The Pedagogy of Love

Reflecting on the research of my Gr. 4 teacher

Mario Mabrucco
Apr 12 · 8 min read

Originally published April 11th, 2021 (Blogger)

(Mary Darmanin in 2009, from The Times of Malta)

Mrs. Darmanin, 1994

My mom, a Gr. 8 teacher for about 30 years, disliked most of my elementary school teachers. She never elaborated on why, but she often said “it’s a miracle you turned out the way you are, given the poor quality of education you had before high school”.

One of the few teachers she did admire was my Gr. 4 teacher, Mrs. Darmanin. I had just moved to a new school and Mrs. Darmanin was my first teacher; after a few days in her class, any fears I had about changing communities melted away. To this day, over 25 years later, I still remember her class as being warm, compassionate, intellectually engaging, and encouraging. Her voice was raspy, but she was a beautiful singer and encouraged me to join the choir. Her Maltese accent and culture were fascinating to me. I remember feeling such a profound connection to her that, as a child, I couldn’t explain. Now, I would say she radiated the Catholic concept of agape, “Christ-like love”.

While I was cleaning out some old paperwork, I came across my elementary school report cards. Reading what Mrs. Darmanin wrote was fascinating. For a Gr. 4 report card, she wrote beautiful, eloquent statements that showed a deeper understanding of my 10-year old self than anyone before or since. I was shocked — though perhaps I shouldn’t have been — at how much detail, how much love she put into that report card. Not only that, but her writing style was far more advanced than any elementary school report card I’d ever seen.

I remember feeling such a profound connection to her that, as a child, I couldn’t explain. Now, I would say she radiated the Catholic concept of agape, “Christ-like love”.

Some quick Googling showed that Mary Darmanin earned her Ph.D. and became a professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Malta, with multiple research projects published by the journal International Studies in Sociology of Education. One of her papers was titled “When Students are Failed: ‘Love’ as an Alternative to Education Discourse?”

Photo by Micaela Parente on Unsplash

Malta and Tama School

In the mid-1990s, Darmanin (since she’s no longer my Gr. 4 teacher, I can drop the honorific) conducted a 5-month ethnographic field research placement at Tama School, an all-girls school in Malta that worked with disenfranchised students. At this time, Malta had a controversial elementary streaming program that used testing around the age of 9 or 10 to determine which middle school a student would attend; this was despite all the research indicating the program had negative effects on students; Malta had the highest rate of school drop-outs in the EU. Schools called “Opportunity Centres” — what we would call “at-risk programs” — received many more students from the lower level streamed programs. Malta’s centralized education authority was weak, leading to schools with reduced enrollment, poorly-trained teachers, and curriculum that staff referred to as kummidji — “a joke”.

Darmanin critiques this through a world-systems lens, noting that this streaming policy reinforces class inequality by “promoting a rigid two-tier system where social cohesion, rather than social justice, is the main objective” (164). Middle-class students get a good education and a chance at a good job, while lower-class students are labeled “at-risk” and contained in commensurate programs. Darmanin argues that this pathologizes the “failure of the family”, and uses school to compensate for their perceived deficiencies. Thus, school continues to promote educational failure while masquerading as ostensible social success.

Photo by Andrew Ebrahim on Unsplash

A Pedagogy of Love

At Tama School, the girls came from what I assumed to be a rural background. They, and their families, were functionally illiterate and suffered a host of complications from chronic absenteeism, to extreme hunger and poverty, to persistent infections, to cancer. Further, though the girls in the study were around 12 years old, in their elementary careers they were essentially abandoned by their teachers because of their placement in a lower stream. In an interview, the principal, Ms. Sisca, said to Darmanin: “ ‘You [researchers] forget that we do not start with a clean [white] slate but with a black one. First we have to clear up what there is.’ ”(149)

Malta’s centralized education authority was weak, leading to schools with reduced enrollment, poorly-trained teachers, and curriculum that staff referred to as kummidji — “a joke”.

So what happens at Tama School? Ms. Sisca takes a deep, personal responsibility towards the social and emotional health of her students. She engages in what Darmanin calls “pastoral care” — reaching out to late or absent students to improve attendance and engagement; calling parents directly; providing meals; reinventing curriculum to meet students needs; taking an interest in, and intervening in, students personal and family tumults; and more. Ms. Sisca admits she has very little time for, quote-unquote, “actual administrative work.”

