The Greatest Commandment in Education


by Michelle Duncan, Second Grade teacher

I believe the most critical element of successful education is love. Not only sincerely loving the person you are educating, but also communicating that love consistently and effectively. As a teacher, whether in the classroom or at home, if we have not love then we are only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.

We are all familiar with the saying, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” This definitely applies to our students. They don’t want to learn from us unless they know that we love them. Really, truly, deeply love them. Even if we are able to “force them” to pay attention through discipline and routines — the information they acquire will not transform their hearts, minds, souls like true education should. One educator says it this way: “Knowledge cannot be passed, like some material substance, from one person to another. Thoughts are not things which may be held and handled. They are the unseen and silent acts of the invisible mind.”¹ Furthermore, “The vigor of mental action, like that of muscular action, is proportioned to the feeling which inspires it. The powers of the intellect do not come forth in their full strength at the mere command of a teacher, nor on the call of some cold sense of duty. Nor can the mind exert its full force upon themes which but lightly touch the feelings.”  If we don’t make education personal — then the person learning won’t care.

In my experience I have seen this most clearly on difficult days. At the end of a hectic and trying day I often realize that I was teaching without intentionally looking at my students in their eyes or without smiling at them. It is far too easy to get wrapped up in completing the lesson well and in a timely manner; so much so that I can forget that the most eloquently spoken and efficiently taught lesson is worthless if in the end it is nothing more than a box to check off. We must guard against becoming so task oriented that we forget to smile. We must intentionally remember and choose to delight in what we are teaching and, more importantly, to actively love whom we are teaching.

But what about when teaching is simply hard to enjoy?  How should we respond when a child continually derails the day? What do you do with the kid who won’t cooperate even when you’re trying to make it fun? What about the fact that we do need to check things off and accomplish tasks?

Our default is often to discipline. And this isn’t necessarily wrong! Children need discipline and it is an essential part of any healthy parent/child relationship as well as student/teacher relationship. However, what God has been coaching me on lately is that even on the toughest days, perhaps especially on the toughest days, the most beneficial response is a little extra loving-kindness. As counterintuitive as this feels when my plans are being interrupted and my day complicated by a child’s bad behavior—isn’t this response the heart of the gospel? “While we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).  It is the kindness of the Lord that leads to repentance. Before administering the well-earned discipline to the child—have I offered unmerited favor and lavish love like Christ offers to me? Have I invited them into repentance with an embrace? Or do I always require the students to earn their rewards?

Sometimes the roughest days are when they most need a treat. And to not always have to earn it? This is amazing grace. Of course we ought to use discernment in each circumstance. It is a disservice to the child to spoil them. There is a time for loving discipline. The only way to know which response is most appropriate is discernment through the Holy Spirit. And, the only way we will have love to give (as well as know how to express it in the moment) is by knowing Love himself.  If we are not walking in love, living by his spirit, and filled with His spirit then we are helpless to love our children effectively and therefore helpless to educate them fully in what matters most. There is a reason that the greatest commandment is to love God and the second is to love your neighbor. What Love looks like, acts like, speaks like in the toughest moments is the most important education we can impart to the children. Love expressed as kindness and grace cannot be left out of the equation.

¹ John Milton Gregory, The Seven Laws of Teaching, (Moscow, Idaho: Reprinted from the first edition text (1886), unabridged, by Canon Press), 41, 42.