I was recently engaged in a discussion about the value of early years education. Countless interesting points arose, including this question: “Do you think there may be any circumstances where ‘professional love’, ‘attachment’ and ‘passion’ could be appropriate or inappropriate in early years settings?”
I am not an expert in early years education but I am fairly sure that the principles which I would apply in a secondary school, apply equally in any educational setting.
I am dubious about “passion” as a professional concept. It is, in today’s world of reality television, a much over-used, and usually inappropriately used, word.
I have no doubt however about the validity and indeed necessity of the other two – “professional love” and “attachment”.
Love and teaching are inseparably connected in a very unique sense. Teachers must love what they teach, be committed to passing that enthusiasm to their learners, and do so as part of a relationship (if not, teaching is an arid exercise).
That connected passion for the job and care for the learners, come exceedingly close to love. Erich Fromm encapsulated it: “One loves that for which one labours and labours for that which one loves.”
The question however requires a more profoundly human, and less pedagogic, response. The achievement of attachment, as defined by John Bowlby, is obviously a valid educational purpose but, in professional settings, perhaps love is more problematic.
In particular, and sadly, in the contemporary world we require to be very careful about the use of “love”, lest we be accused by the headline-seeking media of entirely inappropriate professional behaviour.
It is not however the first time the issue of “love” in education has been raised with me. At my first staff meeting on appointment as a secondary head, I suggested teachers require to love those they teach. I saw a few puzzled faces. I tried to explain what I meant.
“What do we mean, as parents,” I asked, “when we say that we love our children?”
I suggested that we mean that we are committed to caring for and protecting our children. We will treat our children as individuals, with different needs and expectations. We will put their interests before our own.
We will seek to teach them, “by precept and example”, how to live and live well. We will encourage them to develop as thinkers, as learners, as members of a family, a circle of friends, a community and society. We will offer them our knowledge and understanding of language, culture and society but recognise that our knowledge is limited and insufficient and they will require also to learn from others.
We will protect their health and safety and encourage the development of their physical strength and aptitudes. We will attempt to guide them towards accessing life’s varied experiences at appropriate levels and stages.
We will praise their successes, support them through their failures and encourage them to be aware that life will bring a share of both. Above all else, we will happily accept their short-term dependency and encourage, look forward to, and prepare them for, independence.
These are also exactly, I suggested, the norms by which we need to operate as teachers. I have never changed my perspective on any of that.
Given the practically identical purposes then, of parental love and the teacher’s role, it is, in my view, entirely proper for teachers to speak about “loving” their learners – or students or pupils. This is not new-age sentimentalism. It is an ethical commitment which underpins all effective teaching. Without that commitment, all else in the teaching process will be empty, barren and pointless.
Alex Wood has been a teacher for 38 years. He is now an associate with the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration at Edinburgh University.