Friday, February 1, 2013

"I love you because you breathe"

"The best gift you can give anyone is to believe in them." --Jeff Pulver

This was tweeted and retweeted by the attendees of Educon when they heard Pulver say it at a panel discussion on entrepreneurship. The educators who attend Educon are there because belief in children is a driving force in their teaching practice.

But...under what circumstances? What is the context of that belief? Does an adult typically say, “I know who you are, I understand your goals and your strengths, I know you can succeed and that is what I believe in?”

Or does an adult think “I tell you I believe in you because that will enable you to do this work that you are unwilling to do, don’t find relevant to your life and simply don’t care about?”

Pia Martin, a teacher at the Science Leadership Academy and a leader of the Educon session on Care For vs. Care About: Creating the Ethic of Care,  told attenders, “I tell students, “I love you because you breathe.” She communicates her unconditional love to her students, and says, “I respect you, I’ll nurture you, I’ll care for you, because you breathe.” What is the basis, though, for this unconditional love? It's grounded in the faith that the student will bring whatever he/she has to the class. “If all you have is crap, I’ll work with that...People give you 100% of what you have on a given day, and sometimes all they have is crap, ”

Unconditional love for who you are, whoever you are, today, tomorrow, or yesterday. It starts with identity.

So which do you think teachers should bring to their classroom? Think about what the phrase means when students hear it.

“I believe in you!” says the teacher to the student. “I believe you can do this work that I have given you. You need to believe in yourself.”

“She believes in me,” says the good student. “I can do this. It has no meaning to me, but I’ll push myself harder. It will start to make sense, and I then I will learn who I am.”

“She says she believes in me,” thinks another student, “But I have no idea why. I don’t even know what I can do.”

“I’ll try,” says the anxious student. Looking down at his book, he thinks. “How can I get this stuff into my head? I just don’t understand.”

“You don’t believe in me,” thinks another student. “You don’t know me. You have no idea who I am.” He pushes the paper away and reaches for his iPhone.

“What does she want?” another student asks. “As soon as I figure it out, I’ll do it, and she’ll move on and leave me alone.”

“How can my teacher believe in me? thinks a fourth student.  “Who am I?”

“I believe in myself,” says the self-aware student to the teacher. “I believe in what I need to learn, and this is not it.”

Or do we say to students, "I believe in you and base this belief on my knowledge of you and my acceptance of who you are and the work you find most meaningful."

Then the student thinks,

“My teacher knows me, understands my life and my goals, helps me follow the work that is most meaningful to me. She will not give up on me. In every sense she provides the support I need.”

The statement we heard from students at SLA most often is, “My teachers are really invested in my education.” It’s not a blanket, one-size-fits all belief. It is the product of a system that values the identity, the individuality of every student.


  1. Now that is the definition of personalized learning

  2. I run my alternative ed classroom on this premise, because I don't know any other way to function. I am humbled when the belief I show in a student starts to make a difference in how they see themselves. Not all of my students graduate, but they all leave my room knowing my life has been enriched by their presence. And when I think about my own children's school experiences, it's the years where they had a teacher who believed in them because they breathe that were the most powerful for them, too. If we truly want to fix education, this is the way to do it.

  3. Rachel, thanks for our's where my confusion is, and my post only partially cleared it up in my own mind. What I was trying to say was that 1. "I believe in you" can be used to manipulate, 2. unconditional love doesn't care about specifics, and I think kids want to know that they are loved for something specific about them. For their strengths, not their ability to fill in their deficits.

    I think we ought to be able to expect one thing from teachers, and that is, that they are able to find something in each child to like, or love, and be able to communicate that to students.

    So maybe my ideal unconditional love in the classroom is the ability to love something in a child that they love about themselves -- something they find affirming?

    "I will not give up on you," is also a way of affirming belief to a child -- but what I dislike is, "I will not give up on your ability to do stoichiometry and to read and report on Finnegan's Wake."

    I think my post created more questions for me than answers.

  4. Lisa, I understand the manipulative side of "I believe in you"as well as the supportive side. It's a fine line to walk sometimes. For me, it's about core values rather than specific actions. "I believe in your ability to make a good decision for yourself." "I believe you can earn your diploma if you want it-- and I will help you do that." I also talk a lot about living in society, and how we all have hoops we are asked to jump through: sometimes writing that report on Finnegan's Wake is such a hoop-- so is that a deal breaker for you? If it is, what options does that leave you with? And if it is a deal breaker, I trust that you are making the right choice for you and I'll still love you and value the time we spent together. It's a radical shift for schools, and I'm lucky enough to be in alternative ed where being radical is the norm.

    Here is what your post prompted in me. Your posts often make me think and reflect on my own practice, and I appreciate that.

    1. I like your approach because it presents kids with a choice of whether something they don't want to do is a deal-breaker, or if they can invest the effort in doing it because of some other valuable motivation. Adults make these choices all the time. We complain plenty about doing things we don't want to do, yet we fill students' days with it, then get all scornful and derisive about These Kids Nowadays.

      The ability to do stuff you don't want to do is closely connected to passion. I don't know that I've ever sufficiently explained why, even to myself. When I worked at various jobs, my passion was not for the work, it was for my independence. So do we only do stuff we don't want to do because we get something in return? No. Think of taxes. But if one doesn't have something to pursue that is meaningful and satisfying, doing your taxes gets even worse than when you are.

      I'm rambling...these are questions I am confronted with constantly; hard to come up with short answers.