What if there were more love in schools?
But my question asks about a particular definition of love—compassionate love. This, according to Eric Cassell, a physician, should be desirable in all helping professions. (See the comprehensive Handbook of Positive Psychology). Compassion, he says, is related to the recognition and treatment of suffering. No “helper”, be he or she a physician, psychologist, or teacher, can be without compassionate love in their tool kit.
In any professions where helping another person depends on that person’s cooperation with the treatment plan (or in the cases I will relate below, the curriculum), it is sometimes the case that the helper suffers from the curse of knowledge. That is, we think we know what we know so well (English composition, for example), that we forget what it is like to not know it, and as a result we use our negativity bias when evaluating those who do not (yet) know. Yet. The tragedy of this is that the very people who are charged with developing student skill and encouraging student enthusiasm are often the same ones who dampen them. They play their aces, but at what cost?
In education, we have great opportunities as teachers to develop our diamond cutting and polishing skills with students who are still “in the rough.” With such a focus on measuring student success, and preparing them for high-stakes testing, we run the risk in education of teaching via the law of unintended consequences.
According to Seligman and Peterson in Character Strengths and Virtues, “love is marked by the sharing of aid, comfort and acceptance.” I’d like to extend that to a high school classroom setting and explore how two students and their teachers could have a very different experience of school. These are real clients of mine, from different school districts. The student names have been changed.
In the first example, Dylan, a 10th grader, is enrolled in Honors English. His teacher has challenged the students to ask themselves daily, “Do I really measure up to Honors standards?” Each time an assignment is handed to the class, this reminder is given. Dylan is linguistically gifted but has a history of school difficulties in math; however, he has struggled to please this teacher. She has a real knack for pointing out flaws in his essays, and she writes—in red—on each one things like, “If I were you, I would reconsider my placement for next semester” and “You aren’t honors material, are you?”
The Law of Unintended ConsequencesWhat unintended consequences has the teacher encouraged? Dylan already has the “I don’t measure up” voice playing loudly on his personal “playlist” and his teacher is a pro at pushing repeat on this song. She sees her job as evaluator first and teacher second, since the honors students are supposed to be preparing for AP English and AP History next year. The anxiety created around each assignment is something she views as valuable. Further, she says she views her role as separating the wheat from the chaff so that the teachers who get her hand-offs will be impressed with them. However, I think she would get even better results if she job crafted a bit and shared her love—her “aid, comfort and acceptance” with her students. I’d even suggest that she offer them in this order—acceptance and aid, with the need for comfort hopefully kept to a minimum!
The second student, Owen, is a senior. He has always had trouble initiating longer assignments and keeping them organized, though his SAT’s place him in the top 5% of all students who took the test that day, and his dedication to the performing arts is exceptional. Explicit directions and opportunities to edit for extra credit have been mainstays of his longer written work. Last semester, his English teacher announced that there were no late papers accepted under any circumstances so don’t ask, and he further told them that they were far from being ready for college writing.
What was the unintended consequence of this policy and message? Owen just plain did not bother to do some assignments since that was what the teacher gave as options: do it on time, or don’t bother. He was devastated to hear that he was getting a D on his transcript—the one going to the colleges of his choice—since the teacher had given zeroes to all students whose work was not collected on the due date.
Help, in the form of counseling and the tutoring center are now available to Owen at school since he has “qualified” by virtue of his poor performance.Again, acceptance and aid, teaching rather than evaluating, were in order. When I spoke with this teacher, he gave what I call the “I do unto others since others have done it unto me” explanation. He stated the importance of getting used to the idea that there are standards in the world, and that no one will care about your personal circumstances. I could only begin to imagine how miserable this teacher had been when he was in high school, or college, or maybe in his current job, too.
Knowing areas where you are lacking in strengths can help you avoid obstacles and ask for relevant help. This is true whether you are a teacher or a student.
- You can choose not to engage in activities that do not play to your strengths.
- You can establish systems that use your strengths to support your efforts, and
- You can collaborate with others who have more strength in areas where you have less. Ideally this is what can happen between a teacher and student.
Positive Psychology Research for Supporting Standards
So does this mean I am against standards? Not at all. It does mean that no one deserves to be written off in school because a teacher (or the system) chooses rules over compassion, and grades over learning. Positive Psychology offers numerous tools for creating positive education environments: ones for identifying the strengths that help to engage students (Seligman and Peterson); for developing a growth mindset (Dweck); for developing relationships (Gable); and for helping us be mindful (Langer) and savor our successes. These, of course, are just a few possibilities.
There are cognitive approaches such as building optimism and resilience (Reivich, et. al.); emotion-based approaches such as broadening and building (Fredrickson) and increasing subjective well-being (Lyubomirsky; Diener and Biswas-Diener); and coping approaches such as meditation (Shapiro, et. al.). Some of these approaches are for preventing unhappiness (learning the skills of resilience) while others are for developing positive emotion, opportunities for flow, and meaningful goal attainment.
When I work with someone who might be difficult to like, I am reminded that everyone is somebody’s baby, and that we all deserve love and understanding. We are not all as cute or appealing as a puppy, and even they misbehave. Sometimes punishment is necessary, but grades should not be a punishment. Yes, they are about performance, and standards are based on this. In the real world, however, there are allowances and rewards for individual differences, in both schools and professions. In fact, the success of StrengthsFinder 2.0 confirms the value of individual differences to organizations—and schools.
Compassionate love is an important part of a teacher’s strengths and skill set. Do we need more love in schools? You bet.
Diener, E. & Biswas-Diener, R. (2008). Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth. Wiley-Blackwell.
Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Ballantine Books.
Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive. New York: Crown.
Reis, H. T. & Gable, S. L. (2003). Toward a positive psychology of relationships. C. L. Keyes & J. Haidt (Eds.), Flourishing, The positive person and the good life, 185-204. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.
Langer, E. (1990). Mindfulness. Da Capo Press.
Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. New York: Penguin Books.
Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Rath, T. (2007). StrengthsFinder 2.0: A New and Upgraded Edition of the Online Test from Gallup’s Now, Discover Your Strengths. New York: Gallup Press.
Reivich, K, & Shattẻ, A. (2002). The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles. New York: Broadway Books.
Cassell, E. Compassion. In C. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of Positive Psychology, pp. 434-445. New York: Oxford University Press.
Shapiro, D. & Walsh, R. Eds. (2008). Meditation: Classic and Contemporary Perspectives. Aldine Transaction.