I had never thought about it but I’ve just realized most English classes in Brazil start a couple of weeks before the official Valentine’s Day in February, which celebrates love worldwide, and finish a couple of weeks after our national Valentine’s Day in June. What a lovely way to think about it, don’t you agree? Our students get to our classrooms at a time friends, families, couples, colleagues, and people in general are exchanging cards and gifts to tell each other how much they love them. By June, when they’re leaving for their well-deserved break, they’re surrounded by couples, sometimes including themselves and their parents, doing the same thing.
But for anyone who has taught kids about February 14th in Brazil, here’s something to relate:
Teacher: Today we’re going to make Valentine’s Day cards
Kid#1: But I don’t have a boyfriend, teacher. I don’t like boys
Kid#2: I have a beautiful girlfriend at school, teacher! But she doesn’t like cards
Teacher: This Valentine’s Day is not just about couples, boyfriends and girlfriends, but it also celebrates the love you have for friends and family. It’s about affection.
Kids: That’s weird! (my 10yo kids actually had this conversation with me)
Jokes aside, this is the sort of confusion a date like that may create. All because of the word that is the main topic of songs, movies, poetry, paintings, books, etc, etc, etc… you name it. The word is LOVE. I’d say LOVE is the main substance of LIFE. Nonetheless, LOVE can be used quite trivially today, expressing the feeling you have toward someone, an object you regard highly, a situation that makes you happy or laugh, anything really:
“I love you hair!”
“My students love me”
“I’m in love with her”
“Don’t you love this cold weather?”
“When that guy fell, I simply loved it!”
Interestingly enough, the Ancient Greeks were more thorough about LOVE than us. The sort of love the world celebrates in February can be found in the words φιλία, or philia, a type of brotherly love or friendship, and αγάπη, or agape, love for everyone, the highest form of love, charity. In June, at least here in Brazil, the type of love we celebrate is a mix between στοργή, or storge, a familial love, also used to refer to companions in a loving relationship, and ἔρως, or eros, which meant lust, desire, passion.
With all those types of LOVE in mind, I have to say something important: I LOVE working with education! And I’m talking about αγάπη. I love mentoring my teachers, connecting with students, and, above all, I love teaching.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made us reflect on love quite a lot. Many have lost their loved ones and many still fail to see that respecting social distacing and hygiene protocols is an act of love. It’s αγάπη.
The purpose of this blog post is to share a few ideas on how we can help spread love from February to June and then from June to February, covering both Valentine’s Days and every other day in between. The following tips are based on my own practice and that of people I look up to:
1. Make sure you tell your students you love them. That makes a difference in their lives;
2. Teach them how to love and be proud of themselves. You can shift the focus from “I’m really proud of you” to “I bet you’re really proud of yourself”. That can be an important lesson for them to become more intrinsically motivated and not simply do things to please other people;
3. Help them develop self-efficacy and emotion regulation . Teaching them how to deal with frustration and validating their emotions will show them that it is normal to feel down sometimes and that things don’t always work as we’d like them to. Self-regulated students who are emotionally intelligent are better able to have healthy and meaningful relationships
4. Take better care of your mental health as well. If you cannot love yourself, it makes it harder for you to love others and be there for them when they need you
5. Be more inclusive and exercise tolerance and empathy. Students come from different backgrounds and they’re doing their best to fit in. It’s hard to fit it if they feel like they’re not loved or accepted for who they are. You can create a welcoming atmosphere and a sense of community;
6. Work on your relationship with their families. Many times we must educate parents and help them realize that we’re part of the same team. Our goal is to help their kids learn and, above all, be happy. We need families to help
7. Share with them your ambitions, your likes, and dislikes and who you are. Love has to do with human connection and rapport. It’s important for you to show them the person behind the screen
8. Have a 5-min (it could 2) conversation with each one of them to tell them that they matter, they have a voice, and that they must try to pursue their dreams. Tell them that effort, ethics, constructive feedback, and determination will take them far in life;
9. Ask them to write a paragraph with the most important lesson they learned from you. You can make a Google Form to make sure it stays anonymous if you like. Learn from their suggestions, ask for feedback;
10. Write a letter to your students. I do it every semester at the beginning and at the end. I tell them things like:
-Your talent for drawing is incredible. Have you ever thought of taking a course? Having talent is only 50% of your journey. You need to practice and keep going.
–All I wanted was simply to make sure you can learn better and grow as a person.
–I never meant to make you think I don’t like you. I want the best for you.
–I just love the way you help in class.
–I think you need to see beyond our classes. You’ll use not only English but the lessons I tried to teach you about project design, public speaking, writing. Always remember that.
–I know I wasn’t always the best teacher but I tried my best to make things better in class. Can you say the same? I want to help you achieve your dreams and I need your help to realize it.
–You have such incredible potential. Remember that if you’re not willing to be wrong sometimes, you’re not going to learn as much. Being wrong is a great tool to help us grow.
–I truly hope you remember my classes when you’re a successful and powerful woman.
–Go on and change the world.
To wrap up, let me share a story about a student I had a few years ago. I was struggling to make her participate in class and everything I could think of and tried basically failed. She was what many call a rebellious teenager. I felt like I couldn’t get to her no matter how hard I tried. Then I had this idea. When I feel like expressing myself about things that might be bothering me or even things that excite me, the first idea that comes to my mind is writing. I love writing more than I love speaking. It makes me feel less exposed perhaps and it works for me. That’s when I had the idea of writing letters and assigning letters as homework to my students.
I wrote the letters first and gave them at the beginning of the lesson. After they read it, there was an immediate transformation. They were all quiet and grateful. They thanked me for my letters and tried harder to do the things they were supposed to in that lesson. As homework, they had to write a letter to me based on the things that I told them in my letters. They could write about things that were bothering them, suggestions for us to change something, or ideas that excited them.
This student who was never engaged wrote something that made me reflect on my role as a teacher. She basically said that she saw no purpose in studying English as it would never be a part of her life. She said she hated the classes and all she ever wanted to do in her life was become a musician. She sang and played the piano. That was the first time that I learned something about who she was. I felt grateful and replied in another letter.
My next letter to her changed our relationship. I said that English could be a vehicle to her. That it could do to her what it did to a friend of mine who’s now a famous pianist based in the USA and tours every year around Europe and Asia with his concerts. I told her that I was a bit of a musician myself and could play the flute, the trumpet, and the guitar. I said that music does wonders to our brains and so does bilingualism. I told her that even if after all that she still hated English, that’d be fine. But I reminded her that life makes us do things we hate sometimes and that we at least need to be respectful of others in the process.
She cried. I saw her wiping her tears in the back and I felt I had done something bad. She later told me that she was under a lot of pressure and that she simply couldn’t see how English was going to help her. That changed after three letters. My first letter, her reply, and my second letter. She saw that we were not that different and that learning what I was trying to teach her could open doors or at least help her develop her brain a bit more. When she was finally able to see that, she started having a different attitude.
She certainly didn’t “improve” 100%. There were times she was not that engaged. But this exercise had an impact on her and on me. I’d like to think of the letters I wrote to my students as Valentine’s Day Cards with messages of how much I care about them and how they can achieve what they need. And, particularly, that I have their backs. That they can count on me and share their frustrations with me. We’re in it together.
Teaching is agape. Make sure you remember that.