Schools that serve children and young people well are defined by two anchoring pillars, strong academic press and pastoral care. Focusing primarily on the academic side of the equation is insufficient, especially for students placed in peril by poverty. Academic press alone is also problematic; it does not attend sufficiently to the quality of social relations required for effective teaching and learning. Schools with strong press can still prove inadequate if they provide little attention to the social and relationship dimensions of education.
We also know that nearly exclusive attention to care is problematic as well. A number of landmark studies have revealed how an over-emphasis on culture can lead to a lowering of academic expectations. Too great an emphasis on providing nurture and support can constrain educators from promoting serious academic engagement. Communal support for students, separate from focus on achievement, creates distinct complications. Caring separated from challenge contributes to student disengagement. Academic press and support work best when they are viewed as two strands of DNA that wrap around each other.
Four Norms for Caring School Leadership
Teachers focus on building caring relationships with students through their emphasis on academic press. The first of the norms of care is teachers working to the best of their ability, who consistently bring their “A” games to the classroom—who challenge students to do their best work. Students also document what an instructional “A” game looks like. It includes working hard to make classes meaningful, and to show that meaningfulness to youngsters. It means teachers not simply going through the motions, doing their jobs, but rather demonstrating palpable interest in whether students learn or not. Teachers work to peak performance and acknowledge the difficulties of teaching, especially with teaching students who are struggling, but they embrace those challenges, not offering excuses or justifications. They are firm and orchestrate structured classrooms. These teachers are painstaking in their efforts to ensure that all students are brought along and successfully complete learning journeys, not jettisoned on the trip. They work hard to connect with students, not simply to present information.
Teachers whom students assess as bringing their best to the classroom day in and day out—in other words, who demonstrate care—emphasize authentic work. “A” game teachers make learning relevant to their young charges. They focus on intrinsically interesting activities. They also underscore collaborative activities for students and flexible use of time. Teachers who routinely strive for personal excellence in the classroom put learning in perspective for youngsters and work hard to align and integrate goals, activities, and structures for learning. According to students, caring teachers demonstrate considerable imagination, live beyond the textbook, and unearth multiple pathways to accomplish work and show success.
Another hallmark element of caring is the willingness of teachers to reveal themselves to children as persons, not solely as organizational functionaries. They do this by opening aspects of their non-professional lives to their pupils, especially incidents that are relevant to the decisions and struggles that confront youngsters. Part of this opening process is the willingness of teachers to allow themselves to be vulnerable in front of their students. This stance helps establish a frame of authenticity for student-teacher connections.
Care is also fundamentally about standards and about challenging students to meet and exceed robust expectations. We know that many students, especially students in peril will not benefit unless the elements of care and the other norms of personalization are blended. When the cocktail of push and support is in place, students are able to see challenge as coming from a place of teacher concern. Challenge also means providing students with as much responsibility as they can handle and upholding a commitment to help them succeed. Obstacles are acknowledged but they are not accepted as explanations for lack of performance.
A fourth dimension of caring is knowing students well. In a caring environment, teachers make efforts to learn about the youngsters they teach. They commit the time necessary for this understanding to form and grow. Teachers know what is unfolding in the lives of their students. Teachers employ this knowledge to help students learn and to pursue their personal goals.
Caring is defined also by students being valued by their teachers. Valued status is communicated to youngsters when teachers express concern for what is happening in the world of the student and when they invest time and energy in developing and maintaining personal linkages to students. Included here is a not-so-subtle switch from seeing students as problems to seeing them as willing and capable human beings who need help to address challenges in their lives. In valued relationships there is a tendency to avoid blaming youngsters when things do not go well. Caring is also demonstrated when teachers take interest in and invest in their students.
Let us close where we began. Caring is one of two anchoring pillars in schools. However, because of the ferocious focus on raising test scores, it has received insufficient attention for the last 40 years. It is rarely combined with academic press to achieve two goals at once. What we have developed in its stead is the false “assumption of caring,” i.e., all students in a school are assumed to be cared for. The two essential questions are “What is caring?” and “How can caring be brought to life?” not simply resting in the background of the dynamics of school improvement. In this essay, we have answered each of these two questions based upon available evidence. We have defined care as the presence of critical norms. We close by noting that the criticality of press and care vary by context. In the current era of stress and pain caused by COVID-19, the need for additional care becomes a reality.