Class Notes

Love Thy Students

Teaching as an emotional experience

By Paula Marantz Cohen | July 16, 2013


Since colleague Robert Watts and I have adjacent offices, we often cross paths. We are both intense people, whose moods can depend on how a class went on a given day. We often have some of the same students, but even if we don’t, we indulge each other: I listen to him go on about the young man with the gift for analysis; he listens to me extol the young woman who uses metaphors so well.

Recently in one of our talks, I confessed to feeling an intense love for my students.

“I can’t believe you said that!” he exclaimed. “I feel the same way!”

The love we feel is more agape than eros, I should note, and has been building for the past few years. We see in our students enormous beauty of mind and heart. Even when they are negligent about assignments, late for class, sloppy or forgetful, we are more willing to forgive them than we used to be. It was striking how similar our feelings were.

Robert said his response had to do with his not having had kids. He guessed he had reached the age where he was seeing his students as surrogate children. I countered that my response came from having had children and seeing aspects of them in my students.

Having or not having children obviously wasn’t at issue here. It has more to do with us and our growing sense of mortality. We look at our students as younger versions of ourselves, and feel compassion for them, understanding what lies ahead: so much potential capable of being thwarted, so much openness that could be taken advantage of, so much eagerness and flexibility at risk of becoming jaded and brittle.

We know that we are in the privileged position of helping to shape these young people—either by guiding them or by misguiding them if we act selfishly or fail to pay attention. In the face of such responsibility, the proper emotional response is love.

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