What I have learned about love
Love is one of the four core values of LEAF Academy Trust. It is the “L”. When you establish a multi-academy trust it is surprisingly hard deciding what to call it and part of the process for us was discussing what we thought our academies were about. People have often heard me say that the David Young Community Academy runs on love. The rest of the acronym comes from Enterprise, Aspiration and Faith.
When you work in challenging circumstances there are some classic errors that are often made. One of them is to develop the “excuse culture” and thankfully I see far less of that these days. It is typified for me by the phrase “our type of kid”, and a key characteristic is the leader who wants to tell you why this school is so different to all the other schools in the town, bemoan the prevailing circumstances and make excuses for the poor performance of the staff and students. A close relation of this is the “cuddle and muddle” – I still see too much of that and it is a fundamental misunderstanding of what love should mean. This is the love that is afraid to face the truth and challenge; a soft “there, there – we’ll look after you”, unchallenging care (which in my experience works term time only 0830-1600). What we see more of these days is the tough, uncompromising promotion of excellence regardless of circumstances, but I worry this can knock moral purpose off course if we don’t love.
This post is going to be an attempt to explain that.
Love is a choice. It has taken me a long time to learn this. Too often we think love, whether it be philia, eros or agape, just happens – in the case of eros with accompanying starbursts! Love is more complex than that. We are all hard to love at certain times and some of us are hard to love pretty much all of the time. When we were interviewing for Head Boy a couple of years ago we asked the question of candidates “What about the students who don’t make the right choices and who haven’t had the best examples at home?” – one of the candidates smiled and said “They need more love than the others”. Our Principal at DYCA, Lynne Frost, is very fond of reminding staff that the students who require the most love are the ones who will ask for it in the most unloving of ways. What I know is that when I was a teacher I had to choose to love every child, because if I didn’t love them they didn’t learn. “You need to learn to love the ones you’ve got!” is the no- nonsense advice dished out frequently.
Love is uncompromising and unrelenting. Accepting poor behaviour and poor work is not loving; it is condemning to failure. I have learned over the years to be very wary of leaders who tell me first “we are very good pastorally” – my antennae smell “cuddle and muddle” straightaway! Schools that are very good pastorally generally don’t talk about that much; they talk about their students’ achievements.
Love challenges and tells the truth. I have yet to meet a member of staff or a student who doesn’t appreciate honest feedback about their performance – as long as it is done in love. Sometimes we have to give hard messages, but these need not be condemning of the person – they are about the behaviour or the performance. Critically when we are choosing to love the person, regardless, we are also making sure that hard messages are given with the offer of help in changing, improving or finding alternative avenues.
Love requires silence sometimes. I sometimes worry that when I am silent people know that is because I am digging deep to be able to love. (Sometimes it is!) I am learning though that being silent is sometimes the best way of practising love. Some truths don’t need telling and some things can remain unchallenged – wisdom helps us discern when to practice the love that is silent.
Love is unafraid and resilient. These are some of the most powerful characteristics of love and why love needs to be the choice of all who serve in challenging contexts. When a damaged person (adult or child) is effing and jeffing and kicking off all over the place I like them moved to a safe place and to be told “We’ll deal with you when you are calm – this behaviour is not acceptable”; when they express great hatred I like them told “That’s OK, but we love you and we will stay here loving you whatever you say, so you may as well calm down.” Love baffles people and overwhelms “why do you care? why don’t you just give up? what’s it to do with you anyway?” In truth it can be our greatest weapon; it is certainly far, far more powerful at changing people and situations than anger and revenge.
Love will be misinterpreted. I have learned over the years that when I am doing some of the hardest things and digging the deepest, I will inevitably be accused of all kinds of things from lack of commitment to over ambition. Love is also about not letting that matter.
Love is hard which is why it is a choice.