Culture

Love beats fear in school culture

By Marsha Gadsden December 6, 2016

This fall I had the privilege of attending a convening hosted by the U.S. Department of Education on the cultural practices of schools across the United States. I was pleasantly surprised to hear the word “love” mentioned a few times by some very talented educators in the room. It got me thinking that while many of us recognize the power of relationships and how necessary personal connections are to our students’ learning, most urban charter schools and other educational institutions still choose to lead with fear, instead of love.

Mentioning love in a professional setting may seem taboo, radical even to some; but it is transformational. I’ve witnessed it firsthand. I can tell you success story after success story of young men and women headed down the wrong path who are now on track towards college, and those children are indeed near and dear to my heart. But I am not talking only about a smattering of students. Love has been pivotal in transforming my entire school from top to bottom.

When I say love, I don’t mean warm and fuzzy words, hearts, and flowers. That is romance. Love—real, sincere, authentic love—is hardcore. It is this kind of love that pushes people to be at their best and does not settle for mediocrity. It corrects. It sacrifices. It is unconditional. Love is the real “no excuses.”

Three years ago, we were using a traditional, punitive approach to discipline at Brooklyn Ascend Middle School, and the school community was in distress. Students and teachers were often disrespectful to one another, detention was full on a daily basis, suspension rates were high, and our students’ academic achievement suffered.

The only appropriate response was to infuse the school with the very things that were missing: love and light. The words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. come to mind: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”

The first thing we did was eliminate detention, and anything reminiscent of a prison culture. We would not be part of the school-to-prison pipeline. Then, using the Responsive Classroom model, we focused on tight school-wide procedures that fostered healthy relationships and met students’ developmental needs. Very importantly, we emphasized teacher language that empowers students rather than belittles them. Today at Brooklyn Ascend Middle School, every teacher treats every child with dignity and models respect at all times. No exceptions. As a result, you will now witness a warm and productive atmosphere, where adults have love for one another and love for our students, and our students have a love for learning.

Since we introduced love as a core feature of our school culture, staff retention has climbed to its highest level, suspensions are down, scores on the Common Core exams are stronger than ever, and student engagement with the curriculum is palpable. If you ask my staff what has made the difference, they’ll tell you: it was love. I love them, genuinely. I push my leaders and teachers to be their best. We have very high expectations of one another and of our students, and we also provide high support. My leaders and I pull up our sleeves, push into the classrooms, open our doors, and get down in the trenches with our teachers rather than simply direct them. Can you achieve strong academic results without love? Certainly; there are many schools that do. But why use fear and control when there is a better, more humane and more empowering way?

Try love. It works.