Home All What’s Love Got to Do With It?

Sherri Fisher, MAPP '06, M.Ed., Director of Learn and Flourish LLC, is a coach, best-selling author, workshop facilitator, and speaker. She works internationally with smart people of all ages who have learning, attention, and executive function challenges. Sherri’s evidence-based POS-EDGE® Model merges her expertise in strengths, well-being, motivation, and applied neuropsychology.

Full Bio. Sherri's articles are here.

What if there were more love in schools?

Ace Hearts

Ace of Hearts

Imagine an American classroom in February. On the big wall calendar, there is a groundhog on the 2nd, silhouettes of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington on President’s Day, and hearts on the 14th. On the last week in February, if you live in Massachusetts and many other northern states, there are hearts on each day of the last week of the month since it is winter vacation. Everyone loves that.

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?

Diamond CuttingIn 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.

Measuring Up

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 Consequences

Job Crafting Manual

Job Crafting Manual

What 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.

Managing Strengths

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.

Set Goals sign


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, & Shatt?, 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.

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Louis Alloro 5 February 2009 - 12:24 pm

Thanks, Sherri. Love has everything to do with it.

Your article reminds me of a dear friend of mine who just returned to teaching after taking several years off to raise two wonderful children. She says that this time around her approach is much different in the classroom–that in having two children of her own allows her to approach her role as a teacher with an entirely new mindset.

But what about those of us without children? How can we keep compassion on the mind in the classroom? It’s so crucial.


Kathryn Britton 5 February 2009 - 3:47 pm


I experienced that same change of perspective in a pediatrician who was rather scornful of my problems during a checkup of my infant keeping my 3-year-old from bouncing off the wall. She was a lot more sympathetic to people after she’d had her own.

In contrast to Sherri’s stories, I’m reminded of a story told by a teacher friend of mine. She had a student in an AP course who was doing extremely well in spite of some very very difficult things going on at home. My friend asked him what was helping do so well. He answered that he’d had a 6th grade teacher who constantly showed that she believed in him. Whenever he had self doubts, he’d think of her. I bet that 6th grade teacher never knew what a major impact she had on him. Isn’t that a case of sowing a seed that grows on its own.


Sherri Fisher 5 February 2009 - 9:02 pm

Thanks Louis and Kathryn for sharing your stories.

I’m a better teacher–and person–for having had children. There is not much that is more humbling, exhausting or rewarding! It helps put many every day complaints into perspective to have your child whisked away in an ambulance, or to watch a performance that takes your breath away and makes you say of your own child, “I had no idea!”

There are many exceptional teachers, and this article is not about them. It is a reminder to those who believe that we are preparing students best for the reality of a harsh world by being harsh.


Meg 5 February 2009 - 9:17 pm

Thanks Mom, I think I’m a better person for you having had me, too:)!
Love, Meg

Louis Alloro 6 February 2009 - 2:53 pm

Kathryn, I love the story of your friend’s student who recalled a teacher in 6th grade who had made such a huge impact. For us teachers, that kind of reward is seldom–and if it does come, it is often not until years later after the student has graduated. That’s okay, though – gratitude is gratitude – and better late than never.

So we know the value of teachers who are also parents — but what about parents who have never been teachers?

I had several instances in my first year as a teacher in which students were not doing well in my class. One instance was with an AP student and the other was with a college-prep girl, both in my English classes. Of course, I became the scapegoat. *I* was the reason their children were not doing well. *I* was a bad teacher. Letters were even written to the Board of Education to that effect. I knew I was a good teacher, but when questioned as a young professional, of course you wonder.

After months of torment by the parents (and thus permission given to their children to ‘give up’ and come to class with bad attitudes, affecting the larger group dynamics)–there were finally meetings held with the parents, the student, the principal, the guidance counselor and me. In both of these instances, it was realized that the *parents* were the reasons for the students’ struggles–that their expectations were not in line with their childs’ abilities (or the effort the kids were actually putting forth).

In one case, we discovered that the girl was being abused at home. In the other, it was because the mother had an English degree and wished her son was destined for the same path, which he was not.

Those meetings ended with parents and students in tears–realizing that they were the reasons their kids weren’t doing well and it had nothing to do with me. Consciousness raising to say the least!. What does Prochaka say about change? Consciousness = one of the first steps.

As teachers, we have many variables to consider with even just one student — multiply that by 20+ kids in one room — times 4 or 6 classes per day. That’s a lot of math, especially for an English teacher.

My point is that to remain compassionate, parents need to ally themselves with the teachers, who are always out for the well-being of the young people (and especially with cooperative parents). More and more, we see parents losing site of the learning process (maybe because they never valued or experienced it themselves?). They want their kids to be super stars in everything, earning nothing less than As, and without much sweat in the process–prohibitive protection to say the least.

See Eleanor Chin’s important work in helicopter parenting and how Positive Psychology can help turn this around: https://positivepsychologynews.com/news/eleanor-chin/200902041463)


Elaine O'Brien 7 February 2009 - 2:02 pm

Dear Sherri,
Thank you for you deep compassion and caring. What a gift you are. Love is the answer and that’s for sure.
Cheers to you,

Joan Young 8 February 2009 - 5:45 pm


Thank you for an article that highlights the many aspects of applying positive psychology to the classroom. I have been on both sides of the fence, as a parent, working collaboratively with teachers to help my kids thrive in school, and as a teacher, working in kindergarten to inspire bright eyed little people to develop a love for learning! Love in the compassionate form seems to be overshadowed by the demands for performance in a system that seems to value scores more than kids. Ironically, the resulting negativity leads to a far lower achievement! I am excited and inspired by the work that you and your MAPP team have been doing with Flourishing Schools. I hope to somehow be able to encourage other teachers I know to remember compassion foremost when working with our precious youth.
Thanks again,


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