Education Opinion

Toughness and Caring

By Nancy Hoffman — March 28, 2001 7 min read
Ask any student about a teacher she respects, and she’ll undoubtedly say something like this: She was tough, and she cared.

“Money can’t buy me love,” the Beatles so famously sang. They were right, but what they didn’t say is that you can buy love’s first cousin, care. In fact, you can get high-level care extremely cheap, especially if it’s care for children, especially if it comes from a teacher.

What do I mean? I observe and work with teachers in some of our most challenging urban middle and high schools. Generally, what they are doing at these schools, sometimes with help from university folks like me, is working to raise academic standards for their students, to prepare them to take statewide tests, to ensure that they have the skills and knowledge to enter college or a job, to teach the responsibilities of citizenship, and to inspire them to love learning for its own sake.

We can evaluate teachers’ performance through observing their teaching. Does she know her math? Does he explain clearly? Are her assignments appropriate? Increasingly, we know a lot about how to look at students’ daily written work— the products of learning—to assess the results of teaching. And we can question students as we walk about their classrooms to find out whether they understand the purposes of the tasks their teachers have asked them to undertake.

But ask any student about a teacher she respects, and she’ll undoubtedly say something like this: She was tough, and she cared. “Tough” we can translate—that’s about the academic challenges and the results of tangible hard work noted above. We pay teachers for what they know and teach, though certainly not enough. But care? What is that about? We rarely stop to consider the meaning of this overused term, and yet for our most successful teachers, giving care and demanding academic excellence are interdependent. If we are going to continue to raise the bar for students, it’s going to take a whole lot of care from teachers.

Why is care elusive? First, it’s simply hard to describe; second, it’s about such unsettling issues as vulnerability to human need and boundaries between self and other; and third, except for physical care, which we pay (a little) for, we expect to get most other kinds of care for free. And what’s free is little valued or attended to.

What would it take to describe care in specific enough ways that we could recognize its various manifestations, acknowledge its power to enable learning, and evaluate and reward it? This is a tough question. If we turn to those who set standards for teaching to see how they depict the noncognitive or “care” side of teaching, we find code words underneath which probably lie some notion of care. For example, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards makes the following assertions in its statement of principles: "[Teachers] act on the belief that all students can learn. ... They adjust their practice based on observation and knowledge of their students’ interests, abilities, skills, knowledge, family circumstances, and peer relationships.”

Two observers, trying to characterize a certain style often associated with African-American teachers who use direct instructional methods, coined the phrase “warm demander,” a variation on “she was tough and she cared” (“‘Warm Demanders,’” Commentary, May 13, 1998).

But can we go beyond those code words to ask: What does care look like as a teaching practice? In urban schools, we might identify three kinds of care: acts of charity in which the whole school community comes together; individual acts of care that assure a young person that he is known and can seek comfort from a teacher; and, perhaps closest to what is implied in the code words and phrases above, the emotion extended from teacher to class, sometimes dubbed “a passion for learning.” This is what some philosophers call “pedagogic caring.”

The first kind of care is easy to describe: Schools gather donations for fire victims; in Chicago, the school district supplies warm clothes in the winter and pays for funerals of schoolchildren who die. The demands on teachers for this kind of care are sporadic. The second kind of care is familiar to us as a form of counseling, in which a teacher listens, suggests, and communicates something like the following: “Yes, times may be difficult for you, but keep at your studies. Your development is important to me—and to you.”

Linked most closely with the press for academic achievement is the third and most elusive kind of care: pedagogic caring. This is the kind of care we don’t evaluate or explicitly pay for, and yet, if we look at schools where students achieve beyond expectation, the likelihood is not that there were punishments threatened, but that passion or care for learning was in the air that students breathed, and it came from teachers.

If we look at schools where students achieve beyond expectation, the likelihood is not that there were punishments threatened, but that passion or care for learning was in the air that students breathed, and it came from teachers.

There is an additional question about care that we must address before defining pedagogic caring. Some philosophers argue that care is by definition freely given and must be based on the cared-for’s humanness, not her performance. If so, then we must ask if care given to elicit academic engagement is really care? Down this road lies a slippery slope. We would have to argue that all care is the same, and is, as the philosophers say, an “engrossment” or total absorption in another person. If we start not with this abstract, high-minded care, but with care that is labor—as in, “my mother had to give up her paying job to become the caregiver for her elderly and not very lovable mother"—then we begin to define care as a kind of work.

I would argue that the (mostly) male philosophers who wrote about care missed the care that was in front of their eyes—the physical, hands-on caregiving and the “taking care of” that was carried out in their behalf, usually by women. Teachers’ care does not have to be a cousin of love. We should think of pedagogic caring as an aspect of the work of teachers.

Interviews with and writing by teachers are helpful in understanding the work of pedagogic caring. Let’s take a classical example of the teacher’s encounter with the student’s world: the routine assignment of personal essays that reveal devastating poverty, illness, the consequences of drugs. (“My mother is in trouble and we have no food.” “My father is depressed; I have to get him up in the morning.”) Every urban teacher can give examples that sound like Christmas’ “neediest family” stories. These are the stories to which a teacher must respond firmly, “Please clarify; organization needs improvement; work on punctuation,” while giving signals that she also really hears the story.

One teacher, Loretta Brady, writes, for example, about a particularly obstructionist 7th grader who resisted her attempts to impose high standards. After reading Piri Thomas, Marian Wright Edelman, and Mark Twain, the student finally responded to a writing prompt about “a time when your life changed” with a seriously told story: To punish him for trying to light a match, his family had put his hands in the flames of a burning trash basket. Writes the teacher: “Up until that point, many of the others had been writing skinned-knee stories, more plot than reflection. Alfredo made it cool to open up. Later on, when Alfredo found out I’d put copies of his memoir in each teacher’s mailbox—that he was now the school exemplar—he polled the staff for feedback. His revision wasn’t automatic, nor entirely fun, but he had concrete images of what excellence meant, and a personal reason ... why quality mattered.”

Says Ms. Brady, in summing up: “Intense expectations require intense support.” It is this kind of caring that some school communities and many teachers provide.

I applaud most of what we are doing now in school reform—especially asking more of students, calling on their abilities to solve problems and apply learning to new situations. But if we do not acknowledge that high standards require care as well as toughness, then we put these goals at risk. Many teachers know this, but there is a great deal to be done to make the caring work of teachers less elusive, to name it among our expectations, to study how it works, and to reward it as a substantial component of excellence in teaching.

Nancy Hoffman is a senior lecturer in the department of education at Brown University in Providence, R.I.

A version of this article appeared in the March 28, 2001 edition of Education Week as Toughness and Caring