a figure made from blue pipe cleaner hugs a red pipe-cleaner heart; sepia trees blur in the background. How feeble is the heart?

A Classroom Romance

 Published on June 14, 2018 /  Written by /  “Happy Valentines Day!” by Lorie Shaull; CC BY-SA 2.0 /  0

I’m a professor, and I’m in love with a student. It’s not the first time, either. Before I moved into teaching at the university level, I taught junior high English. I loved a student there, too.

Like any romance, affection for my student grew slowly. We met, and despite formal introductions, remained strangers for weeks. Yet, at some point in the semester, after discussions on literature and theory, after reading what my student had written and struggled through, yes, love blossomed.

To be honest, I’m polyamorous in the classroom. Really, I love them all. This is not a tale of illicit sexual encounters. The love I had for my adolescent students and the love I have for students in my college courses is completely asexual. Yet, in some ways it seems transgressive in an educational climate where angry and frustrated “venting” is the most popular way of discussing our encounters with students in their work. Loving my students has been the greatest pedagogical breakthrough I’ve had.

Commitment to my students did not evolve easily. My first teaching assignment was seventh, eighth, and ninth grade English in a diverse and under-performing school. These students didn’t like school. At all. They didn’t like to read. They certainly didn’t like to write. They thought good grades were nerdy, and they weren’t going to be nerdy. I wasn’t prepared for students’ cultural difference from me, as clearly my white, middle-class experience assigned me subjectivity and relegated most of them to objective opacity. My school experiences included peers who respected academic success.  Conflict ensued. Nothing extraordinary, just the run-of-the-mill struggles most first-year teachers encounter when they find their students are nothing like they were as students.

No, it wasn’t love at first sight. In fact, I can’t pinpoint the moment when I truly fell in love with my students. Gradually, I surrendered the internal resistance, an urge to defend what my privilege informed was the right way to learn and be taught. I found myself listening to their music and preferring their dialects to the prescriptively correct standard grammar I had believed I was tasked to teach. And then it happened. I realized that I cared about the students themselves, not students abstracted.

Peter G. Beidler and Rosemarie Tong’s dialogue “Love in the Classroom” considers a version of the affection I describe. They both confess to loving some of their own teachers, even though Beidler’s confession feels tinged with sexism:

But it is interesting that in my case I would not have thought of calling it love unless the person I had these special feelings for was a woman. Although the two teachers who influenced me the most were men, I would not have used the word love to describe my feelings for them. I would have called it respect or admiration or honor. (55)

Beidler and Tong tackle the consequences for students who fall in love too hard with their professors, sometimes to the point of identity crisis or intellectual paralysis. They explore the reasons teachers fall in love with a particular student, often seeing something of themselves in the student. They admit that more successful students are easier to love, which is true. The first teacher I crushed on was my high school English teacher, Ms. Sally Laidlaw. She rejected censure for having favorite students saying, “Of course teachers have favorite students. Students have favorite teachers, don’t they? There’s no problem having favorites as long as everyone is still treated fairly.” I loved her more for stating what we students had always suspected. Honesty was among her strongest pedagogical tools. Some of the strongest emotions are stirred by the feeling of being seen and understood. Honesty affirms student identity and autonomy. Less learning occurs when we hesitate to confront harsh realities.

Though Beidler and Tong explore most possibilities of classroom love, they tend to linger on the idea of loving a particular student. Most teachers can name a few students who stirred their hearts platonically, but it isn’t that love of distinction to which I refer. Emily Dickinson wrote:

The Soul selects her own Society —
Then — shuts the Door —
To her divine Majority —
Present no more —

A few students make an impact on teachers because of their wit, their abilities, their perseverance, their work ethic, or some other unique quality. Yet that love isn’t quite the love that moves instructional mountains. Loving one gifted student isn’t enough. It’s not a talent to love the loveable.

Despite the titillating introduction to this essay, I’ve always strongly eschewed eros in the classroom, as we all should. It should go without saying that there is no room for sexual and romantic encounters in ethical teaching. In “The Pleasures, the Perils, and the Pursuit of Pedagogical Intimacy,” Danielle Paradis finds that the classroom space is prone to intimate transgression because of the “liminal space of possibility and uncertainty” inherent in cognitive dissonance. Learning makes us vulnerable, and vulnerability yields intimacy. Students’ susceptibilities must be closely respected by those in authority and particularly by those who ask students to open themselves. Erotic love isn’t the only misdirection possible for student/teacher relationships.

