In the amount of time teachers have with kids, they’re expected to help their students learn and prepare them for the coming years. But many go the extra mile to make sure their students also feel welcomed, accepted and heard.
Some teachers have done this with inspiring songs. Others have used messages of support to fight back against the recent spate of hate crimes and hateful political rhetoric targeted at marginalized communities. Inspired by these acts, HuffPost Parents reached out to teachers (both former and current) across the country to learn what they’re doing or what they have done to help their students.
Here are 14 teachers on how they spread love in the classroom:
1. “When we see a kid being kind to others ... or being a helper we give them a pom pom and they get to drop it in the warm and fuzzy jar.”
I’m a preschool teacher and myself and the other preschool teachers have created a “warm and fuzzy jar” and we talk about being kind with friends and with ourselves. When we see a kid being kind to others, being gentle with their bodies (walking inside, not hitting themselves, etc.), or being a helper we give them a pom pom and they get to drop it in the warm and fuzzy jar. When our jar is full we get to celebrate and the kids get to work together to choose what our goal will be (wear pajamas to school, extra outside time, making popcorn). As teachers we all were affected by this election, and it really lit a fire in us to make sure the children are as kind and accepting as can be.
― Krista Mashburn, a preschool teacher in Arcata, California
2. “We go around the circle and say a compliment to the person sitting on your left.”
I teach music to students ages 4 to 15 in a rural public school. Many of my students lack strong verbal communication skills, so we practice through songs and activities. One class opener my first- and second-grade students love is the “Compliment Circle.” It’s simple ― at the beginning of class, we go around the circle and say a compliment to the person sitting on your left. It’s amazing to see the tension melt off a 7-year-old’s face with a simple, “You’re nice to me in class,” or “I like your shoes.” To be seen and appreciated for their choices ― it’s so important for kids, but we can lose sight in the pressure of lesson planning, test scores and data.
― Camille Loomis, a public school teacher in Clarksdale, Mississippi
3. “[I got the class involved in] a fun activity while teaching teamwork and patience with the other person.”
During one activity, the students sat with their back to the white board and their classmates were able to surround them with messages. I didn’t place any stipulations on the messages and the students wrote very positive characteristics of that person or compliments, even with people they don’t necessarily get along with. Many students were anxious about sitting there without being able to see what was being written or by whom. In the end when the student turned around to read their board, many became emotional. One student said, “I’ve never felt more a part of a group, I didn’t know you guys even liked me.” This was definitely successful in giving students a confidence boost and spreading love to students that normally keep to themselves.
A second activity I used was a fun teamwork game called “Sole Mates.” Each student chose a partner and had to work together in any position they could come up with as long as their two shoe soles were together at all times. I then challenged them to race from one side of the room to the other. This was a fun activity while teaching teamwork and patience with the other person.
― Kristin Harris, ninth-grade history and humanities teacher in Phoenix
4. “As a man teaching a rigorous science (physics), I felt it was important to be emotionally expressive.”
It’s been a couple years since I taught full time. I have always believed learning requires emotion. The idea that your mind will become invested in a subject that you have no emotional connection to was always absurd to me. I used to spend the first five to 10 minutes of class just talking to the students. I used their thoughts to form the day’s theme, recurring joke or compelling problem to emotionally connect with content. I was reprimanded for not teaching content bell-to-bell, despite demonstrating the efficacy of my methods.
I taught high school, and I found it important to model “adult” behavior. As a man teaching a rigorous science (physics), I felt it was important to be emotionally expressive. I loved my students and told them so. I loved hard problems, good questions and clever solutions, so I would get excited and emote as visibly as possible. When kids appeared upset or distracted, I’d ask if they were OK, but respected boundaries if they didn’t want to talk to me. I let the students engage with my emotions as a model for being open about feelings. In short, I was openly human to my students, which let them know my expectation of them: Be yourself, it’s safe here, we’re all human.
― David Galatzer-Levy, who has taught many levels of education, though most of his work involved teaching 10th- to 12th-grade physics and mathematics in Fall River, Massachusetts
5. “[I allow them to] norm their grading on my baking skills.”
My students in East L.A. know that there is especially love embedded in my rigorous expectations of them. When introducing a new grading rubric, I make sure to revisit how rubrics are used by allowing them to norm their grading on my baking skills. (By the way, they gave me a 2 for Authenticity and 2.5 for Texture on this task.)
