Should we love our pupils more?

13th August 2010 at 01:00

Love is in the air. The latest big idea to emerge in schools during these summery months is that teachers like me should be loving their pupils more.

The guru espousing this idea is Dr Andrew Curran, a practising paediatric neurologist in Liverpool. Since researching emotional literacy in schools, he's become convinced that the profession should be a great deal more loving towards its pupils if we want to solve the sorts of discipline problems that have plagued my teaching career for the past 20 years. Curran advised me that we should be freely using the word "love" to make our schools more welcoming, warmer places.

His words are particularly apposite as my school motto is "love as brethren", which basically means "love each other as brothers". This phrase is a very old one, but we've all been lectured by our headteacher on its importance. I have to confess there's something about it that makes me go "Eek!". My flesh crawls to think about loving the brutes who have made my life hell over the years. I don't want to love them; I want to exterminate them!

Indeed, these types of pupils certainly don't want my love. When I spoke to a particularly naughty pupil of mine about whether he wanted to be loved more in the classroom, he recoiled back in horror and said: "Ur, don't be so gay!"

The pupils who said they wanted to be loved more did so because they believed they would "get to do what they want" in lessons: to chew gum, never get told off, play their music and have no homework. Others worried that this sort of loving of pupils would lead to chronic favouritism, with the most "loved" getting away with murder.

However, Curran doesn't define teacherly love this way, but characterises it with this injunction to all would-be pedagogues, using these capitalisations in his book, The Little Book Of Big Stuff About The Brain: "UNDERSTAND the human in front of you. Then you will improve their SELF- ESTEEM. If you do this you will improve their SELF-CONFIDENCE. And if you do that, they will feel emotionally ENGAGED with what you are doing. This can be described in one single four-letter word: love."

For Curran, there is hard-edged neurological science to back up his stance. He explains that a learning experience causes patterns of nerve cells to fire in the brain but that these "patterns" are more deeply etched into the brain when dopamine is released; dopamine is released in massive quantities when we feel good about ourselves and creates feelings of well-being.

Fear and stress release chemicals such as adrenaline, noradrenaline and steroids which do the opposite of dopamine, erasing key "learning patterns" in the brain.

His observations have massive implications for schools which use the "fear of failure" to push students to learn; Curran suggests that this ultimately destroys learning. He postulates that the best learning happens in relaxed, "loving" contexts, with teachers making students feel good about themselves.

But is this love or just a description of good teaching? It really depends how you define love. The ancient Greeks believed in several different types of love, among which was philia, which might be the best way to describe a teacher's love for his or her pupils: the philosopher Aristotle perceived it as "dispassionate virtuous love". It is rather like St Paul's description in Corinthians: "Love is patient, love is kind".

There can be no doubt that our best teachers do exhibit philia: they are infinitely patient with even the most difficult children. However, it is a real challenge for many teachers to exhibit it when they are so stressed out themselves.

Curran feels strongly that teachers won't "love" their children properly until they feel loved by their colleagues. "Schools need to create a culture of love where every teacher feels valued and a deep sense of self- worth," he told me. "That's why I always start by training teachers to love each other before telling them they should be loving their pupils more." His point is a strong one: too often, teachers feel like they're being told off for doing things wrong. No wonder teachers frequently suffer from low self-esteem.

I've found that a nice word from a parent can improve my confidence. Their kind words have made me realise how important parents are in making lessons work. At their best, they are a teacher's invisible helpers, pulling the strings in so many schools. Indeed, it's only when I've got parents on board that pupils have really flourished: after all, 85 per cent of a child's learning takes place outside the classroom.

For me, the pedagogical approaches which emphasise the primary importance of families and guardians loving their children are the best. Save the Children's Families and Schools Together Programme (FAST - does exactly this. Designed for five to nine- year-olds, it brings together teachers, families and community members and provides invaluable coaching and parenting strategies which have been proven to improve children's behaviour, their achievements at school, and their general well-being. Parents learn about the importance of playing with their children, talking to them constructively, eating meals together and asking for help when help is needed.

Having run in the US for 20 years, it is the only programme which has been proven to improve disadvantaged children's results in the long run. Without lecturing or patronising, FAST puts the onus back on the parents and makes them realise their pivotal role in a child's development.

A teacher's "love" can never replace a parent's.

Francis Gilbert is a teacher and author of `Working the System: How to Get the Very Best State Education for Your Child'.

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