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Onward Together: What's Love Got to Do With It?

From Head of School, Sophie Glenn Lau '88

On Friday, students and adults dressed festively in red and pink to recognize Valentine’s Day, and our virtual Valentine Sing represented another creative adaptation of a beloved Lincoln tradition in the COVID-19 environment. As we celebrate this weekend, it seems a fitting time to reflect on the first ‘L’ of our longstanding school motto: “Love, Loyalty, Lowliness.” 

Students and teachers often talk about what they love at school; a student might be quick to say she loves science, or she loves basketball; teachers might tell you that they love teaching art or history. When I met with students and colleagues this fall, I asked them to share one thing that they loved about Lincoln. “The community” was the most frequent response, which I found beautiful and inspiring. But today I am not writing simply about what we love at school, but rather, why love is foundational to excellent teaching and learning.

Neuroscientists, psychologists, and educators remind us that children learn best when they feel loved and when they love those who teach them.This is not a new concept; Mister Rogers, whose PBS children’s show was a staple of my childhood, reminded us that “Love is at the root of everything, all learning, all relationships—love or the lack of it.” Over the past few years, I have thought a lot about Fred Rogers; he was the subject of the recent documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” and the 2019 feature film “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” When I lived in Pittsburgh, some of my friends had grown up in Mister Rogers’s actual neighborhood, not far from the school where I worked. For Mr. Rogers, love was unconditional—for those of you who remember his show, you might recall that he ended each episode looking into the camera and saying, “You make every day a special day just by being you, and I like you just the way you are.” 

The concept of unconditional love was central to a recent keynote address by Dr. Christopher Emdin, an Associate Professor at Teachers’ College, Columbia University, as part of Carney, Sandoe & Associates 2021 FORUM/Diversity: Overcoming Distance and Division. Dr. Emdin, who speaks and writes widely on race, politics, and STEM education, reminded his audience of educators that “unconditional love is a prerequisite to good teaching and learning and leadership of institutions.” Unconditional love means accepting and meeting students on their own terms and for who they are in any given moment. As Professor Bettina Love has written, loving the students we teach involves knowing and loving their culture and the context in which they live. It means embracing the whole person, not just the student as they learn, but as they live. It is at the heart of authentic relationships. 

When students feel known and loved, they are able to take risks, and this leads to growth and deep learning. Dr. Emdin noted that when a student who has an authentic connection to their teacher and doesn’t meet the standard of work that is expected, they look at their teacher and they “know that you love me enough to hold me to higher expectations.” Love is essential if we are going to work with each student to fulfill their potential—academically, athletically, artistically, and personally. 

In essence, as Dr. Edmin notes, “when we talk about love and teaching and learning, it is the creation of a space where there are no conditions to the expression of radical love for all young folks with an understanding that the essence of good teaching is love.”

It is fitting that love has been part of Lincoln’s motto for decades. While our understanding of the role that love plays in education has evolved over time, it is what empowers us to fulfill our mission and live into our values. The answer to Tina Turner’s iconic question, “what’s love got to do with it?” is simple: everything.