― Jana Schmieding, 10th-grade humanities teacher
6. “As I walked the room assisting them in their work, I listened to them as they shared their dreams and sorrows with me, without judging and without fixing.”
For most of my high school math students, being recognized as a human being was more important than quadratic formulas and trigonometry identities. Love came in paying attention to their life outside of my classroom ― asking how their prom date went, making an intentional visit to the McDonald’s where they worked to cheer them on and keeping photos of them in their everyday life up on my bulletin board. Mostly, as I walked the room assisting them in their work, I listened to them as they shared their dreams and sorrows with me, without judging and without fixing. Many of them are now adults with children who stay in contact on Facebook.
I have also worked with varying ages of youth as a lay minister since my early 20s. The conversations go deeper regarding faith, yet they start the same way. I listen and honor my students/youth in all of their glory, pain and growth by allowing them to exercise their voices.
― Cristine Warring, who has taught in various places in Kansas since 2006
7. “I tell them all the time that we are a family and we need to lift each other up.”
As a teacher, making sure my students feel loved is important. In my mind, it is another item to check off on my list of standards that they have to learn. Making them feel loved is not hard to do and it is not some big spectacle or store-bought item. I always greet every one of my students with a smile. I always comment on their new haircuts or tell them how proud I am of their achievements. Sometimes I give out high fives and hugs. Other times it might be a special handshake. You would be surprised just how far a little gesture goes. I tell them all the time that we are a family and we need to lift each other up. When my kids leave my classroom, they’ll have learned a lot of things that they might forget, but they’ll know they were loved.
― Hannah Pittman, a sixth-grade English language arts teacher in Wetumpka, Alabama
8. “Once a week, we would take time to all write positive notes to each other.”
I can tell you about something I used to do with my homeroom a few years back when I taught sixth grade. I would give out daily “positive notes” to scholars who were doing their best work, supporting their classmates or being a model of some other positive behavior. Once a week, we would take time to all write positive notes to each other. Scholars would write several positive notes in different categories to ensure everyone received at least one note. Categories included things like “Give a compliment to someone you usually don’t speak to in class,” “Thank a classmate that you saw do something nice for someone else,” “Write a note to say hello to someone you recently had a fight or argument with,” “Give a compliment to the person who sits right behind or in front of you,” etc. I always found that even if some of the notes sounded superficial to me, they meant a lot to my young middle schoolers.
― Tara Bringley, who taught in the Bronx in New York when she gave out her “positive notes”
9. “I pay close attention to their moods, facial expressions, and even tone of voice.”
I spread love by creating a space where students know that I truly have their best interest in mind. I work hard to to get to know my students and to use teaching methods that meet their individual needs. It also helps that I see them as dynamic human beings. High school is often romanticized by adults so people can forget just how miserable things can be at that age. I pay close attention to their moods, facial expressions and even tone of voice. And when they revert to elementary behaviors, I hold them accountable because part of my job is to help them see that there is a big difference between “liking” them and “loving” them. I will love them in spite of their teenage antics because I truly want what is best for them in every area of their lives.
― Anitra Washington, science teacher in Baltimore, Maryland
10. “I worked on their self-confidence; I wanted them to be able to recognize each of their unique talents.”
When I was teaching, it wasn’t just my love language, it was my most forefront goal to have all of my students feel two ways: that they were safe and that they were loved. For a number of years, I worked with all too many children who didn’t have another advocate for them, didn’t have another warm meal unless it was coming from school, didn’t have another human being to wrap their arms around them and tell them just how special they were or how much potential they had.
Yes, my job was to educate these sweet, innocent, young children and help them prepare to advance to the next grade level, but more than that, I focused on the things that couldn’t be found in a lesson plan. I worked on their self-confidence; I wanted them to be able to recognize each of their unique talents and be able to stand in front of any room, in front of any given audience and be able to share their “wealth,” that only they could give.
Each year, I found that my students taught me more of a love language of true empathy, absolute resiliency and unending compassion.
Our students don’t want to be remembered for their ID numbers or a test score or where they fell in line in class, but that they were important. That they made a difference and an impact upon somebody else’s life in a positive way. And that they will continue to have every opportunity to play an instrumental role in defining their own futures, despite whatever stack of cards may be against them.
― Regan Long, who taught second- through fifth-graders in Pennsylvania and sixth- to eighth-grade special education in California
11. “Every Friday, I write a ‘Love Note’ and also include an activity that relates to the note that the students can do over the weekend with their parents.”
