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Tell Your Students You Love Them

From time to time, I have seen older films wherein a man is ashamed to tell his wife or sweetheart that he loves her. Love is weakness, tenderness, vulnerability, and the kind of man who has braved the beaches of Normandy is intimidated at the thought of exposing a gentle heart to a woman. Confessing his love is an act of sacrifice, self-abnegation.

A classical classroom will accomplish nothing if the teacher does not love the students; the love of a teacher is manifested in the way a teacher sacrifices time with family to prepare for class, prayers for students, gifts for students, the embarrassment a teacher regularly and willingly suffers merely by having fifteen sets of eyes trained on him all day. The teacher loves the students because he cares for their souls. The teacher has likely been through college, knows the trials which immediately await the students upon graduation, and he pities the students. The teacher has seen friends wreck their faith, honor, and dignity in the years after high school. The teacher sees the weakness of the students now, today, and the teacher recalls his own spiritual struggles while a youth; the teacher looks on his students sympathetically. The students do not know how much of their own weakness and sin is written on their faces, their work, their excuses, and as opposed to becoming embittered against his students, the good teacher weeps for the suffering many students willingly bring on themselves. The teacher also loves his students in the success of the students; the soul of the teacher reaches out and upward to celebrate and take satisfaction in the accomplishments of his students. The good teacher loves the students, even the cruel students and disobedient students and lazy students, because he knows that only love can lift the cruel out of their cruelty.

The good teacher must tell his students that he loves them. This will be awkward, and the good teacher may be embarrassed to say so because, “I love you” is a familiar and pathetic thing to say. It will seem too much for the teacher to love the students; the parents of the students pay the salary of the teacher, after all. But the teacher must tell his students that he loves them. He must tell the students that all of their teachers love them, in case those teachers are too ashamed to say it, because it is true nonetheless.

When the students hear the teacher say, “I love you. I want you to be happy and take satisfaction in your lives. You must struggle to be good and behave righteously. If I did not love you, I would not care what happened to you, but I do love you, and I want your lives to be good,” they will know that something is on the line in the classroom. There is not a chasm between the world of school and the world outside of school. Love bridges such a chasm. When the teacher tells the students he loves them, he obligates himself to a particular pattern of behavior, expression, demands, rewards. The teacher knows he ought to love his students, however, if he does not tell them he loves them, he is prone to forget and instead treat his students as though they are his servants. If the teacher never tells the students he loves them, the students are less apt to think of their relationship with learning, with Truth, Beauty, and Goodness as a relationship bound in love. The student who does not think of learning in terms of love will keep a critical distance from the text, will think dispassionately, coolly. When such a student thinks of learning and tradition, he will not think in terms of obligation, freedom, loyalty, and long-suffering, but rather payment, consumption, coercion, necessity, inevitability.

The teacher may be tempted to think, “I do not need to tell my students I love them. They know I love them.” They do not. Nothing in contemporary American society inclines students to think of education as having any relation to love. Learning is about objectivity, precision, exactness, percentages, money. The student is surprised to hear the teacher say, “I love you.” The student is taken back. “I love you” cannot and will not be confused with “I want you to get grants and go to a good college,” and neither will “I love you” be mistaken for, “When my students do well, I look like a better teacher and stand to get more praise from the administration and perhaps a raise, as well.” It is not enough for the students to hear, “Your teachers care about you.” “Care” is nothing. Companies which want nothing but cash have “Customer Care” lines.

The teacher must tell the students he loves them so he can be the kind of teacher who tells his students he loves them. If the teacher thinks, “I cannot tell my students I love them. They would laugh,” then he needs to ask himself why they would laugh at such a claim. Perhaps such a teacher is not condemned by the words he has spoken, but by the words he cannot speak. He has insulted his students, dismissed them, treated them casually or disinterestedly and telling them he loves them would be jarring. Such a teacher should dwell on this question: If I were to tell my students one month from now that I love them, how would I have to behave between now and then such that the claim would not sound absurd?

On the other hand, the teacher may have not conceived of their subject as worthy of a loving relationship between teacher and student. Such a teacher may think, “The literature and theology classes… Those are classes where personality and morality are on the line. But not mathematics, not science. These are even-keeled subjects wherein telling my students I love them would be nothing less than mock-heroic.” However, if the teacher is a teacher, then love for the student is fitting. The apparent moral reach of the subject is inconsequential. Besides, all classical teachers are revealing Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. The subject is but the lens through which God is seen, and God is love.

If students regularly hear their teachers tell them, “I love you,” the massive claims of a classical education about classical education seem less self-congratulatory, less ambitious. It is easy for students to become skeptical about the claims a classical school makes about itself if they cannot believe their teachers love them. When the school speaks about itself, it often speaks highly and in grandiose vocabulary; watch a promo video for your school and note the way the school represents itself to others. If the students perceive a marked difference between the way the school speaks about itself (“a loving and nurturing environment”) and the way the school speaks to itself, they have every right to be cynical.

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