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Do Teachers Use Love as Leverage? An Inquiry into Acceptance


How can we balance the nurturing and acceptance our children need with our role as academic taskmasters?

Today’s entry is a departure. Rather than just tell you what I think, supported with facts and figures, I want to open some questions for discussion. After all, this is intended to be a dialogue.

I just watched a couple of old videos of one of my favorite characters, the late Fred Rogers. My family did not have a television until I was ten years old, so that must be when I watched his show sometimes, on days I stayed home from school with a “stomach ache.” I know his show was aimed at much younger children, but I must have been hungry to hear those reassuring talks and songs he would share. “It’s you I love, it’s not the clothes you wear, not the way you do your hair.” “I love you for just being yourself.”


I have tried to bring that spirit to my work with students. I think we do best when we accept our students as they are for our starting point. But that can be a very tough balancing act as a middle school teacher. If a student comes to me in the 6th grade and does not know times tables, as his teacher I cannot accept that – we have to create a learning agenda so he can boost his skills and handle fractions and more advanced math.

Every time you give a test, you have stated an expectation of what a student should know how to do. As we have moved tests down into kindergarten, we have increased the pressure on students at younger ages. I really wonder about how this is affecting our children. Finland has recently attracted attention because their math and science scores are tops in the world. But they do not even begin formal schooling until age 7. In this country, there are many Waldorf schools that hold off on reading instruction until children are in the second grade.

One of the problems I have with NCLB is that our testing mechanisms have become central to the way we judge the effectiveness of a school or a teacher. There are so many other dimensions to teaching that will not be revealed by a test. Furthermore, the pressure we put on adults to increase student test scores is passed on to their students, and I think many times this places teachers in a position of using their love as leverage to get students to perform better, withholding our approval unless they learn what they must for us.

Children are dying to please the adults in their lives. They so want to hear words of praise. They so want to know they are ok. But what if that child, like Albert Einstein, cannot read at age 8? Many of us entered the profession with the impulse to nurture, which I believe means we must accept our students in the spirit of Fred Rogers, as they are. We want to encourage them to grow, to create interesting challenges for them and help them see how great they are by virtue of all they can learn. But the test agenda lays out a strict set of expectations for what every child should be able to do in every tested subject. A child who, like Einstein, might have been good in math, might still flunk the second grade if he could not read. As their teacher, we have to prod, cajole and even threaten. “If you don’t learn this by May, you might not go on to the next grade.“

We are forced to be agents of these systemic expectations.

Some would argue that this is how we best love these students
– by preparing them to be academically successful. After all, few of them will make a living “just by being themselves.” They will need to develop skills and knowledge, and they need to work at this. But I wonder if the rigid expectations we set for all students – the “high bars” Secretaries of Education Spellings and Duncan are so fond of, actually are the best way to promote excellence.

But why must excellence look the same for every child? Why isn’t it ok for some children to be fantastic readers, but poor mathematicians? Or lousy at math and reading, but great at making music, or dancing? We all know successful adults who would describe themselves as just that. But we have a huge fear that if we allow the system to make room for these different outcomes, large numbers of students will be passed along without the skills they need for success in college, and thus be condemned to a life as second class citizens.

I honestly do not have the answer for this conundrum. I cannot accept the rigid expectations model currently in place, but I am not completely comfortable with the alternative model either, because I share the fear that many students could be left behind academically.

So what do you think? Are we using our love as leverage with our students? Is that ok? How can we both accept our students as they are, and still challenge them to grow?

photo by Anthony Cody sf2ih8vtn5

Website for Mister Rogers' Neighborhood


Anthony, I really appreciate your thinking in this post. I am having the very same dilemmas about exactly what our expectations should be--my main problem is with the rigid timing and order in which we are supposed to expect students to hit certain benchmarks. I believe it does actually run counter to what scientists know about how humans, especially children, learn.

When it comes to love, it's a difficult distinction, but I think kids can understand the difference between, "You haven't met the mark yet, keep trying, keep pushing, this is really important for you," when the teacher really believes it, and "I don't love you anymore because you haven't met the mark." It's the difference between judging a child and judging a situation. The goal is to get the kids to be able to make the same judgement of the situation as we do, by letting them know what they do and don't know and empowering them to change that.

The part I have trouble with is when I feel backed into that corner of pushing a student to master something that seems arbitrary and doesn't align with his natural desire to learn. Especially when there IS something that he clearly wants to learn, but doesn't align with the current objective.

Truthfully, I think all of these grade level benchmarks are just about efficiency and not about kids or real learning. But how efficient is it really? As you pointed out a lot last year, our national dropout rate is close to 50%, so evidently our system is only working for half of our nation's youth. If we shifted our system to allow students to customize their own educational experiences more, would we simply lose a different 50% of the population? Or would we meet with greater success?

A colleague of mine recently described the process he used when engaging his students in a problem-based learning project. They defined together the things they wanted to learn out of their own interest, what they needed to learn for the sake of the project, and what "society" expected them to learn -- drawn from the state content standards. This seems acceptable to me in principle, so long as the societal demands do not become so overwhelming and prescriptive that they crowd out the rest.

This is especially problematic when you are teaching a population where large numbers of students are performing behind the schedule. Can you afford to explore new ground? Or are you obliged to spend any extra time you might have trying to backfill the skills they are lacking? And how will this affect their level of interest in the subject?

The conundrum you describe is even more magnified in special education. Right now I am teaching severely/profoundly disabled 3rd through 6th grade students. The state and federal government have requirements that my students show progress at grade level. But there is no realistic way my students can function at grade level. I understand that many people feel that we underestimate what cognitively disabled children are capable of. I do love my students and don't want to ever be guilty of just warehousing or babysitting them. But there is a huge gap between pushing them to learn grade level content and teaching them reading and math skills that will actually translate into job skills. Most of my students will be able to work in sheltered workshop jobs and live in group homes. They need to learn to read their names, simple instructions, alphabetize, add and subtract. These skills could significantly contribute to their adult lives. The state requires that I create worksheets that they can use dot markers to identify answers after hearing grade level text. This will not contribute to an educational outcome that will honestly benefit their futures. The struggle is that learning takes so long for these students that we must be working on pre-reading skills and simple math right now - and continue to work on them throughout their schooling. The state and federal requirements are arbitrary and contrived, crafted to try to fit with the NCLB requirements. But they hamper what my students really need. I feel like I am constantly pulled between helping my students for the people that they are and what they need and what the government calls learning for cognitively disabled students and the accountability that they require for that.

I was especially struck by the information about Finland. I think that there is a disingenuous face to much of the school reform movement when statistics showing that the U.S. is lagging behind other industrialized countries is used as ammunition to push certain reform agendas, especially those that ultimately led to NCLB. However, these same reformers have no interest in how these countries with better outcomes actually educate their children. Often this is because the model in Finland or Japan does not fit in with the reformers preconceived notions about what schooling ought to look like.

Personally, I would love to be able to adopt the best features of education from outside the U.S. My own greatest desire as a teacher would be to rewrite standards to teach fewer concepts in greater depth. This would allow every child the opportunity to reach mastery. Unfortunately, this very idea, which is a hallmark of countries with better test scores in math and science, is considered by many reformers to be "dumbing down" the standards.

Heidi is right on the mark. Ironically, as Yong Zhao's new book (reviewed in my latest blog) points out, the US is increasing our emphasis on tests and standards at the same time other countries, especially those in Asia, are moving in the opposite direction in order to stimulate innovation.

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