This year, I decided to write “Love Notes” to my kindergarten students. I have a challenging group and thought it would be a good idea to create some kindness from school to home. Every Friday, I write a Love Note and also include an activity that relates to the note that the students can do over the weekend with their parents. The kids really look forward to the Love Notes each Friday. I post the returned Love Note activity back on Monday on my “LOVE” bulletin board. Not everyone completes the activity each week, but some do every single week.
I think the notes are having a bit of an impact on some of my students. When a child was out sick, I overheard another student say, “I’m going to write him two Love Notes!” Other children will hand me drawings or writings they have done, saying, “I made you a Love Note, Mrs. T.”
[I’ve also introduced] Love Beans. I’m basing it off another teacher’s idea and tying it in with “Jack and the Beanstalk. “The idea is that the kids have to take care of two “Beanie Babies” (lima beans with hearts on them)…if they are kind and are caught doing random acts of kindness, they get to add to their collection. If they are caught not being kind, beans get taken away and put back into a jar. At the end of the week, students can earn extra rewards like extra recess, special helper, etc. that the class decides on, depending on how many beans they earn.
― Joanna Teodosio, who teaches supported kindergarten in Milford, Connecticut
12. “Recently, some colleagues and I visited our school’s LGBTQ club meeting to let them know we cared about each and every one of them ... that regardless of what they see in the media, or hear from those who govern us, they have teachers who care about them very much.”
Loving our students, to me, means showing them enthusiasm for the curricula we teach (in my case, journalism and English), giving them respect by helping them to see how their thoughts and contributions to class matter and making the learning environment better for everyone, creating a safe place where they can be who they are and actively participate in the exchange of ideas and encouraging them to take risks and see failure less as failure and more as an opportunity to get better, to be better.
Creating that safe environment is critical if these exchanges are to happen in the classroom. Recently, some colleagues and I visited our school’s LGBTQ club meeting to let them know we cared about each and every one of them ... that regardless of what they see in the media, or hear from those who govern us, they have teachers who care about them very much. In an age of bullying, cyber and otherwise, it makes me so proud to hear from our students that they see their school as a safe place to learn and grow.
― Christopher Black, an English and journalism teacher in San Diego
13. “I tried to create an environment where my students felt heard.”
I think any teacher will tell you that a cooperative and loving culture is the most important part of a successful classroom. This is especially true when you have students who come from chaotic or stressful home environments; you need to make the classroom feel like a place where students feel safe and loved before they can focus on their learning. This can be really hard for eighth-graders, because they are at that age where they don’t want to be coddled or comforted like younger kids. So instead, I tried to create an environment where my students felt heard. They knew I loved them and that their peers loved them because they listened to them and respected what they had to say.
Every Friday in my homeroom class, I would play a video called “The Week in Rap” from an educational website called Flocabulary. The kids would listen and learn about current events and things happening around the world and then we would open up discussion and talk about anything that struck their interest. We established a “safe space” where students could express whatever feelings they were having and everyone was respectful and supportive of what their peers had to share. It was an opportunity for their voices to be heard on issues that mattered to them.
I also encouraged supportive and loving interaction between the students in smaller ways. For example, I had an anonymous “shout-out” box in the front of my room, where students could write nice notes about their classmates and I would read them aloud once a week. I was always so touched by the nice things students had to say about their peers.
I actually called it “Send a SHINE” to go with my star-themed classroom; the main pillars of my room were scholarship, teamwork, agency, respect and strength. I called my students my stars or my star scholars.
― Natalie Affinito, who participated in Teach for America and taught eighth-grade math and algebra I for two years at a middle school in Nashville, Tennessee
14. “I find that in order to establish that comfort, we need to build in loving norms and routines.”
Our number one school rule is “be kind.”
In my science classroom, we practice giving each other feedback on our work: observations, writing or graphs. In my “scientific feedback” chart, the first step in giving feedback to a peer is to give them a compliment and explain what they did well in their work; step two is explaining how the work could be improved; step three is asking a question about the work. Receiving criticism/revisions is not easy for a lot of people, but is so necessary for us to reflect and get better. I find that students take that revision step a lot lighter after a compliment and after trust is established with their partner.
A classroom needs to constantly strive toward being a safe space where students feel OK taking risks. I find that in order to establish that comfort, we need to build in loving norms and routines.
― Ashley LePierre, a K-4 science teacher
Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
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