Year 2 is mad. School is mad. From where I’m standing, at the end of an exhilarating, terrifying, growth-enforcing year, I can only say that my NQT year has been one of the hardest and most exciting of my life. Two years ago I wrote my ‘lessons from the nursery’, focussing on love, personalities, boundaries, speech and creativity. Now I want to expand the discussion on love, adding some of the difficult discoveries I made this year.
I can look into the eyes of a child who looks into mine, and feel the warmth in my heart and a surge of amazement just at their being. As they refuse to believe me that a tree really is a living thing (“but it doesn’t talk!!?”) or when a boy, trying out joined up handwriting for the first time, accidentally joins all the words together, confronting me with a page covered with indecipherable strings of connected letters, and he realises and throws back his head, toothless mouth wide open, eyes sparkling, and submits to enormous giggles that spread around the class like wildfire… then I love them. I feel that love in and around me; it is reciprocated; it is connection.
But what can I do with a child who refuses to make eye-contact for most of a year, and who actively goes out of their way to upset and anger me as personally as possible, poking their face into mine and saying I’m a rubbish teacher – or throwing things at me and hurting the other children?
This has been the biggest hurdle of the year. I was stumped because I was unable to love this child. I could forgive them daily, and truly from my heart, but as long as I measured love by connection and emotion, I was utterly incapable.
And yet I knew that we are commanded to love.
One of the biggest ironies and tragedies in life is that the people who have been loved the least and who need love the most, are generally the most difficult to love. They become repellent, even. Unable to risk further rejection themselves, they get there first, rejecting all those around them by acting in a manner that pushes others away. Left to themselves they become more alone, and labelling themselves unlovable, act accordingly. Meanwhile children who have been well-nourished by love in their life are generally by nature lovely, and call forth love from your gut without even knowing how or why.
I’m aware that this sounds embittered by some form of grown-up disillusionment, but I have realised that love, as measured by emotion and connection, cannot be the guiding principle of a classroom. Being guided by this sort of love is the most comfortable for me because it primarily only serves myself – those with whom I most connect are probably those most similar to myself, unveiling the suspicion that perhaps this ‘love’ is nothing more than a sort of projected egotism. The children who are naturally the most ‘lovely’, who have been loved the most, will be the most rewarded because as they love me back they make me feel warm and loved inside; I will protect children from the consequences of negative choices to avoid my emotional response of feeling guilty by ‘causing’ their unhappiness; I will reject or ignore those with whom I cannot emotionally connect because I cannot bear their silent (or very noisy) and often truthful critique of my classroom management. They are right – “it ain’t fair!”
Loving children in truth, not just in emotion, is harder and yet deeper. When loving a child is choosing to do what is best for them, not just what feels nicest to me, then I am forced to consider their long-term gain, knowing that I myself might not get to see the fruit of it. Providing it is safe, this sort of love consistently allows children to experience the consequences of both their positive and their negative choices so that they can learn how life works, and can go on in the future to make more positive choices for their own and society’s good. This sort of love excludes partiality by acknowledging the reality that all children are equally valued, because God created and values all personalities equally – surprisingly enough, being very different to me does not make someone less important! When I love in truth, I cannot push away a child who makes me feel uncomfortable, but I become more consistent in enforcing boundaries so that they know what the consequences of their actions will be and will know they are safe; at the same time it leads to my coming alongside them to help them practise positive actions until they are able to choose to do these positive actions independently.
It is true that loving children in this way does not exclude feeling love and connection with some children, but through my own ‘having a go’ this year, I have learnt that my emotions and desire for connection cannot be the guiding principle behind my classroom management. All those unromantic preachers were right – love often includes emotion, but it is not an emotion in itself. Rather true love is based on the truth of God’s love for every child. I can only give this love from a place of security in God’s love for me, which enables me to choose to do what is best in the long run for each child, even if they do not love me back – I am not looking to the children to fill me up; my own need for love is already satisfied.