From coast to coast we have a great panoply of culture, belief, and personalities when it comes to the students we teach. From rural to suburban to urban and back again - each classroom and class varies wildly in how we must approach them. Such is the danger of advocating for one way to do things given all the variables we juggle and manage in our classrooms.
Within this pedagogically ‘live free or die hard’ maxim sits another maxim - there's always an exception to the rule. The exception I submit to the court is The Five Most Important Words For Our Classrooms. I don’t have many ‘non-negotiables’ in my teaching world, but these five words are a must. You can’t add, subtract, or ignore one or two of them. It’s the opposite of the Sesame Street segment, “One of these things is not like the other, one of these things does not belong.” The five words are like five twins that were born together at birth - to seperate them would be to kill them.
To review - Kindness, Compassion, Mercy, and Grace were the original four I crafted in my first year (2018-2019) of teaching. I taught 6th graders and discovered halfway through the year that many of our students were making choices to be the meanest and unkind people could be to each other. I taught the lessons and used those four words in classes, hallways, and everywhere in the building to help remind students that how we treat ourselves and each other does matter.
In my second year of teaching 6th grade (2019-2020) I taught the lessons again, this time at the start of the year. Towards the middle of the school year I attended (with a group of our educators) a Capturing Kids Hearts session at the behest of our district. Walking out of the two day session, my paradigm had shifted exponentially. The fifth word entered my lexicon - love.
Love is a religion - it needs practice, it needs sharpening, and it needs to grow. There’s a reason why songs, movies, books, poems, and endless pages of literature have been filled with the feeling. If this word occupies such a significant portion of our cultural zeitgeist why would we not engage it with our students? In 2016 I attended the Colorado Language Arts Society’s conference and Sarah Brown Wessling was one the speakers. She said this, “"Love your students. When they love you back - and you're not easy to love - those students will work hard for you."
Loving your students means saying it. I’ll freely admit I didn’t use the words in my first year or even most of my second year. I learned through Capturing Kids Hearts and several mentors the value of telling your students that you love them. I started saying it in our distance learning videos.
I explained it in my “Last Lesson” to them - I love their creativity, I love their weirdness, their wonderfulness, their sense of wonder, humor, and hope. I love the way their minds think, examine, and decide. I love how they can see the forest and the trees with alarming accuracy. I love that I get to hang out with them, teach them, listen to them, encourage them, and learn from them. We get to know each other, share the things we like, dislike, and still haven’t figured out. I love meeting them in August and then seeing them off in May while finding pride and joy in how they’ve changed, figured themselves out more, and have made the choice to continue to learn about who they are and what they can do. I love their drama that I am sometimes called in to mediate. I love that they fall in love with classmates just as fast as they fall out, dump, or ignore. I love that 6th grade is a constant experiment in identity, feelings, and self. I love that I get to walk along with them and be there when they allow me to listen, encourage, and mentor.
Love means accepting them for who they are, the mistakes they made, make, and might make. Love directs us to tamp down our judgmental piousness of being older and wiser. It pushes us to sit next to them and be with them in the struggle and maybe if they ask - giving that advice. Love forces us into not holding the last day's antics against them on the dawn of a new day. Love dictates that we abandon the punitive, and shift into the paternal. That no matter who, what, when, where, and how - we’ll love, support, and be there for our students.
Love is a religion that needs followers who exemplify the faith and practice what is preached. We can show our students what love looks like when used well. Some of our students may not have a great experience with that concept. It won’t happen overnight, and it’ll take time but love in the classroom can make a mountain moving and world shaking level of a difference. We are not in the business of punishing. We are in the business of teaching, education, mentoring, guiding, believing in, and accepting. You can’t do any of those things without those five important words.
Grace, Kindness, Compassion, Mercy, and Love. Practice them. Preach them. Pursue them. What and how we do these things can change the world.
Let’s get to work.