A few years ago, I embarked upon a Happiness Project.
I created 12 theme areas I wanted to work on, then created 5 goals or habits for each month related to the theme. I selected one “nagging task” to complete and chose a book to read related to theme. For February, I aptly chose the theme “Love.” I vowed to be more mindful and loving toward my husband. We had two kids under 3, two full-time jobs, and a new puppy at the time, so this was definitely an area that needed some love and attention. I don’t remember much about my goals and tracking that month, but I do remember and continue to cultivate one concept: what Drs. Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt call “the space between.” The couple defines a love relationship as two people plus the “space between them.” The space between represents intangible feelings of love, respect, doubt, trust, dishonesty, caring – whatever energy you project with and toward your partner, whether together physically or not. I learned that it is important to nurture the space between (by, for example, not gossiping about your partner or rolling your eyes about hobbies you don’t share) to maintain a consciously healthy relationship.
In the years since, the concept of the space between has also been useful to me as a daughter, sister, friend, and parent. It also makes me think a lot about building relationships with students and colleagues. You cannot change another person. You cannot make a student learn. You cannot make a colleague understand or appreciate you. What you can do, what you can control, is the space between. By projecting an energy of goodwill, positive intentions, unconditional respect and caring, you can create an atmosphere in which the student or colleague wants to learn with and from you. When I was teaching, I worked hard on my classroom environment. It was not always easy to explain my vision for “environment” to administrators, colleagues, or parents, but the kids always understood. The space where we learned had a whole lot less to do with the physical structure of the classroom and a whole lot more to do with the feeling of the space.
I am a big supporter of flexible seating and other attempts to make a classroom feel like a welcoming space by introducing comfortable furniture and coffee shop-like settings, but I worry sometimes what appears to be a welcoming environment continues to ignore the importance of the space between. First impressions matter, but beyond them, does a student feel like their whole selves in your class, especially now that you have no physical room? Do they feel welcome, understood, seen? Are they able to explore curiosities, make big mistakes, become new versions of themselves and count on you and their classmates to love them anyway?
How do you cultivate the space between? How do you build that kind of energy among a group of people who are no longer within sight of each other? I think it’s pretty simple. You believe in each other. You have hope for what is to come. You trust that students will do their best work and colleagues have the best intentions. You project confidence and humility. You name your mistakes and celebrate successes. You smile! Let’s build a better space between.