Travel to schools across the country, and you’ll see it’s clear that teachers are working hard and truly care about their students. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be doing this job day after day. When I walk through buildings and talk with teachers, I hear and sense this. However, when it comes to what care actually looks like, there is a fundamental difference between “caring about” and “caring for” students.
As Geneva Gay points out in Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, Research, and Practice, “while ‘caring about’ conveys feelings of concern for one’s state of being, ‘caring for’ is active engagement in doing something to positively affect it.”
So, how do each of these distinct forms of care play out in the classroom, what do they look like and sound like, and, most importantly, what are the implications of each for the social-emotional and academic success of students?
Most teachers can easily tell you about how they care about students. However, caring about, in the absence of caring for, is simply a feeling independent of action.
As my mother would often remind me, “It matters little what you think or feel, but what you do that matters.”
So, what does “caring about” both look and sound like when it remains but a feeling and potentially lacks action?
- Allowing students to opt-out or disengage (e.g., heads down, playing with items, not looking at/listening to the teacher or peers when speaking).
They are just kids. It’s just not appropriate to expect so much of them.
- Avoiding correcting specific students and allowing them to engage in unproductive behaviors.
I am worried she will get upset or angry if I address it.
- Making excuses for student behaviors and underperformance.
He just has so many issues. I can’t really expect him to behave or perform like the others.
- Continually giving students “one more chance.”
I don’t want to upset my students and I’m afraid that following through will damage our relationship.
- Protecting students from productive struggle and failure, and over-scaffolding instruction and/or reducing the complexity and rigor of the curriculum.
Life is so hard for so many of these students. It just breaks my heart to see them struggle.
You will notice that while some of the above statements are worded as actions (e.g., allowing to opt-out, avoiding correction, making excuses, giving “one more chance,” protecting students) they are actually, in effect, an avoidance of action. In reality, these “inactions” intended to demonstrate care are actually interpreted by students as lack of care. For those students who have no time to waste – students who “not only can learn but must learn” (Irvine & Fraser, 1988, p. 56), this absence of care through action and insistence can lead to dire consequences.
At CT3, we call this “avoidance of action” Unintended Enabling. This disempowering approach to building relationships with students is described as follows:
“Teachers with these tendencies unintentionally enable their students. They keep students from reaching or exceeding their potential by lowering expectations because they feel sorry for them, feel bad about the circumstances in which they live, or fear the repercussions of holding them accountable. While a sense of empathy for students is necessary for all teachers, unintended enablers often amass a series of excuses for why students cannot rise to high academic standards. These lowered expectations and excuses quickly catch up to students and ultimately harm their ability to succeed in school and in society” (Klei Borrero, 2018).
Students must believe that their teacher cares for them. As previously noted, however, it’s not enough to simply proclaim care. Care must be enacted.
So, how exactly does a teacher enact care? Some common high-impact teacher moves that demonstrate care for students can be found when examining the practice of No-Nonsense Nurturers as described in Every Student, Every Day, alongside highly cited literature and research on culturally relevant teaching practices (Bondy & Ross, 2008; Delpit, 1995; Gay, 2010; Hammonds, 2014; Ladson-Billings, 1994; Ross, Bondy, Gallingame, & Hambacher, 2008; Ware, 2006; Wilson & Corbett, 2001).
What are some research-based, culturally relevant ways for teachers to care for students?
- Planning and clearly communicating precise directions for how students must engage in order to be successful.
If I expect my students to be successful, I must clearly communicate what excellence looks like and sounds like before a lesson or when launching an activity. Providing directions that are straightforward and concise helps me create a safe, predictable environment where students clearly understand the expectations for productive social and academic engagement.
Example Direction: When I say “Go,” turn over your paper and respond to the prompt silently and independently. Write a minimum of 5 complete sentences. If you finish early, read over your response and prepare to share your thoughts with your shoulder partner. Put forth your best effort. You have 5 minutes. Go!
- Acknowledging when students meet expectations through the use of positive narration.
My students need to know that I care enough to notice them at all times. Not just when they are off task, but when they are meeting expectations. They need and deserve that positive feedback. By narrating their behaviors aloud, I am letting them know ‘I see you’ and ‘you’re on track.’ This creates a safe place where expectations are clear, and that not only are those expectations important enough to inspect but that they [students] are important enough to be noticed and acknowledged for meeting those expectations.
