“Bye, guys! Have a good day/night!”

“Love you!”

“Love you, too!”

This is a common exchange between my students and myself after rehearsals.  It seems odd on the surface since you typically don’t hear that between a public school teacher and his or her students.  After all, in this day and age, with teachers scared to death about being accused of inappropriate behavior and the cultural warping of what love even is, it’s hard to imagine a teacher feeling comfortable enough to say “I love you” to a student and vice-versa.

Yet I find myself in this situation where the majority of my kids tell me “I love you.”  I suppose in my particular situation it makes more sense, since my high school students have had me since 6th grade.  I’ve been teaching in the same position for 11 years now, so I’ve had several sets of my 6th graders graduate.  Seven years is a long time to develop a relationship.  However, even some of my 8th graders also say “I love you” and I to them, so that can’t be the main reason as to why we do this.

Every time I have a hard sit down with a student who has done wrong or has made a bad decision or who has hurt someone else, I usually let them know that I love them during the conversation.  This is always cited as the source of whatever advice, guidance, or redirection that I give them.  This way they know that I am not saying these things to them because it’s somehow beneficial to me but because it’s all about them and their long-term well-being.

How did this start?

I didn’t start communicating my love for my students my first several years of teaching because I was uncomfortable doing so.  I did love them, I just didn’t say it.  I even strove to let them know that I loved them by how I acted around them, how I treated their work, and how I spoke to them.  But as we all know, hearing the words “I love you” have power.  It’s an acknowledgement of commitment and acceptance not of the appearance or actions or even thoughts of a person, but rather of the actual person, their soul.

If you truly love a person, you are choosing to tie yourself to them with a commitment to their well-being.  They can do the most terrible, horrific things, and they may not love you back, and you may not even have a relationship with them or associate with them because of things that they do.  They may not even know you exist!  But those things don’t stop you from loving them if you choose to love them.  In the Bible, this is called agape love, or the love God has for all of us.  It’s a sacrificial love brought on by an act of will.

So I have always loved my students.  But I rarely shared that with them until recently.

This year a student in my high school passed away.  The reality of the fragility of life came home to my students.

Also, over the years, I have witnessed the rise and spread of suicidal thoughts throughout the student population but particularly in my classroom.

And the flippant jokes about absent fathers from my students in class cut to my heart every day.  Here was one that made me cry that one of my freshmen told me last year:

“Hey kid, I love you.”

“Aw, thanks Dad.”

“April fools.”

Or this one that I heard this year from an eighth grader:

I’ve got a riddle for you.  My Dad left one night to get a pack of cigarettes from 7-Eleven.  Now, if the 7-Eleven is only 1 mile from my house, and the average man walks about 3 miles an hour, why has he been gone 15 years?

Now, this kid told me that joke during class in front of everyone.  We all laughed, but I mentioned how awful that was and that I’m sorry that had happened.  He said it wasn’t a big deal and that humor helps him get through it… which prompted another kid to pipe up and say that when her Dad died, she also used humor to make it day to day.

Man, do these kids need love.  In fact, every child needs to have an adult in their life that loves them.

So a couple days after the death of the student I mentioned, I decided that I was done pretending.  I wasn’t interested in continuing this artificial standoff-ish thing with my students any longer.  I started telling them I love them, mostly to the class as a whole, sometimes individually.

I’m Not the Only One

There is a whole body of research surrounding relationships and poverty.  I was recently introduced to the work of Dr. Ruby Payne, who wrote a book entitled A Framework for Understanding Poverty.  Though I have not read it yet, I have seen several clips and handouts from my administration about some of her theories on poverty and from what I’ve seen, much of poverty comes down to relationships and how students interact with one another.  Certainly, we are social people and crave the attention of others.  That’s why gangs are so attractive to kids without fathers in the home and mothers who have to work all the time to make ends meet.  More teachers in my school are starting to express a willingness to engage students with purposeful relationships.

I also know from personal experience how sharing my love for students is having a positive impact on their lives, at least when they’re in school.  One of my older students has started talking to me about certain difficult subjects, and the door opened because he knew that I loved him.  He’s had a difficult life and has medical issues going on but few people know about that stuff because he hides it.  I have one kid who graduated years ago express that my commitment to him, my love for him, was why he made it as far as he had.  My middle school classes leave with exuberant “Love you!”s as they head out to continue their day, the joy on their faces is palpable.

So I’m going to keep telling my kids that I love them.  They need to hear it.

If you feel comfortable doing so, consider joining me, but only if you mean it.  Remember, real love is an act of will and a willingness to sacrifice for the person regardless of their actions or situation.

We all need someone like that in our life.  We can also be that person for someone else.