“Love” is a concept that can easily be dismissed as abstract or sappy – something that has no place in the classroom. But love is the foundation for positive relationships, and positive relationships are the foundation for effective teaching and learning.

As teachers, we know that connection and community are vital to our sense of well-being. We experience more than we have the time or bandwidth to properly address. We bear witness as our students struggle, in the classroom and the outside world. But demands on our time are high, and the pressure to always be “productive” can make it feel counterintuitive to slow down and invest in interpersonal growth. If we’re always putting out little fires, we may have limited time to build a safe and sturdy infrastructure. But the investment is always worth it.

Fortunately, we understand more than ever before that both social-emotional education and positive, trusting relationships play a crucial role in effective systems. Pedagogies like trauma-informed teaching, radical vulnerability, growth mindset, and academic optimism are all well-studied approaches, and ones that cultivate love. 

How do we get started in establishing a culture of love in the classroom? How do we help students experience the trust and vulnerability required to truly learn, while also keeping our academic expectations high and our instruction brisk and rigorous? And how do we maintain that culture throughout the year as we inevitably falter, fatigue, and experience demoralizing setbacks? 

Read about one strategy we recommend: 

Love is communication: Collaborate with students on your classroom culture 

8leLGeMudnoGWQRQMgGleJ1Efk1rQCKLyQ0FLg5YfFYrUcts4FVtnWM 7P5BAcxcIOqnlNf0tDjTRWWtHq Cv1OjyJMBFso8LfjxirNBRnmShow students you value and honor their voices by listening to them from the get-go. Rather than giving the impression that when they walk in the door they are entering your space, make it a communal space you create and maintain together. While it is important that students respect your authority and expertise, they will be more invested if you demonstrate that you value their ideas and opinions, and if you agree on protocols as a group. 

Be honest! Talk to your students about what has – and hasn’t – worked well in the past in terms of behavior management. As teachers, we might feel that we need to have all of the answers, but practicing vulnerability and honesty allows our students to do the same.  

Here’s how: A third grade teacher shared her mixed feelings about behavior charts with her class. She then asked follow-up questions to start a class discussion. 

Normally, I have a clip with your name on it, and move your clip “up” or “down” the color chart based on your behavior. I’m worried this could shame students. At the same time, it’s important for you to monitor your progress and be accountable for your decisions. Have you had a behavior chart in class before? What did you think of it? What helps you stay on track on tough days? What helps you feel excited to learn new things? 

Ask for honesty.ynFCGawA4ckoU1Ox8rJwSNqKkDUzVegKZlXKXFmS1CKioG6lm1vhLbid5UZjdWoI kKz20vKh7yLY7Aopr94Y968FnyugY08DGodaMTSExUlZaopt D98dR9izP61m4stWdPjkl Encouraging class participation can feel like pulling teeth. Rather than trying all of your tricks and seeing what sticks, ask students what they need, and meet them where they are. Then, establish steps to get them to where they need to be, and have them track their own progress. 

Here’s how: A math teacher began the year with a questionnaire:

  • How often do you offer your ideas in class now?
  • How long do you like to have the same elbow partner?
  • Do you like to choose your small group or have one assigned to you?

Incorporate student feedback. After noting trends in the responses, the same teacher led a class discussion to set a realistic, attainable goal. 

Here’s how: Most students reported that they willingly shared ideas in class about once a week. They also expressed that they felt anxious when the teacher called on them at random. So, students collectively agreed to a goal of volunteering twice a week for two weeks, then three times a week for three weeks. The teacher agreed to not do “cold calls” as long as all of the students met their goal. Finally, they came up with a small celebration or reward for the end of each goal-setting period.  

U4KrZPjCFRysAWVr4o3R8BwtXrliUdrfHc mYxZo8QwXzqB2Df2 8QWY 77ASgja9L18jkDUU6CkO0m e6cfEstablish a system of check-ins. Create a protocol and support system for when students feel overwhelmed, unsure, excluded, etc. 

We often fear that attending to emotional needs or inviting students into our classroom outside of the instructional day will eat up our meager planning time. But if we invest initially in establishing a self-sufficient system and community, we can provide our students a safe haven and promote student leadership. 

Here’s how: A middle school ELD teacher noticed that many of her students’ mental and emotional energy was being consumed by social drama and trauma. They came to class distracted and withdrawn, or used designated talk time to hash out personal issues. So she turned every opening activity on Monday and closing activity on Friday into a Wellness Check-In. The check-in consisted of a survey with questions and space to free write or draw. The teacher included relevant resources from places like @wholeheartedschoolcounselor on Instagram. She modified the surveys and resources throughout the year as she got to know her students. c7qLsp6wUIT7Yd7oNxw3j3i

Additionally, she designated two volunteers in each period as the Wellness Team. Upon completing their survey, students had the option to crumple it up and drop it into the trash to “release it,” or put it on her desk for the Wellness Team to read and respond to. If they opted to leave the paper, students signed up for a specific time during a break or after class to meet in the classroom with someone from the Wellness Team.  

We want to hear from you! Have you used any of these strategies? Do you see ways to adapt them for your school or classroom?

Stay tuned for more strategies and anecdotes on Cultivating Love in the Classroom coming soon.

Until then, here’s an additional resource: https://www.edutopia.org/article/relationships-matter-more-rules?fbclid=IwAR0Gjzneh6Szl8nDKQkwyeft95rY39QiQzHUfaTJDXuMBm65JTQZwemwXbk

Written by: Rebecca María McCloskey, Associate

Second image credit: IG @BigLifeJournal 

All other images credit: IG @WholeheartedSchoolCounselor