The key element in any teacher's practice? Love

It may not be mentioned in job descriptions but there's no doubt that love is essential to teaching, writes David Murray

David Murray

Lve is key to being a great teacher - as Ian Wright's recollection of an inspirational teacher shows, writes David Murray

There is a phrase I have heard and used myself over the years that carries a particular weight that I rarely consider. It is usually thrown about in the context of college trips or safeguarding. It is a legal concept and so, like many legal concepts, it is expressed in Latin.

The idea is that teachers individually, and educational establishments as a whole, stand in loco parentis. We stand in the place of parents. This is quite an extraordinary concept if we pause to consider it. We act as parents towards those we teach. 

Being a father is the deepest heart of my identity. It is who I am. Inevitably, I bring that with me to my teaching. And I know other teachers do too, even those without children of their own. “I don’t have kids,” one colleague said to me recently, waving his arm towards a full LRC. “But I do have all of these kids.” It isn’t something you say out loud too often, but it is common to feel a parental pride in the students you teach. Just attend a prize-giving event and tell me the teachers aren’t glowing like the proudest of parents.

Parents and teachers can exist in a similar sort of emotional space for students. I remember well how mortifying it was to call your primary teacher "Mum", and I had a class a few years back who nicknamed me "Poppa D". Quite different from the "Blade" nickname I’d tried to promote, but there we go.

The roles of parents and teachers can overlap. That can get worrying, of course. One class used to argue amongst themselves about whose mum I was going to marry. I had to gently point out that I’d quite like a say and I suspected their mums might do, too.

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Background: Ian Wright on his best teacher – Mr Pigden

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I hesitate to write this and it is sad that I should be so wary, but we’re a naturally reticent country in such matters. What I really want to raise here is the issue of love in a teacher's practice. The love a teacher has for their students is almost the love that dare not speak its name. After all, what profession uses the language of love? I don’t recall it being mentioned in any performance management meeting I’ve ever had or job description I’ve ever seen.

A teacher's love: Ian Wright's Mr Pigden

Still, I think back to the footballer Ian Wright’s famous appearance on Desert Island Discs in February 2020, which has just been nominated for the Radio Times moment of the year. Wright’s words about his old teacher, Mr Pigden, deservedly made the headlines and they merit requoting. "I know he loved me," Wright said. I still find it hard to hear that interview without becoming just a little choked up.

Wright continued, "I know he loved me. I don't know why he chose me. I'm glad that he did. Once he come in, everything was so much better. I used to collect the registers from the teachers. Then they made me milk monitor. I really liked that. It was really good. I just felt important. Then what he'd do, he'd put me back into the classroom, and then my writing got better. He wouldn't let me play football if he'd heard I'd been naughty in class. He just gave me a sense of feeling like I had some use." Of their meeting again, decades later, Wright added: "He said how proud he is of me. Then I hugged him and, because he was three or four steps up, I felt like I was 7 again."

Listen again to those words from a grown man who attributes so much of his success in life to the influence of that one teacher when he was a child: "I know he loved me."

If we recall an influential teacher from our own childhood, of course, we might remember their facility with poetry, the easy way they explained maths, the excitement they instilled about chemistry, but I suspect there'll also be that elusive, unnameable other element, too: "I know he loved me."

Later, Ian Wright added that Sydney Pigden was "the first positive male figure that I had in my life". Of course, that raises all sorts of questions about where the fathers have gone in our culture and about the dearth of men in our primary classrooms today, but it also shows how profound and lasting the influence of a good teacher's love can be.

And that teacher’s influence can ripple out across society for years. Mr Pigden's early impact on Ian Wright helped to make him an icon and inspiration for many.

I’ve known teachers show love to their students in the most practical of ways, providing breakfast, sorting out accommodation, talking with them after lessons when they’d rather get a coffee. And I know hulking brutes of men whose soft side slips through the cynicism sometimes to give you a quick glimpse into the love that lies behind their teaching.

I doubt many of us really teach for the money or the prestige or the status. Read the great recent teacher biographies-cum-manifestos, such as Kate Clanchy’s Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me and Andria Zafirakou’s Those Who Can, Teach, and then tell me the essence of good teaching isn’t love. The best teachers I have known have loved the children they have taught. No doubt about it. That has been the hidden ingredient, the secret element which has made them good teachers. And it is for that reason they will be remembered by their students, as Mr Pigden is remembered still. 

We might think of the phrase in loco parentis as imposing a legal duty of care on us as educators and a legal liability, too, as indeed it does, but it should also go so much further than that. Any parent who acts only out of legal duty or fear of punitive legal consequences would surely have to be spoken to. When we stand in loco parentis, we are doing something incredible and privileged. It is truly humbling to somehow stand in a parent's shoes. And it is all about love.

A teacher’s kind of love isn’t sentimental. Indeed, it isn’t necessarily even emotional at all. And it isn’t really person-specific (although, like a parent, a teacher may well have secret favourites). A teacher’s kind of love is an attitude, an action. It is about wanting only what is best for one’s students and doing whatever one can to realise that best for them. 

Relationship is key to any successful education, and teaching is a profoundly human exchange, done for the betterment of both parties and society as a whole. And the oil of that relationship in the classroom and the corridors and the playgrounds of our country has to be love in one form or another. Still, I wonder, how will it ever be weighed and measured when the essential, unmentionable element in any teacher's practice is love?

David Murray is an English teacher at City of Stoke-on-Trent Sixth Form College

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