Loving the gifted student is a form of philia, the Greek word for brotherly love or love of an equal. Loving the exceptional isn’t enough, but teachers should also beware of agápe, the altruistic love of a god toward mankind. Altruism represents a dangerous pedagogical metaphor, one where the teacher holds all the knowledge which she benevolently bestows upon beggerly students. Paulo Freire acknowledges the menace of altruistic teaching:

The teacher presents himself to his students as their necessary opposite; by considering their ignorance absolute, he justifies his own existence. The students, alienated like the slave in the Hegelian dialectic, accept their ignorance as justifying the teacher’s existence — but, unlike the slave, they never discover that they educate the teacher. (53)

Freire finds that teaching, like love, is a two-way street. Dialogue replaces instruction, and Freire writes that “Dialogue cannot exist, however, in the absence of a profound love for the world and for people…. Love is at the same time the foundation of a dialogue and dialogue itself” (70).

Freire’s love extends beyond even storgic affection with its connotations of parental devotion. Herding students as a parent would reinstates the Hegelian dialectic, or a near version of one.

Perhaps synthesizing the intensity of storgic love with the parallel or lateral stance of philia comes the closest to describing the romance of the classroom; however, the amalgamate cannot be limited to the gifted student or students. The professor’s love must be at once for the individual and for all of the individuals. It isn’t a charity to love the struggling student, the one who misses class and gazes distractedly around the room and submits work that suggests little or no effort. Blessing-their-little-hearts results in lowered standards, the consequences of which are students with grades but few skills and little knowledge.

If parental altruism is a pedagogical trap, so is tough love. Tough love becomes the ideological refuge to the teacher entrenched in her own way of learning. The proponents of tough love often boast of how high their standards are or how they are preparing students for the real world. Tough love classrooms sound like boot camps, where the strong survive and the weak wash out. Of course, we can’t afford for our students to wash out. Our profession is one that exists for the common good. Students’ success is for the good of all societies. We need them all to learn as much as they can. Failure is not an option because we need all students to succeed. Tough love pedagogy cycles in and out of fashion, with the 2014 film Whiplash as an example of its recent resurgence. In Whiplash, rigorous director Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) relentlessly drives aspiring percussionist Andrew (Miles Teller). Andrew achieves far beyond what he believed was capable. However, Fletcher’s abusive style isn’t the one most tough love adherents emulate. A more common version is subtler, and therefore more insidious. Joannne Lipman in “The Fine Art of Tough Love” describes principles she learned from her music teacher Jerry Kupchynsky, or “Mr. K.” The steps in her roadmap to success include:

  1. Banish Empty Praise
  2. Set Expectations High
  3. Articulate clear goals — and goal posts along the way
  4. Failure Isn’t Defeat
  5. Say thank you

While these may sound like obvious practices, it’s the attitude that makes or breaks their instructional implementation. None of these steps addresses the actual student. These are steps that could be taken by an alienated expert. If these are the principles of tough love, they are missing the love. And the love is almost always excluded from those who claim to practice tough love. My rejoinder to them is to try plain love, without the adjective “tough.” Why not just love? Just loving the students refocuses the teacher’s efforts onto the students.

Hybrid Pedagogy addressed the romance of teaching in 2016 in “Love in the Time of Peer Review.” As the authors state, peer review and editing are pedagogical practices that flourish in an environment of Freireian equality and love. The exhortation to “humanize rather than normalize” is the approach to achieving true love in the classroom, too. Despite the pain, classroom romances are fulfilling. It’s what we do. Freire explainsthat the raison d’être of education is the “reconciliation…of the teacher-student contradiction” (53). For that reason, we claim all the strength of the sappy love songs and proclaim our affection for students instead of joining the chorus of venters and complainers. Teachers’ lounges are notoriously negative environments. Complaints are often rationalized as necessary for mental stability: if we didn’t laugh about it, we would go mad. Yet, venting without a search for solutions rarely yields improvement. In fact, just as grousing too much about one’s romantic partner can result in a combative home life, a habit of deprecating students for their failures dissolves the structure of a classroom community. It becomes a habit of “normalizing” students to our own standards.

Classroom romances — yes, still the chaste kind — are fraught with danger. Students will, as my colleague Joe Hardin says, “break your heart.” When they drift away into a nebulous parallel universe mid-semester despite emails pleading for them to re-engage with the course, when they ignore feedback on their papers that the instructor has carefully crafted to motivate improved performance, when they betray us on course evaluations with off-hand criticisms and resentments that must have simmered for weeks, we feel the same sense of rejection that results from more typical love affairs. Our responses are often the same to being dumped romantically: wine and ice cream and tears. And these should be our responses, when we care. Without crossing the line from ardor into stalking, instructors must remain vulnerable to what is loveable about students.

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