Is love education real

One of my favourite school mottoes is from Kristin School, Auckland, New Zealand.  It is “Progress with Vision, Integrity and Love”. Their choice of words is very interesting. Love is pretty unfashionable at the moment beyond Valentine’s Day, wedding fayres and soppy films. However love in all its forms is very important to the human condition. It would probably not be going too far to argue that, without love, we are completely lost. With this in mind, I am going to apply four types of love from Ancient Greek to the field of education to see what we find. I am trying to establish whether we can move education towards a more worthwhile 21st century model by thinking about the different types of love a bit more often in our daily practice.

Here they are.

So how do we see each of these manifested in today’s educational system?


This is the ‘I love you’ type of love, love for spouses and children, and something we see in the reading a lot of people choose for Christian weddings from Corinthians I in the New Testament. It can even mean an unconditional love for God. Here is an extract from the Bible, and similar words appear in the texts of many other religions:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

This kind of love is unconditional, enduring, and pretty tolerant. Where do we see this? In the eyes of the teacher as he or she explains something painstakingly to a pupil in the belief that it’s worth the effort. When the teacher writes careful comments on a pupil’s work, in the hope that this will help him or her. When a teacher gives up a lunch hour to go through work a pupil has missed. At its extreme, I think of the schools where teachers buy breakfast for children who come to school hungry, buy coats for children who come to school cold, and cuddle children who have fallen over. I also see it in the eyes of pupils as they look up teachers they admire. I see it in my students’ eyes, when they think of their favourite teachers. It’s in the eyes of parents as they affectionately wrap a scarf around a child’s neck, watch over their homework, or walk them to school. It is in the eyes of trainees as they start to model their professional behaviour on the very best practice they see around them. All this is Agape.


This can mean different things, but here I will take it to mean erotic love, the dark side of pupil/teacher relationships.  The stuff of tabloid headlines, of CRB and DBS checks, of Vetting and Barring, of List 99. In our society there is no place for physical love between pupils and teachers, and the penalties are harsh. Philosophically speaking, why is this? Perhaps it is because it is so easy for the vulnerable to confuse this type of love with one of the other types. And without clarity there is scope for manipulation.

There is also erotic love between pupils, of course. Anyone who has worked in a secondary school will feel this in the air, hanging around mixed with the aroma of hormones, cheap aftershave and hair products. An almost tangible smell. This erotic love takes two forms: the positive and the negative. The positive can provide a practice ground for adult relationships, and a space where adolescents can learn the rules of engagement. A liminal state, as they pass from companiable childhoods to higher stakes in adulthood. The negative can be the humiliation of the person they most admire, through the abuse of social networking, pornography, sexting, websex and harassment. This is something our society is not managing well, because we set a bad example. Teachers learn to recoil from physical contact from even their youngest pupils, for fear of accusations of abuse, which leaves everyone in schools confused about where acceptable boundaries might be in a more holistic sense. This is a work in progress for society, I think, and this is how Eros rears its head in our schools.


What is Philia? This is brotherly love, the sense of solidarity amongst teachers, amongst subject specialists, or amongst pupils. It can mean the affectionate or loyal feeling of an alumnus or alumna for their old schools. It can refer to the shared sense of enjoyment as people engage in a shared activity. Its meaning is captured in terms like Outreach, Communication, and Community. These are all buzz words, and all evident in policy documents, curricula, and prospectuses. They are easy to measure superficially, easy to value superficially, but very hard to know whether they are truly present, in more than a fleeting capacity.


Finally we come to Storge. This is the toughest of all the loves. This is about putting up with awkward people, especially if they are in your family. This is the teacher patiently enduring the disruptive pupil, because it is his or her job to do so while the pupil learns to conform.  It can mean the pupil putting up with classmates who are less than co-operative, or the head putting up with the teacher who is having a tough time at home and has become temporarily unproductive. It also means the teacher putting up with a colleague whose personality is radically different from his or her own, or the head putting up with the parent who is worried and aggressive. In turn, it can mean the parent putting up with the child who refuses to do homework. At an extreme, dear reader, it means this author putting up with an earlier Education Minister who confused helpful critique with harmful dissent. This is about seeing the long game, the bigger picture, and not always having everything on your own terms. This is Storge.


Having labelled the different types of love encountered in education, it’s important to seek to balance them. We have to face up to the fact that the emotional side of education is as important as the technical side. We need to spend more time thinking about the ethics of care vs the ethics of emotional neglect. This particularly struck me when my son was smaller, in a school nursery class at the age of three. I realised that when he fell over he had been taught to kiss his own knee in order to feel better. This left me in something of a dilemma. Is such teaching promoting independence, or does it in fact deny the human aspects of the relationship between him and his carers? Perhaps it is both. However conversations debating the matter are all too rare. We shy away from them.

This is where we need the term Pedagogical love, coined by Finnish academics Kaarina Määttä and Satu Uusiautti in this insightful article entitled ‘Pedagogical love and good teacherhood’.

We need to move towards a state of grace, a real balance between professional and personal involvement. Such a state of grace requires patience, care, insight and tolerance. Only then can our pupils achieve their true potential in all forms.



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Published by sandraleatongray

I'm an Associate Professor in Education at University College London, where I do research, teach undergraduate and postgraduate students, and publish articles and books. View all posts by sandraleatongray