However, Darmanin’s 5 months at the school turned up practices that raised my eyebrows. Much of what she observed was singing, dancing, poetry recitals, sometimes in English or other languages that the students did not understand. There are endless assemblies, school fairs, community projects and activities, school trips (which Ms. Sisca personally subsidizes the costs for), attempts to win national competitions, various “Prize Days” throughout the year, even TV appearances. What she found little of was actual curricular content.

In a Math class, Darmanin watched as the students struggled to identify multiples in a lesson — because the concept of “multiples” had yet to be introduced. A similar situation arose in a Maltese language class (which, for some reason, was being taught in English) — trying to form longer sentences, without first introducing the concept of “a sentence”. Many classes used “fill-in-the-blank” or “underline the correct answer” worksheets, which were kept in student files as evidence of learning; when these files were too light at review time, students rushed to fill them with busy work before they were submitted.

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

The teachers at Tama School varied in their reactions to this situation. They found Ms. Sisca’s constant stream of events a nuisance that interrupted real learning. Yet they argue that the extreme modifications in their own classrooms are “built on love”, and that they were “saving” these girls. The teachers could see the social and emotional skills of the girls improving, and that was their main goal — not necessarily academic advancement.

As for the students themselves, Darmanin’s interviews showed that they were very much aware of who was an effective teacher, and who was not. Regardless of whether or not they were learning at the level of their peers in middle-class schools, the students felt like they were learning; they did show improvements in literacy and numeracy, though the end goal was still manual labour. The students also loved Tama School.

Photo by Larm Rmah on Unsplash

The “Fairy Godmother” Effect

In examining the personal narratives of staff at Tama School, Darmanin found that many attended teacher’s college at Catholic institutions that focused on serving the poor. She posits that this leads to what she variously describes as “sentimental egalitarianism”, “enhanced social work”, or “the fairy godmother role” (150). Since the state had moved away from providing for the basic welfare of its citizens, the schools were forced to step in to fill the gap — leaving teachers not so much as teachers, but as “fairy godmothers” who had to solve all their students’ problems. This desire to meet an imaginary list of student needs does create an atmosphere of love, care, and attention which can be profoundly nurturing to underserved youth. However, argues Darmanin, so much time spent on pastoral care reduces the opportunity for more robust academic opportunities. Most graduates of Tama School do not attend high school and thus cannot get higher-paying jobs that would elevate them out of the poverty cycle. So are they still students? Or social work clients?

Darmanin used Focault and professional subjectivity to explain how teachers could move so fluidly between self-concepts; are they teachers or social workers? Why not both? She concludes by saying that although “fairy godmother schools” like Tama School may not be providing the most academically enriching environment, this pedagogy of love is a direct assault against the globalist system that perpetuates cycles of inequality. Rather than be deemed inferior and languish under that label, the unconventional methodologies of Ms. Sisca and the teachers at Tama School help give their students a sense of self-worth that would otherwise be taken away.

Mrs. Darmanin, 2021

Darmanin’s research begins with the idea that “everything counts”; even small classroom actions have an impact on a global scale. A discourse of love can make all the difference in a child’s life, and that difference can reverberate across generations. Darmanin isn’t starry-eyed about this; her research clearly indicates the academic cost of focusing so specifically on socio-emotional well-being.

(Mary Darmanin in 2014, from The Times of Malta)

Yet if we teach without love, what are we doing? If we work with children and cannot find some emotional connection to the work, why are we there? Teachers have a moral responsibility to base their pedagogy in love first and foremost, not academic rigor. We have to take care of ourselves and not take on burdens that we cannot shoulder, but that doesn’t mean we can absolve ourselves of any non-academic burdens at all. Mrs. Darmanin infused her Gr. 4 classroom, over 25 years ago, with love; it still affects who I am today.

Mary Darmanin’s official page on the University of Malta website indicates she hasn’t published any research since 2013. I reached out to her via email a few months ago, but have yet to get a response. I hope she knows I loved her, in the way that a 9-year old loves his teacher, and that it made all the difference in my life.


Mary Darmanin (2003) When students are failed: ‘love’ as an alternative education discourse?, International Studies in Sociology of Education, 13:2, 141–170

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Mario Mabrucco

Written by

Toronto educator | M.Ed in Curriculum Design & Education Policy | Research & reflection| Views my own | He/him/his | Twitter: @mr_mabruc


Educate magnifies the voices of changemakers in education. We empower educators to share their stories, ideas, insights, and inspiration. Educate is dedicated to the fusion of research + education policy and practice.

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