Tuesday / April 23

Why Care About Caring in Schools Today?


Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone…

–Joni Mitchell, “Big Yellow Taxi”

When I wrote the essay below in late January 2020, few among us had any idea how quickly life would change as we encounter the worldwide threat of COVID-19. As my spouse and I begin our second day under a two- week “shelter in place” order requiring us to stay in our homes except to obtain essential services, as places in which people congregate shut down, and as we must keep at least 6 feet of physical distance from one another, the importance of caring social connections looms large.

Even as we isolate and distance ourselves, we are also looking for creative ways to connect and to be caring of one another. Examples from across the country and the world abound. In my neighborhood, people are organizing via our email network to run errands for each other. Many are re-hanging holiday lights to return brightness to the night. We plan to go out on our front porches each evening at 8:00 pm to clap for the health care workers and first responders who face imminent risks yet persevere on behalf of us all. And we will shout greetings, tell jokes, and share messages of encouragement. In a conversation early this morning across my front yard—I from my open study window, he from the sidewalk with his pug Boris—my early-40-year-old neighbor offered to help this 65-year-old in any way needed, including sharing his stockpile of paper goods amassed for his toddler before the outbreak.

Such proactive efforts of connection and care are heartening and helpful and they are crucial to get us all through this unsettling and challenging time. They also make me think that in “ordinary” time we tend not to be as mindful and proactive. As work and routines drive us, it is easy to take our social connections for granted, to neglect the need to continually cultivate them, and to forget why it is so important to care about caring.

The essay below was adapted from our recently released book Caring School Leadership. It addresses the question of why we should care about caring in schools. I believe that the reasons that we should care about caring in schools are the very same reasons, more broadly construed, that we should care about caring in our families, in our communities, indeed, in our country at large. Caring is an intrinsic good. It is crucial to the fulfillment of the goodness of the human condition. Caring is vital to our mental, physical, and emotional health and well-being, as well as to our success in our various endeavors. Moreover, the alternatives to caring—noncaring and uncaring—are unacceptable. We cannot assume that caring occurs generally nor that it occurs for those who may need it the most. Indeed, we are suffering from broader erosion of social connections that makes attention to caring increasingly difficult but more imperative.

Against this backdrop, I offer the following essay. I invite you to consider it not only in the context of schools, but in more general contexts as well.

The Essay. January 31, 2020

In 1984, education philosopher Nel Noddings introduced her influential book Caring: A Relational Approach to Ethics and Moral Education, with the crucial question:  Why care about caring?  That question remains remarkably relevant 36 years later. In our new book, Caring School Leadership (2020, Corwin), Joe Murphy, Karen Louis, and I revisit this question and find four compelling reasons for why we should care deeply about caring in schools today.

1. Caring Is an Intrinsic Good

A first reason that we should care about caring in schools is that caring is an intrinsic good, a worthy human endeavor in its own right. It is elemental to the human condition, a foundation stone of being moral. In a later edition of Caring, Noddings contends that

Natural caring [is] the condition that we … perceive as “good”. It is that condition toward which we long and strive, and it is our longing for caring—to be in that special relation—that provides the motivation for us to be moral.

In a similar vein, philosopher Milton Mayeroff argues in his book On Caring that

Through the caring of others, by serving them through caring, a [person] lives the meaning of his [or her] own life. In the sense in which a [person] can ever be said to be at home in the world, he [or she] is at home not through dominating, or explaining, or appreciating, but through caring and being cared for.

Such observations can be found in literature and the arts, religion, and other human service professions.  Caring is particularly important in human service enterprises and political and social institutions that affect the lives of those who are vulnerable and in need.

2. Caring Is Crucial to Student Success

A second reason to care about caring is because it is crucial to the learning and development of children and youth and to their success in schools. Research has linked caring relationships with adults and peers to healthy brain development and functioning.  These relationships are especially important during infancy and early childhood, when the brain is most rapidly developing.  Because the brain remains malleable and experience dependent, caring relationships can shape the brain and its functioning throughout childhood, into adolescence, and across the lifespan.

Research repeatedly emphasizes the importance that students place on caring to their engagement and learning. Students say that when they do not feel cared for, they do not invest much time and energy in school. Experiences of caring in school help develop a number of positive psychological states, including self-concept, self-esteem, and self-efficacy. These states also include feelings of psychological safety, hope, persistence, and belonging. Research indicates that caring by adults in schools can help develop children’s capacity for resilience when they experience stress and mitigate some of the direct negative effects of trauma.  Experiencing caring leads to social-emotional development and prosocial behaviors, such as cooperation, communication, empathy, and responsibility. These, in turn, enable academic engagement, learning, and performance. Students also benefit from the social and academic supports that come from caring. Moreover, the experience of caring can beget more caring.

