English Comes Alive!

Jim Witherspoon, Ph.D.

Love Your Students

When I first began teaching, I worked for a wise, much loved and respected chairperson—Dr. Harwell Sturdivant of Western Maryland College.  I once asked him, “What is the most important of all qualities in great teachers?”  I thought he would say “preparedness,” for he insisted on high standards for students and teachers alike.  Instead, he laid “love.”  To be good teachers, he felt that we must love and understand our students.

In polls of students, teachers, and college presidents, the personality or human qualities of teachers have consistently ranked high in importance.  These go by various names: love, understanding, patience, empathy, kindness, warmth, interest in students—and they are all basically synonyms for love. 

This photo, for example, shows exactly the human qualities we should strive for.  Here are two loving teachers, Doug and Sophie Pease, caught informally talking with two EFL students outside the castle in Trakai, Lithuania.  Their interest in students converts into students' interest in learning.

It has been 50 years since Dr. Sturdivant and I discussed the importance of love and understanding, but I have never forgotten it.  Teachers need other qualities for success—for example, preparedness, skill, and enthusiasm—but their love for students ties all this together.

When Dr. Sturdivant said “love your students,” I pondered how best to do this.  While pondering, I thought of Shakespeare who said, “They do not love who do not show their love.”  I concluded that a loving teacher—or a loving person of any kind—should be friendly, helpful, and interested in other people.  And when we show our love in this manner, our students, in turn, love us and respond well to our teaching.

When I later became chair of the sciences at a different location, Grand Canyon College, I applied Dr. Sturdivant’s “love and understanding” to our faculty and students.  We were a tiny department in those days, only 40 undergraduate majors in science and a half dozen or so professors.  But by using love, educational outreach, and other methods, we grew in 11 years from 40 to 605 majors.

Had our professors kept distant from students, drawn only to academics, our recruiting would surely have failed.  Well-qualified students seek empathetic professors who push them to do their best.  Our professors did that.  They pushed them but also gave them the time, encouragement, and love they deserved.

My wife and I left our office doors open for students and urged others to do likewise.  Thus we had frequent visitors, more yet because our offices were next to a couch-filled lobby.  A few of us ate brown-bag lunches with our students in the lobby.

In this family-like setting, students found their second home.  Krista, for example, rushed into my office one morning with a hair dryer in her hand, asking if she could plug it in.  Her ride came early, she said, so she didn't have time to dry her hair.

Ron, another student, sometimes played his violin in the late afternoon to entertain those of us still working.  Ron was a sharp student, somewhat unsure of himself because he had never graduated from high school—had only a GED degree.  When our faculty saw his interest in medicine, however, we encouraged him to apply for medical school.  He wrote back some 15 years later to thank us heartily for this encouragement.  He was then a practicing surgeon, still playing his violin.

When my wife and I switched from teaching science in Arizona to teaching English overseas, guess what we learned about love?  It opened doors to the hearts of people learning English as well as to those learning science. 

In our EFL classrooms, we usually sat with our students in a circle of chairs.  Thus we could easily speak back and forth with them as friends.  And we sometimes took walks and had picnics with them, making it even easier to talk.  Students responded remarkably well to our warmth, learning English much faster, we thought, than in a formal, highly structured classroom.  How wonderful it was to hear them laughing and chattering in their second language.   

Our world is sometimes harsh, but we can make it pleasant for our students through little acts of kindness, acts that show how much we care for them.  And these acts generate ripples, spreading our love through our students to other people.

This article, "Love Your Students," is adapted from Chapter 24 of the book, English Comes Alive!  To see more of this book, click PAPERBACK or KINDLE, or to see its companion book, click ENGLISH COMES ALIVE FOR STUDENTS!

Helping Hands

This Mongolian gentleman was coming up the icy slope in Ulan Bator as we came down.  Seeing a potential fall, he held out his hand to assist Treva Gibson, our Director of International Studies at Grand Canyon University.  From this and other examples of kindness we've experienced throughout the world--especially from our students--we are much encouraged.  Acts of kindness build a better world.      
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