Teaching Opinion

Response: ‘Care Is The Catalyst For Learning’

By Larry Ferlazzo — December 23, 2014 13 min read
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(This is the last post in a two-part series on this topic. You can see Part One here.)

Ingrid Veilleux asked:

How does caring relate to our current focus on standards in education?

In Part One of this series, educators Andre Perry, Sara Ahmed, Kristine Mraz, Sean Slade, and Mai Xi Lee provide responses. You’ll also be able to listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Sean and Mai Xi on my BAM! Radio show. However, because of the holiday break, it won’t be online there until after the first of the year.

Today, Sean McComb, P.J. Caposey, Cindi Rigsbee, A. William Place, Jennifer Fredricks and several readers share their thoughts on the topic.

Response From Sean McComb

Sean McComb is the 2014 National Teacher of the Year. He has served as an English, AVID, and Staff Development Teacher at Patapsco High School in Baltimore County, MD. You can connect with Sean via Twitter at @Mr_McComb:

A few years ago a poll asked Americans to describe the best teacher they ever had. The most commonly cited word: care. Yet, care is not easily measured, and so it has, unfortunately, not received the prominence it deserves.

Nonetheless, creating an ethic of care in the classroom is the catalyst for learning. It is through care that students feel the liberty to take risks and stretch themselves in order to grow. A meta-analysis of positive psychology research found the brain to be over 30% more productive at positive than at neutral, negative or stressed. Positive emotions correlate to increased energy, intelligence and creativity. When students feel positive they take the blinders off of their thinking and can more effectively work to meet and exceed standards.

So the list of ingredients and techniques in the recipe for success grows. In addition to backward mapping from outcomes, meeting students where they are, differentiating, scaffolding, designing rigorous tasks, selecting challenging materials, and being mindful of relevance, etc. teachers need to be curators of a caring classroom culture. Without this integral final element, and the relationships that result, every other element’s effects will be muted. Caring can further illuminate and encourage learning or its absence may dim and hinder the process.

Further evidence for the importance of care appears in data from the Gallup Student Poll. That research has found that students who strongly agree in response to two statements that are tightly intertwined with caring are 30 times more likely to be engaged with schooling than those who strongly disagreed. Those two prompts: I have at least one teacher who makes me excited about the future, and my school is committed to building the strengths of each student.

I want students to leave my classroom as more critical readers, more effective writers and more judicious thinkers, but I also want them to leave knowing that they have an adult who has chosen to care about them. I want them to know that their efforts and growth mattered to me. It’s so important that I make a point of directly telling them, to their face, in front of their peers. And as they prove themselves, I want them to carry the optimism and confidence of knowing I believe in their skills and abilities to make the most of their lives. In my mind, that all starts with care, and leads to meeting the standards for our course, the standards for readiness for what comes after high school, and whatever standards may emerge as they navigate the rest of their lives.

Response From PJ Caposey

PJ Caposey is Superintendent of Meridian CUSD 223 in Illinois. PJ is an award-winning educator who has become a sought after speaker throughout the nation. Additionally, PJ has written two books in the past two years including Building a Culture of Support: Strategies for School Leaders:

You simply cannot fake caring about a child - children have the perceptive ability to immediately discern sincere care and concern from fleeting or convenient attention. Kids know who cares about them, so if that is not part of who you are as a person or professional; don’t pretend it is with your class.

When a student knows that you truly care about them as a person, independent of the content or curriculum you teach, magic can happen. Given the landscape of education today inclusive of new standards, new assessments, and increased rigor it has never been more important to establish caring relationships with students. In light of the educational climate, my experience indicates three ways to truly demonstrate to students (also works with adults) to show them that you care:

High Expectations: Great teachers see students for what they can become, not what the used to be or currently are. Great teachers set enormously high floors for which they demand performance - and set limitless ceilings allowing students to grow and fulfill their capacity.

Support: High expectations without support can damage relationships and destroy the culture of a room. Support to me can be simplified to me that you are invested in the performance of the students. Great teachers own the performance of their students as a reflection of how well they performed their duties. A mutual responsibility exists for every successful student, as well as every struggling student.

Accountability: High expectations are meaningful if you do not hold people to them. Holding people to standards does not have to manifest itself in the form of a grade or even a stern conversation. Accountability means that you as a teacher notice and demand that a student performs to their absolute limit - not the limit set forth in a standard or scope and sequence. Great teachers demand the best from every student every day.

Response From Cindi Rigsbee

Cindi Rigsbee is a middle school reading teacher currently on-loan to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. A National Board Certified Teacher, Cindi was a finalist for National Teacher of the Year in 2009 and is the author of Finding Mrs. Warnecke: The Difference Teachers Make:

Teaching has changed. Learning has changed. I admit to being sad when attendance became a click of a technological mouse and not a little tic mark in a book that was an extension of my arm (as in, “Fire drill! Grab your class roll book!”) I’m sure some of our newer teachers can’t imagine that we used to plan lessons without the internet. Yes, teaching has changed.

But what hasn’t changed is caring for kids. As long as I can remember, the question of WHAT to teach has always been important, but the question of WHO we teach has been first. It’s why every teacher I know begins the year with “getting to know you” activities. In this current standards-based climate, it’s still important to remember that the first, and most important, component of teaching a child is establishing a connection.