The effects of caring on academic achievement are best understood in relation to academic challenge—high expectations, rigorous pedagogy, intellectual demand, and accountability.  It is the mutually reinforcing combination of caring and press that make the greatest positive difference. Indeed, academic challenge without sufficient caring and support from teachers and fellow students can lower performance.

3. The Alternatives Are Unacceptable

We should also care about caring because the alternatives are unacceptable. Lack of caring or harmful uncaring can impede positive learning and development. Lack of caring can negatively affect the development of cognitive capabilities and of caring social behavior and it can negatively affect children’s ability to regulate stress and form attachments with others. High-level stress and trauma may be more damaging.

Lack of caring relationships in schools can promote feelings of isolation and detachment. Students who perceive their teachers as not caring say they do not pay as much attention in class and lack concern about classroom rules. The effects of negative student-teacher relationships include antisocial behavior, peer rejection, negative attitudes toward school, adjustment difficulties, lower attendance, and poorer academic engagement. Not surprisingly, lack of caring is also associated with lower achievement gains and greater likelihood of dropping out of school.

4. Caring Should Not Be Assumed

A fourth reason to care about caring in schools is that we cannot assume that caring is a present and unproblematic quality of schooling. To be sure, many educators care deeply about their students. But there is a paradoxical notion that caring is present and strong in schools because caring is what schools are supposed to do. This is an assumption of caring that is not always born out in what schools do to bring caring to life. Educators often see caring when students do not.

In fact, caring is highly variable in schools today, particularly for students of color, students of low socioeconomic backgrounds, low-performing students, and students placed at risk. Research finds that not all teachers have positive personal relationships with students of color and children of immigrants. Indeed, African American and Latino students are less likely than white students to report high levels of academic and social support associated with caring. In addition, the approaches we have taken recently to improve schools, notably regimes of curricular specification, testing and accountability, have made it all the more difficult to develop supportive, caring relationships among adults and students. Both research and the educators with whom we speak tell us the same thing—current reforms continue to make efforts develop caring relationships with students complicated and challenging.

The variability of caring in schools and the factors that make its presence difficult mirror strains and tensions in other human service professions. Moreover, the problems of caring in schools are symptomatic of broader social trends, notably the breakdown of community, the weakening of social bonds, and the rise of individualism in American society. We are experiencing, as developmental psychologist Niobi Way and her colleagues recently observed, a worsening societal “crisis of connection.”

In Conclusion

For these four reasons, it is important to take a long hard look at caring in schools and students’ experience of it. Caring is not simply “caring about” but rather a quality of relationship. It is the matter, manner, and motivation of our actions and interactions with others. It is a core quality of the communities we cultivate in schools for both students and adults. It is a crucial element of the social networks of families and neighborhoods in which children and youth learn and grow. Caring aims to promote the betterment and success of others. It is driven by positive virtues of compassion, empathy, kindness, and respect, among others, and by positive mindsets such as attentiveness and motivational orientation toward the needs, concerns, and interests of others. And caring is enabled by competency—knowledge and skills that bring such virtues and mindsets to life in the pursuit of caring’s aims.

We may fail to attend to caring because it seems too abstract or because it feels too “soft” and therefore not particularly important. This would be a mistake. Clearly, the “hard” side of schooling—high expectations, academic rigor, and accountability—is important to student academic success. But as we have stressed high expectations, rigor, and accountability, we have failed to also elevate the care and support necessary for students to respond positively to the challenges and expectations placed upon them. We have failed to emphasize the care and support necessary for students’ success in school and overall well-being. It is time that we pay a lot more attention to this vital element of schooling.

Written by

Mark A. Smylie is professor of education at the University of Illinois-Chicago. Smylie’s research concerns school organization and processes of school organizational change, administrative and teacher leadership and development, and urban school improvement. His work has appeared in the American Education Research Journal, Educational Researcher, Educational Administration Quarterly, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, Educational Policy, Journal of School Leadership, and Review of Research in Education. He has contributed chapters to numerous books on teachers and teaching, leadership and administration, and educational change. Smylie has been chair of the Educational Policy Studies Department in the College of Education at UIC and secretary-treasurer of the National Society for the Study of Education. He also served as a director of the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago. Smylie has been awarded a National Academy of Education Postdoctoral Fellowship, the William J. Davis Award from the University Council for Educational Administration, and the American Educational Research Association’s Research Review Award. He has been a Residential Fellow at the Spencer Foundation. Before his work in higher education, Smylie was a high school history teacher. He has maintained a close relationship with schools and school districts through joint projects and professional development activity. He has consulted with numerous regional and national professional and policy organizations concerned with education. He received his PhD from Vanderbilt University and BA and MEd degrees from Duke University.

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