Teacher Burnout

Teaching is Really all About Love

It took me years to embrace this truth: teaching really is all about love. To all those cynics who immediately say there is more to it: yes, of course, the skills of a teacher extend beyond the heart. But nothing matters without love. 
Why is this so hard to accept? Even those of us who live this truth struggle to genuinely embrace it. WHY?
Part of the problem is the stubborn English insistence on having one word for a plethora of meanings. Other languages have developed a nuanced vocabulary with specific words for familial love, romantic love, friendly love, parental love, love of self, and more. English lacks such linguistic diversity. The only common alternatives to the one noun/verb/adjective/adverb “love” are emotionally distinct: adoration, infatuation, attachment, dependence, conceit, lust…even this alternative list is pretty thin. So, it can be disconcerting to think about teaching, with its inherently complex boundaries, in terms of love. There is a creep factor that must be dealt with–wrong assumptions need not be made. Love is love-the care for another over oneself; the genuine desire to inspire; the focus on collective success and gradual improvement; the beauty of growth; the respect for effort. That is the love I mean. In modern educational parlance, we tend to call it building relationships, but it’s love, plain and simple.
In college, I took a course called Philosophy of Education. The professor began the semester by insisting all teaching is about love. I thought it was stupid, ridiculous, over-simplified, unrealistic claptrap. We read Nicomachean Ethics and discussed the purposes of education. And every single time, this old man brought it back to love. To say I was exasperated would be a hyperbolic understatement.
It took me a decade to inhabit this reality I initially resisted. Love matters. I can’t tell you exactly when or why the change happened. My first five years of teaching I wanted to quit. I hated it more than I loved it. Every. Single. Day. Sometime during my fifth year, something shifted inside me. I finally learned how to care without taking it personally; to care and to not care at the same time. Though that fifth year was the most challenging of my career, it also taught me two corollary truths:
I am the most important thing in my classroom, and simultaneously, virtually nothing students do or say or don’t do or don’t say is about me.
Love in the Classroom matters. Click To Tweet
My love might help them learn, it might change their lives, it might inspire or support them, it might even save them. But my love, my role, is always about them. Loving them well matters, but I don’t, not really. I get why a lot of teachers burnout in those first few years. We learn quickly how to give greatly of ourselves. We don’t learn much about sustaining ourselves. What counts as a deposit to replenish ourselves can be difficult to discover. I still don’t know if I can quite identify what fills my love tank. Mostly, I had to learn how to see all the little happy moments, like pennies on the sidewalk, and pay attention to them. I had to find and treasure the moments when students showed a glimmer of love.
Mostly, I had to learn how to see all the little happy moments. Click To Tweet
Do I still believe that just saying it’s all about love can be an over-simplification that masks real issues? Yes, well, maybe. No, definitely yes. Love doesn’t replace funding or infrastructure, community support, or materials. It doesn’t make teaching any easier or make class size matter less. It is simply the best augmentation of what exists in any given educational context.
Maybe my definition of love has matured. Every day I walk into my classroom, I keep my heart full of love: for children, for subject matter, for culture, for learning, for growth, for the future. Sometimes I have to work harder at the love. Many days I practice a “fake it till ya make it” mindset as I search for a spark to ignite my love engine. If a time ever comes that I can’t find that spark, when I really can’t say I love teaching more than I hate it (because as with all endeavors worth doing, there are parts to hate!), I will quit. So should we all.
Learning is rooted in emotion. Click To Tweet
The problems are real, the frustrations are real, the limitations are absolutely real, but with children, learning is rooted in emotion. With adults, teaching is rooted in emotion. The goal is to find ways for that emotion to be productive, positive, and genuine. I can’t fix a problem, get to know a kid, plan a lesson, collaborate with others just by loving. I also can’t do any of those things well without love. In my vocabulary, love is no longer a dirty word. I accept my love for this crazy profession and all its baggage. That is what makes it worth doing. That is what makes it fun. That is what makes me a teacher above all.

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