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The Love of Teachers for Students: Lewis’ Language in “The Four Loves”

August 25, 2021


St. John tells us that “God is love” (1 John 4:8), and this is also where C.S. Lewis begins his book The Four Loves. Very quickly, he is not satisfied with one word for love and so gives names to different types of loves, similar to Adam naming the animals. While in English, the single word “love” is used to describe feelings toward bagels, dogs, people, and Fridays alike, other languages offer multiple words for love.

The Greeks have four words for love, which Lewis uses in his book: eros, agape, philia, and storgé. American Sign Language has two signs for love: one for the love of actions or objects and one for the love of living beings. Tamil, the language of Sri Lanka, two states in India, and one of the official languages of Singapore, has dozens of words for love. Arabic has at least eleven. The Irish language, like the Greek, also has four words to distinguish between different types of love: an all-purpose word (grá); an affectionate form, such as for children (cion); romantic love (searc); and companionship (cumann).

Even with languages that use multiple words for love, I wonder if these are adequate to describe the particularities of love. I have a specific kind of love in mind that seems especially difficult to name: the love of a teacher for her students. For me, back-to-school season conjures images of new notebooks, fresh pencils (soon to be lost, alas), nametags, and rosters of new students to know and love and with whom to learn. The moment I see their names on my list and begin practicing saying their lovely names, I love them. As I imagine who they will be and what we will discover together, I already love them. As I wait for them on the morning of the first day (or even see the early-birds who wait outside in the pre-dawn light to be let in), I am filled with a deep and true love for them.

What word exists for this? Is it the same word I would use in February, on a dreary day when we’re all tired and cold and yet we muddle through Monday together? Is it the same word I’d use for students who visit my classroom a year after I’ve taught them? This love encompasses so many sacred moments of watching them struggle, grapple, grow, and mature. It also includes the times when I have to have hard conversations about working to their true potential and not just to an adequate grade. Reading a poem that a student wrote with vulnerability, hearing a very shy student venturing an opinion, joking with a student who is perpetually late, praying for each student by name while their heads are bent while taking a test—these holy, mundane moments make up my love for them. And what word is there for this kind of love? It’s not the love of a parent or friend. It is something altogether unique and different.

Using Lewis’ language, the love between teachers and students seems to be a “Gift-Love.” He says that “among our Gift-loves those are most God-like which are most boundless and unwearied in giving. . . . Their joy, their energy, their patience, their readiness to forgive, their desire for the good of the beloved—all this is a real and all but adorable image of the Divine life.” Yes. This is getting closer to what I am trying to say. What underscores any type of true love is, as Lewis says, the desire for the good of the beloved. The teacher desires his students’ good, yet not in the same way a parent or friend does. This love is not quite philia or storgé. Perhaps it is closest to agape, the charitable love. But this, too, is a bit too broad. The teacher knows her students as individuals. She knows the shape of their handwriting, the sound of their sneezes, the energy they do or don’t have on a Tuesday at 2:00 p.m.

Therefore, affection can be ruled out. The love of a teacher for his students is much larger than mere affection. Lewis notes, “Lovers are normally face to face, absorbed in each other; Friends, side by side, absorbed in some common interest.” This seems closer to what teachers and students share: a common interest. Side by side, they pursue learning together. Lewis goes on to say that when two or more people recognize a shared vision, friendship is born. But is this what teachers and students do? Or does a teacher help shape the vision for the students?

Plutarch has said that “education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” Benjamin Jowett, in his introduction to Plato’s Republic, describes Plato’s concept of enlightenment in a similar way: “Education is represented by [Plato], not as the filling of a vessel, but as turning the eye of the soul towards the light.” Perhaps, with these definitions in mind, the teacher guides or turns the students’ vision toward the light, toward God. This is certainly a form of love, as God is the ultimate good a person can desire for the beloved. And to go back to the first point, as St. John says, “God is love.”

My love for my students begins before I even meet them, deepens as I get to know them, and continues when they are no longer in my class. This love doesn’t need anything from them and doesn’t require reciprocity (although I receive so much from them and they give freely). It stands in awe of who they are, of their humor, kindness, openness, generosity, curiosity, resilience, perseverance, and grace. It fortifies when it is difficult to love them, when patience and forgiveness and humility are required. It’s a humbling love.

As Maya Angelou said, “At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.” If, at the end of a year in my class, my students forget what I said or even what I taught (and I really hope they don’t forget what I taught), at the very least, I pray they will remember feeling deeply, abundantly known and loved. Words are still imprecise, no matter the language, but I hope my students will understand that the world around them is a love story—the story of God’s love for humanity. The story tells of God continually reaching out in love for them and that one of the ways he does this is through their teachers who do their best to love them as he does.

Or, fittingly for a teacher-student description of love, maybe it is better to say that the teacher is “a little pencil in God’s hands,” using Mother Teresa’s words. In his book, Lewis lays out the four loves, borrowing from the Greeks: eros, agape, philia, and storgé. But with all of these, the love of a teacher for his students doesn’t quite fit. It is somewhere between affection, friendship, family, and charity-based love. But, like all loves, it is a glimpse of heavenly communion, giving and receiving, and gathering at the table together.