|Teaching as a Matter of Love
Anna Maria Aiazzi
During my two-year teaching education I had the opportunity to go through the different phases of pre-service teaching practice (observation/active teaching), as well as to be a supply teacher for short periods. These experiences allowed me to become conscious that teaching does not only mean taking care of learners’ cognitive development and physical well-being, which is fundamental but not sufficient: teaching is, above all, a matter of love.
At first it was not easy to confess this ‘discovery’ to myself. The truth was that I could acquire a sound theoretical knowledge about the discipline I was teaching -foreign languages-, planning lessons by setting objectives and taking into account learners’ cognitive styles and their learning strategies, as well as their personal interests and language levels, selecting challenging material which could stimulate their motivation to learn and present it to them through differentiated activities which could be involving. In a word, doing my best to create a stress-free atmosphere in the classroom, especially when pupils were tested, being ready to discuss any topic with them, and so on. But I soon realized that all this could not be sufficient. If I did not love my pupils, each of them and all together as a class of individuals, all my efforts to help them learn were useless.
As I said before, it was rather problematic to accept my ‘discovery’: speaking of love is always embarrassing, in particular when it is related to teaching. Love is not mentioned in ministerial syllabuses: teachers are supposed to possess specific competences, including pedagogical, disciplinary, organizing and managerial ones, but nobody expects teachers to love their pupils. We can expect teachers to be responsible for their teaching, coherent with their statements, reliable in their judgements, but we cannot ask them to love their pupils. And yet, a teacher who cannot love his/her pupils cannot be a good teacher, because the ability to love is the first and most important skill that a teacher should have.
How can I affirm this? Because only a person who really loves can really care for someone else. And pupils can perceive if teachers really care for them or not, as well as detect if a teacher has a sincere passion for teaching. And if a teacher is professionally competent but emotionally detached from his/her pupils, he/she will not be able to involve them and they will not learn anything durable from him/her. I mean, they will just study to pass their exams and learn what they need to know in that particular moment, but what they learn will only be instrumental and stored in their memory in a superficial way, so easily forgettable.
Thinking that love was a ‘taboo’ topic in teaching, I was very surprised to read that the Chilean biologist and philosopher Maturana related learning to love, affirming that all learning is through love and that life and love are two inseparable unities (Maturana and Varela 1987: 246-248). My surprise was greater when I read Balboni quoting St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 13,1-2), which is about love (i. e. caritas) and the uselessness of human knowledge, if we do not love first (Balboni 2002: 4).
If Balboni dared to speak of love in learning, especially foreign languages, I could reasonably think of love in teaching, as the two processes are interrelated and never occur separately. To tell the truth, Rossi also wrote about love in learning/teaching and spoke of the perspectives of a new ‘humanism’ to be reached through love. I can say that I share most of what he affirms, and which largely reflects St. Paul’s idea that love is an everlasting human attitude meant to reach the whole mankind, helping it to go towards a condition of personal fulfillment and universal good (Rossi 2004: 85-113).
However, loving someone else is not so easy, neither straightforward. We do not ‘naturally’ love other people, neither our kin. Love is a matter of volition, constant ‘exercise’, failures and new starts.
First of all, loving is difficult because if as individuals we love our pupils, we can not dissimulate our inner feelings and emotions, either positive or negative they can be, but should be ready to accept ourselves with our limitations and not be ashamed to ‘disclose’ ourselves to pupils. In fact, they can perceive if the person they have in front is authentic or not. And if they realize that we simulate an interest or involvement we have not, they will not trust us any more and will not really learn anything from us.
Secondly, loving our pupils means accepting each of them as unique individuals: this is particularly difficult because there are pupils whom we do not ‘understand’ and, consequently, love. The reasons determining our reactions can be manifold and extremely complex: on one hand, learners can have personalities very different from our own, as well as values, opinions, inclinations or attitudes which we do not share; on the other, they can disturb during our lessons, can not be interested in what we are teaching, and so on. Simply, we do not ‘like’ them because they are very different from what we are, so we can not be reflected in them and satisfied with the ‘narcissistic’ attitude of mirroring ourselves in somebody else.
