The Practice of Love


by | April 23, 2020

In this time of online learning and virtual connections, I often see hearts and heart-filled emojis showing up in our emails, texts, and chat messages, even in those for school and work. In fact, some of the most joyful moments in my days occur when a chat message from a student pops up to say, “Hey” and is followed by hearts of all kinds and colors. I love receiving these messages and feeling an immediate connection to the students. But, seeing these hearts all over our messages also reminds me of something a student said in a community Morning Meeting at school before we closed for the COVID-19 pandemic. We were talking one Wednesday about love broadly and about love for our school sisters specifically, and one student spoke out with confidence and conviction and said, “Americans love too much.” When I asked her more about this statement, she explained that we use the word love “too much.” We say that we love each other, love ice cream, love rainbows and reading, and love social studies; we love our cats and dogs. I think that ultimately what she was getting at with her statement was that by frequently and loosely using the word love, we may be lessening or limiting the power of it. 

What strikes me today is that while we do very often use the word love, especially at GVP, we do not often discuss its deep importance and power in our lives and our learning together in schools. bell hooks (2003) argues, “To speak of love in relation to teaching is already to engage a dialogue that is taboo” (p. 127). She goes on to suggest that instead love should be central to education and is required to bridge the spaces that enable “othering” and maintain systems of inequity. Paulo Freire (1970) similarly argues, “Education is an act of love, and thus an act of courage” (1973, p. 38).  He claims, “True solidarity [among teachers and students] is found only in the plentitude of this act of love…” (p. 35). 

I have often wondered about the ways in which love, as the central focus of pedagogy, could reshape our ways of teaching and learning. When we view education as tightly tied to social and restorative justice, it becomes imperative for us to look clearly and critically at love, or the absence of it, as a practice in schools and classrooms. GVP was designed with love and based in Dr. Martin Luther King’s concept of the beloved community. In 1957 Dr. King said, “Love is creative and redemptive. Love builds up and unites; hate tears down and destroys. The aftermath of the ‘fight with fire’ method which you suggest is bitterness and chaos, the aftermath of the love method is reconciliation and creation of the beloved community.”  In these days, I find myself reflecting more and more upon Dr. King’s beloved community and the beloved community that has been and continues to be built in and around GVP. I think about how this kind of work, that bears witness to the power of love in practice, could change and transform our schools and classrooms.  Some, who know me well, know that explorations into pedagogies of love are ongoing pursuits for me and something I hope to research and write more about in the future. For now, I want to suggest that GVP takes up in practice a pedagogy of love that includes 1) seeing and accepting one another for who and what we are, 2) knowing each other deeply, and 3) creating courageous spaces where all voices can be heard and where each member of the community knows that she belongs and is cared for. 

Thomas Merton–the Trappist monk, author, and social activist–wisely said (1955), “The beginning of love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image. If in loving them we do not love what they are, but only their potential likeness to ourselves, then we do not love them: we only love the reflection of ourselves we find in them.”

In Merton’s words I see love as connected to culturally responsive, strengths-based education. If we bring love to our pedagogical practice, we see students for what they bring and who they are and help them uncover the sometimes hidden strengths within them that will allow them to be fully what they hope to be in the future. This practice of love rejects any idea that all students are the same, are deficient, should assimilate, or should be or become what we as teachers expect them to be. Instead, it allows us to support and search out, in and through the practice of loving education, the seeds of possibility that already exist in students and allows us to support their journeys towards achieving their greatest potential and their own dreams. It empowers them and us, as educators, to embrace individuality, diversity, and possibility. 

As I see it, love is the most important thing in our lives and in our learning. We cannot fear talking about love in education or push those dialogues outside of our schools and classrooms. Love is what enables us to see the value in something or someone and to have the highest positive regard for another human no matter what the circumstances may be. In love, we can see systems of oppression and inequity and through the practice of love we can stand in solidarity and courageously care for one another.

Writer David Brooks recently wrote an op-ed article for the NY Times about the turn towards social and emotional learning in schools. He said, “The bottom line is this, a defining question for any school or company is: What is the quality of the emotional relationships here? When you start thinking this way it opens up the wide possibilities for change. How would you design a school if you wanted to put relationship quality at the core?”

I was introduced to the work of Nel Noddings, American feminist, educator, and author, in my first year of doctoral study, and her writing on care and love in schools has stayed with me, still influencing all that I do as an educator and Head of School. I believe she offers insights into what we might do if we were interested in keeping relationships, care, and love at the core. I remembered her as I thought about this question and the new crisis we face in education across the globe at this particular time when students are out of school and dealing with the trauma of interruptions to their schooling, social isolation, and the fear of a pandemic. Noddings argues that schools are often talked about as being in crisis in our country but notes, “there is a genuine crisis in our society and schools that is receiving far too little attention–a crisis in caring. In schools, the crisis manifests itself in two ways: Students often feel that no one cares for them, and they are not learning how to be carers themselves.” Nel Noddings’ work suggests that taking up issues of social justice and an ethics of reciprocal care in schools would allow us to change course and do what David Brooks was suggesting in putting relationships in the core. She argues, “we might include units on love, friendship, and parenting” and goes on to say that “such themes as war, poverty, crime, racism, or sexism can be addressed in almost every subject area” so that they are central to education. 

At GVP relationships are at the center and the core of what we do. But, that does not mean that we are done striving to build and be a beloved community where love is put into practice and our curriculum reflects that commitment. We still have more to do, and I wonder what would happen if we were courageous enough to explore and engage more deeply in dialogue around love and learning and in the innovation and implementation of a love-based curriculum. I am excited by the possibilities for social transformation in and through the pedagogical practice of love and believe that GVP has something valuable to bring to these much-needed conversations.  

Brooks, D. (2019). Opinion | Students Learn From People They Love
Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Seabury.
Freire, P. (1973). Education for critical consciousness. New York: Seabury.
hooks, b. (2003). Teaching community: A pedagogy of hope. New York: Routledge.
hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New York: Routledge.
Merton, T. (1957). No man is an island. New York: Dell.
Noddings, N. (1984). Caring, a feminine approach to ethics & moral education. Berkeley: University of California.
Noddings, N. (2006). Critical lessons: What our schools should teach. Cambridge: Cambridge University.