- Motivating and praising students to go above and beyond expectations through the use of classwide incentives.
I use incentives to create a community among my students. They feel accountable to each other and can work towards an incentive that we’ve all chosen together. This also helps keep me accountable by making sure I don’t focus too much on certain students; that way I am consistent with the whole class and everyone can feel rewarded.
- Holding students to high expectations through individual consequences implemented consistently and fairly.
My teacher, she’s tough but fair. I know she cares about me because she doesn’t let me fool around and if I do, she puts a stop to it right away.
- Insisting that students rise to their greatest potential without being afraid of students’ reactions.
Sometimes I have to be tough, take a stand, not back down, and demand things of my students that might not always be well received. Sure, they may not be too happy about it at the moment, but how can I not insist on those things I know to be in their best interest in the long run?
- Building relationships by eliciting and honoring student voice and perspectives.
Many of the youth I serve come from communities where voice has traditionally been unsolicited, ignored, and even silenced. For that reason, I’ve really worked hard to be an active listener and allow for opportunities for my students to speak their truth and be heard. They know I am always there to help them use their voice and will fearlessly advocate on their behalf.
- Taking steps to get to know students, their family, and their community.
Talking with parents in the car line is one of my favorite parts of the day. It gives me a chance to really connect with the families of my students. These are the people that love these kids the most and taking time to get to know them and them me a little better helps us as a team work in the best interest of their child.
- Demonstrating a growth mindset by being open to and actively seeking feedback and coaching on their teaching practice.
I’m up for anything that’s going to help me get better for my students. They deserve the best me I can be. Sure, sometimes the coaching may be intense, but how can I expect my students to challenge themselves and embrace discomfort if I’m not willing to?
- Striving to create a culturally relevant classroom by working to understand their students’ values, beliefs, and assets to interact and teach responsively; and placing students at the center of all decision-making.
It’s important that I seek to understand the cultural knowledge, experience, and perspectives each of my students bring with them into the classroom, and not just to improve our relations, but to use that connection to stretch and empower them as learners.
- Equipping students with what they need to be engaged and self-directed learners by gradually and intentionally transferring the cognitive load and responsibility for learning (using the Gradual Release of Responsibility Instructional Framework).
If my students are going to meet the high expectations I set for them, I have to help them develop as confident, independent learners who accept responsibility for their own learning. I can’t just be the ‘sage on the stage’ and then launch them into independent work. I have to scaffold instruction in ways that effectively transfer the cognitive load to my students.
How are you showing you “care for” your students? What can you add to the list? Do you have a balance of both nurturing and no-nonsense actions?
By Richard Frank, Partnership Manager and Managing Associate
For further reading, click the posts below:
- 10 Outside the Box Relationship-Building Strategies Beyond a Student Survey
- The Power of Restorative Conversations
- High Expectations: What to Look For
Our self-paced online course on classroom management, student engagement, and building life-altering relationships with students is taken by thousands of educators per year. What are you waiting for? Click here to learn more and get access to 6-8 hours of content, classroom resources, and hundreds of videos, including interviews with real teachers on how they build relationships.
Bondy, E., & Ross, D. D. (2005). Preparing for inclusive teaching: Meeting the challenges of teacher education reform. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Delpit, L. (1995). Other people’s children: Cultural conflict in the classroom. New York, NY: New Press.
Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2013). Better learning through structured teaching: A framework for the gradual release of responsibility. ASCD.
Gay, G. (2010). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Hammond, Z. (2014). Culturally responsive teaching and the brain: Promoting authentic engagement and rigor among culturally and linguistically diverse students. Corwin Press.
Klei Borrero, Kristyn (2018). Every student, Every day: A No-Nonsense Nurturer® approach to reaching all learners. Bloomington, Ind: Solution Tree.
Ladson-Billings, G. (1994). The dreamkeepers: Successful teachers of African American children. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Ross, D. D., Bondy, E., Gallingane, C., & Hambacher, E. (2008). Promoting academic engagement through insistence: Being a warm demander. Childhood Education, 84, 142-146.
Ware, F. (2006). Warm demander pedagogy. Urban Education, 41(4), 427-456.
Wilson, B. L., & Corbett, H. D. (2001). Listening to urban kids: School reform and the teachers they want. Albany: State University of New York Press.