These pupils constantly witness our ‘failures’ as teachers who want to teach everybody, that is, to ‘reach’ everybody by stimulating their personal response to our teaching. In doing so, they contribute to ‘destroy’ our certainties and thus make us feel uneasy. But I realized very soon that only if I accepted to come to terms with my weaknesses and failures which these pupils daily represented for me, I could succeed in not being completely overwhelmed by frustration and dissatisfaction. Only unconditioned love could relieve me from the sense of helplessness which I felt so strongly in front of these pupils. I realized that if I loved them, I could never completely fail with them.
I soon began to perceive that learners must be loved in an unconditioned way and each of them must be accepted in his/her humanity and exclusiveness: they have to feel that each of them is important and unique for their teachers. This is the first step to build up human relationship with them, especially when dealing with new classes. Then, when this first and extremely difficult phase has got going, teachers can begin to ‘reap the harvest of their work’, that is, to be able to interact with learners on didactic terms, without forgetting that their main task consists of encouraging and supporting learners in their learning process, as well as contributing to improve their self-assurance and esteem.
Supporting learners’ physical and cognitive growth can be a very demanding task for teachers, especially if they do not love their pupils: for some of them it can even become an impossible task to accomplish. However, teachers should not think that love in itself can prevent them from making mistakes or solve any problem. In any case, what is important is that pupils are constantly aware of the authenticity of their teachers’ care and involvement.
I also realized that my task as a teacher was essentially to help learners become as autonomous as possible, by encouraging them to develop their own learning skills and work out their strategies. Helping my pupils to become more responsible for their learning and thus more self-reliant and confident, was the most sincere sign of love I could show them; in fact, loving our pupils means essentially helping them to emancipate from their teachers and ‘guides’, in order to let them come to a personal response to life and feelings.
Some time ago I read about the ‘sponsorship’ theory and I immediately realized that some of its principles were exactly what I thought teachers’ attitudes towards learners should be. In fact, according to Gilligan and Dilts, the proponents of this theory, “sponsorship skills include deep listening, proper naming, providing a place, expressing, blessing, connecting, disciplining, protecting, encouraging, and challenging” (Gilligan 1997: 97). In particular, sponsorship should mainly consist of
the process of recognizing and acknowledging (“seeing and blessing”) the core characteristics of another person. This form of sponsorship involves seeking and safeguarding fundamental qualities and potentials within others and providing the conditions, support and resources that allow the group or individual being sponsored to express and develop their unique aptitudes and capabilities to the fullest degree. In short, sponsorship involves promoting the unique identity of the client (Dilts 2003: 182).
I found that these statements shared some common ground with my opinion about teaching as a matter of love and empathy; in fact, according to the sponsorship theory, what is fundamental for a sponsor is to give each client an individualized consideration, that is, give attention to his/her needs and potentialities more than the task that he/she has to accomplish. The basic sponsorship messages include: “You exist. I see you. You are valuable. You are important/special/unique. You have something important to contribute. You are welcome here. You belong” (Dilts 2003: 185).
These assertions led me to reflect upon the importance, as a learner, of some of my past teachers and, in particular, one of them, who had a very strong influence on my learning process. I realized how, in response to his teaching focussing on improving learners’ self-assurance and esteem, I could express all my potentialities at their best, as I deeply felt that he had accepted and valued me for what I was as a person, and not only as a learner. His love for us pupils was not openly expressed, but we could easily feel it every time that his words and behaviour showed his concern with the development of our cognitive and existential skills.
In this last period I have clearly perceived how only unconditioned love can enable teachers to detect what really matters in teaching, that is, considering their learners as persons more important than their possible achievements through learning. According to my personal experience, the occasions in which my pupils had the best opportunities to learn something from me were when we shared feelings and emotions and were able to ‘suffer’ them all together, by establishing a bond of love and ‘sympathy’ among us.
Balboni P. E., Le sfide di Babele. Insegnare le lingue nelle società complesse, UTET, Torino, 2002.
Dilts R., Sponsorship, in From Coach to Awakener, Meta, Capitola (Ca), 2003, pp. 179-235.
Gilligan S., Love as a Skill: The Practices of Sponsorship, in The Courage to Love. Principles and Practices of Self-Relations Psychotherapy, Norton, New York, 1997, pp. 96-123.
Maturana H. R. and Varela F. J., The Tree of Knowledge: the Biological Roots of Human Understanding, Shambhala, Boston, 1987.
Rossi B., Sul sentimento dell’amore. Prospettive di un nuovo umanesimo, in L’educazione dei sentimenti. Prendersi cura di sé, prendersi cura degli altri, Unicopli, Milano, 2004, pp. 85-113.