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Can Caring Change Classrooms?

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Guest post by Zac Chase.

Beginnings are wonderful things, and Episode 2 of A Year at Mission Hill does well to capture the wonder and possibility inherent in the beginning of most school years.

Some years into my career, a veteran teacher was leading an introduction for all of the novice teachers at our school. She shared this piece by Irene McIntosh documenting the "ride" of first-year teachers. By the end of the introduction, I'd clipped the graphic timeline from the article and posted it on the bulletin board by my desk. While it claimed to be the timeline of a new teacher, I'd experienced enough first and last days to know the cycle repeats itself no matter whether it is a teacher's first or fourteenth year in the classroom.

It was later in my career that I encountered the work of Nel Noddings and her study of the Ethic of Care in her book Caring. It seems such a simple thing, and if you'd asked me at the time, I would have told you that's what I'd been doing each day. I taught because I cared. Throughout her book, though, Noddings frames caring in a different light, and it's one that's important for any teacher hoping to maintain a sense of both anticipation and rejuvenation throughout their career.

Noddings describes caring as a specific relationship between two people - one that is caring, and one that is cared for. These two engage in a caring relation when the caring listens to and attempts to understand the needs of the cared for, and moves to satisfy those needs. The bond is established when the cared for recognizes what is taking place as caring.

This is key, and it's evident throughout our observations of the classrooms at Mission Hill. It is not enough, not completely enough, to say we are caring for another person. That person must recognize what is happening as caring for the relation to be established.

How often have we teachers known the pain of caring the hell out of a student only for that student to ignore those acts and walk away? Humility lives in caring. It is the humility of listening to students and attempting to move our actions to meet their actual needs, not necessarily what we've identified as their needs. This is difficult.

Noddings puts it best: "The one-caring reflects reality as she sees it to the child. She accepts him as she hopes he will accept himself -- seeing what is there, considering what might be changed, speculating on what might be. But the commitment, the decision to embrace a particular possibility, must be the child's."

Again, this is difficult work.

It is difficult, and it is deeply fulfilling. In that fulfillment we find the passion described by Mission Hill teacher Jenerra Williams as she advocates knowing each of her students well and thereby wanting to advocate for them.

This is the incalculable payback for those of us who teach. It is a reciprocity of care, and for many years it was what carried me through from August to June. It is not a reciprocity in the sense that we should expect our students to care for us in the same way that we care for them. It is more of a deep noticing and appreciation of being cared for that can energize us and that leads us to care again in the future. As Noddings writes, "In considering education, then, we have to ask how best to cultivate the moral sentiments and how to develop communities that will support, not destroy, caring relations."

If we can do these things, then it is possible the nadirs in energy that can follow a bright beginning will not be so low.

Zac Chase is a doctoral student at the University of Colorado Boulder. He writes regularly at autodizactic.com.

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