Where is the Love? Thoughts on Teachers and Teaching That Educational Reformers Don’t Seem To Get

master teacherI have been teaching for 45 years. My first students, in the Columbia Upward Bound Program, included a 15-year-old who was destined for greatness and a 15-year-old who wouldn’t say a word to me or his peers. Being able to connect to both of them, using very different methods, hooked me for life on the challenge of building the confidence and trust required to make learning possible among a diverse group of people.

It is precisely the importance of building trust which is absent from the dominant discourse about education today. Achieving mastery of a fixed body of material is prioritized; opening minds, healing hearts, and building confidence are widely neglected as “soft” attributes not amenable to measurement and evaluation.

Che Guevara once said “ The true revolutionary is guided by feelings of great love.” I would say the same about teaching. “The true teacher is guided by feelings of great love.”

How do you measure love? How do you assess it?

Governments are now spending billions of dollars on complex mathematical formulas to rate teacher effectiveness. Every single measure they have created circumvents the attributes that make teachers love their jobs and which influence students the most

A great teacher gets inside a student’s head, becomes part of the student’s conscience, becomes a moral compass that may offer guidance ten, twenty years after the student was in their class. Things the teacher said during a lecture, wrote in the margin of a research paper, whispered to the student in a private meeting, may come up in the most unexpected times and places. Books, films and songs the teacher recommended may be ones passed on to friends, co-workers and children.

mark naisonI am saying this from experience as well as inference. I had teachers who inspired me to do things I never dreamed were possible. They did this not only by modeling a passion for learning in their lectures and the way they comported themselves, but by letting me know that despite my rough edges and uneven writing stills,, there was nothing I couldn’t achieve as a scholar if I dared to give myself wholly to the subject I was investigating and kept trying to hone and refine my prose style.

Those teachers – and I will name them because they are all worth honoring – Edward Said, Paul Noyes, Walter Metzger, James Shenton – provided me with a model of the teacher and scholar I wanted to be. They are with me every time I walk into a classroom

How do you measure that ?

I know so many great teachers and they are all filled with love for their students and love for their jobs. Every single reform measure introduced in the last ten years is crushing and demoralizing them

mark naisonSomeday, we will realize that if we really want to instill a passion for learning in young people, we have to honor and support our best teachers and encourage our most talented and idealistic young people to be teachers for life.

And that means we have to leave room for intangibles like love and trust in how we judge what goes on in schools and understand that the results of great teaching are experienced over a life time, not by tests you administer three or four times a year.

Mark Naison
With a Brooklyn Accent 


  1. Joe Weinstein says

    Yes, your effective teaching ultimately relies on a love for the students, a commitment to truly helping them. Of course, depending on the student and the time and place, your helpful acts can vary; you may organize and present facts, or demonstrate and collaborate in order to develop a skill, or counsel to give crucial emotional support.

    As Naison correctly notes, reformers err badly to stress mastery of facts rather than loving support and development of the whole person. But his view too seems unwittingly to incorporate some big misconceptions. He writes: “Someday, we will realize that if we really want to instill a passion for learning in young people, we have to honor and support our best teachers and encourage our most talented and idealistic young people to be teachers for life.”

    Well, I had some fine teachers, sympathetic and loving teachers, K-PhD. But they were NOT what was needed to ‘instilled a passion for learning’ in me. I was ready to learn anyhow. These teachers just constructively (and often lovingly) exploited and reinforced my existing passion for learning.

    The normal human child already has a passion to explore and learn – both in school – if that’s where she wants to (or is forced to) spend her time – and out of school. It’s part of our evolved survival mechanism.

    The normal human child and adult already are self-‘teachers for life’. Arguably our most important skills are learning skills, and the most important of these is our ability to self-teach: to direct our own learning. These skills can be honed and improved, but in any event a normal vital human being already has them and relies on them. If years of childhood and youth schooling have any constructive mission at all, the foremost one has to be to enable and aid the normally already existing passion (and instinct and skills) to be self-teaching for life.

    Good loving parents are key to supporting and letting that passion operate – so that it is reinforced and constructively applied rather than suppressed or destructively diverted. Second most important are other strategically placed adults, like teachers. But heaven help us if we – or millions of our fellows – think we must rely on professionals to ‘instill’, in ourselves or in others, essential passions that come naturally. After reading Naison’s evidently heartfelt article, I am sorry that – at least to go by what he sees happening – too many teachers too much of the time see themselves as forced to not simply to exploit a natural passion but first to labor to re-instill it.

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