Where is the Love?

By Daphne Okunaga

I remember a teacher who seemed to have an insurmountable amount of energy. This teacher celebrated my successes like I won an Olympic medal and coached me through weak spots like I was the most important person in the class. He was kind and always reminded me to put myself in another’s shoes when I was upset. Once, when I was really mad that someone had copied my quiz, he asked me why I thought they copied. Was the other student lazy? Were they embarrassed they didn’t know the answers? When I calmed down, I admitted that I didn’t know why they copied and with a little push from my teacher, I befriended the other student (they had test anxiety) and we’re still friends today! This teacher was there to guide me to be a better person, not just to be a better student. No, I wasn’t special. In fact, he did this for all 180 of his students without asking for anything in return. This person was my high school teacher and class adviser. Yes, high school!

Elementary teachers often hug their students and give them cute mementos to take home to brighten their day. There are class parties, field trips, and reward systems in place to motivate and celebrate student success. Even in many middle schools there are incentives and team bonding activities. Yet, for many high school students, school is business-like, mostly devoid of these practices based in love and direct human interaction. Instead, there are different classroom routines and syllabi, homework assignments, quizzes, tests, projects, presentations, class lectures, and more negative consequences than positive. We even expect students to travel from one class to another and adjust to the teacher’s personality and teaching style! Sure, there are some activities like school assemblies and extra-curricular activities, but much of the personal touch is lost. With a typical class load of 100–180 students and high-stake tests, I completely understand the workload and the pressure that high school teachers experience. But, can’t we find some time to show our students some love? I find that many of students do better when they forge a relationship with their teachers and when they know that the teachers genuinely care about them as people and not just as scores or numbers or grades.

The bond may not be instantaneous, and it does take a lot of effort on the part of the teacher, but it is definitely worth it. It doesn’t mean going out and spending money to buy them stuff. It doesn’t mean making class easy and being the “cool teacher.” It means letting students know that you care. I try to go to at least one of their sporting events, band concerts, etc., and I take my children to watch the school play. I call parents to let them know how proud I am of their child. I make it a point to handwrite a warm note to each student once a semester about things that I’m proud of or things I want them to think about. I am always touched when I see them tuck their letters in their binders or when years later they tell me they still have my letters and that the letters help them through tough times. When I receive a handwritten thank you note from a student playing college football or a wedding invitation from a student that graduated ten years ago, I know the efforts to show love and kindness are worth it.

Society often thinks that as students get older they don’t need to be “loved on” as much, but I think high school students need it more than ever. The adolescent years are tough and balancing relationships, activities, and their future is overwhelming to do on their own. It is in these times of uncertainty that students need to feel an unconditional love when they don’t sometimes love themselves. They may or not may get it from their family, but they could get it every school day from a teacher. It’s not always easy to love students when they act out, but it’s those students who need the love the most. Imagine if every child at a high school connected with at least one adult on campus. Someone to listen to them and give them advice when needed. Someone to offer a hug or a high five. Someone they can turn to when they need help. Someone to make them feel safe and loved. The impact that could make on student behavior is powerful.

I challenge all educators to really think about the impact they have on students. What are ways that teachers can show students love? Some teachers meet students at the door and high five/fist bump each child on the way in so the class starts off with a good vibe. Others take the beginning of class to ask about everyone’s weekend or use nicknames to help students feel special. It doesn’t have to be big or showy, but as we talk about events like Unity Day to encourage everyone to “unite for kindness, acceptance, and aloha,” maybe we teachers can also ask ourselves, how can we show love to our students? What simple ways can we commit to loving our students on a daily basis? They are just kids after all. Share your ideas and tag me (@daphneokunaga) along with @CurioLearning.

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Daphne Okunaga is a Charger alumni who takes pride in teaching at Pearl City High School. Daphne is more than a mathematics teacher, serving as a hanai mom to many of the student athletes at Pearl City High School, and she can always be counted on to tutor students in need. Beyond athletics she serves the community by coordinating graduation and helping to support various student government initiatives. Find her on Twitter @DaphneOkunaga ‏.