Some students are very comfortable connecting with adults. Maybe they’ve had a great deal of experience around grown-ups or maybe they’re innately outgoing, but they seem to feel that important link immediately. But other children may hold out until they know that the teacher is a caring, considerate person who has established a safe environment that is bully-, intimidation-, and embarrassment-free.

So how do we care for children we just met - total strangers who may or may not push our buttons to the very edge of insanity? We must start by realizing that each student sitting in our classes on that very first day, and every day thereafter, is a human being and someone’s child. Whether they are ready or not, or even show potential or not as they set out on their educational journey, they ARE the future of our civilization. It sounds dramatic, but the truth is that we have the opportunity to shape those children into citizens who will ensure the future is bright for all of us.

Personally, I look at each and every child as an individual with characteristics that deserve praise. Every child deserves to feel cared for and safe in my class. And that’s how I start the conversation. I basically say, “I don’t know you well yet. But I’m going to love you and cry my eyes out at the end of the year when you leave. And you will love me, too. YES, you will!!!”

Then I proceed to treat each and every one of them as lovable and deserving of my care...even on their bad days. And even on mine.

So as professionals, we will continue to refer to our standards as we plan and implement. But as I often say: attend faculty meetings, plan lessons, and assess student work with your head - but TEACH with your HEART.

From the first day to the last, nothing matters unless they know we care. It’s as simple as that.

Response From A. William Place

A. William Place, Professor, Department Chair of Educational Leadership at Saint Joseph’s University, Philadelphia, PA is a past National Council of Professors of Educational Administration executive board member and is a past president of the Mid-Western Educational Research Association. A former teacher and administrator. he is author of Principals Who Dare to Care, published by Routledge/Taylor and Francis:

Caring about the whole child is perhaps the most important aspect of education. The problem is that how educators really show care is complex. We know that part of care is having high expectations for all students. One of the most insidious things an educator can do is to expect a student to fail. Perhaps as bad as expecting students to fail is punishing students who do fail on standardized tests especially when they do not have an equal chance at success. The present focus on assessment of standards with negative consequences for students has gotten so bad that there is a growing movement of parents who chose to opt out demanding that their children not take the high stakes tests.

Focusing on punishing teachers of the students who fail at the high stakes test is also an extremely counterproductive approach even if it is required by the federal policy. The problem is not that most educational reformers lack care, but they have not recognized the impact that high stakes testing has on students and educators. These efforts have financially benefited textbook and testing companies by focusing more on standards than on children and the entirety of their human existence.

Punitive policies have in practice resulted in narrowing the curriculum to what can be tested. For example, even though they are among the most important aspects to many students, the arts are suffering because they are not easily given to development of standards and testing. The question becomes, “how might assessment be reformed so that all students are evaluated in ways that show their total learning and growth without doing harm to those students?” The answer needs to avoid the punitive policies of the current reform efforts.

Response From Jennifer Fredricks

Dr. Jennifer Fredricks is a professor of Human Development at Connecticut College, where she also serves as the faculty director of the Holleran Center for Community Action and Public Policy. Her research focuses on student engagement, motivation, extracurricular participation, and adolescent development. She is the author of the 2014 book, Eight Myths of Student Disengagement: Creating Classrooms of Deep Learning (Corwin Press):

Standards-based educational approaches emphasize what students should know and be able at different grades, and has resulted in many schools narrowing their curriculums and increasing time on standardized tests preparation. As a result, many teachers feel that they are too busy helping students to meet educational standards to spend time addressing their social and emotional needs and building a sense of community in the classroom. This is a very misguided decision because spending time on social and emotional skill development will actually help students meet educational standards.

For example, as part of the Common Core math standards, students need to construct mathematical arguments, justify their conclusions, and communicate their ideas to others, which requires social skills such listening, sharing, and asking questions. Additionally, as part of the standards, students need to make sense of problems and persevere in solving them, which requires emotional skills such as self-control and emotional regulation. Unfortunately, rather than helping students to meet the educational standards, many teachers are actually hindering their ability to meet these standards by not including the opportunities for them to develop and practice these social and emotional skills.

Many schools are doing a poor job of caring for their students and teaching them to be carers themselves. Many just give lip service to students’ social and emotional development, instead focusing the majority of their time and resources on meeting academic standards. This is concerning in light of the high numbers of students who are experiencing emotional distress, are violent, and are engaging in other risky behaviors. Too many youth feel alienated and disconnected from their teachers and peers.

Helping students to develop caring relationships with their teachers will help them to meet the academic objectives of schooling. Students who perceive that their teachers care about them are more likely to participate, comply with classroom norms, and are secure enough to take intellectual risks. Researchers have found that students do better in school, are more motivated, have better psychological health, and engage in less risky behaviors when they feel like they are part of a community and are cared for and supported by their teachers and peers. Caring is especially important for students who are at-risk. One of the most common reasons students report dropping out of school is that they feel like no one cares about them. There is an urgent need for schools to start paying as much attention to developing caring relationships and supporting students’ social and emotional needs as the do on academic standards.

Responses From Readers

Thanks to Sean, PJ, Cindi, A. William and Jennifer, and to readers, for their contributions!

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