Developing an Ethic of Care in the Classroom

January 2, 2008

By Caldwell, Paula F Sholtis, Stephanie A

Daily, teachers step foot inside their classrooms with the intentions of making a difference in their students’ lives by demonstrating care. Depending on a teacher’s individual style, care may be demonstrated in multiple ways. In a study of high school students (Caldwell 1999), ways that teachers show students they care were reflected in four distinctive themes. Caldwell’s (1999) study, entitled “Windows of Care,” classified these themes as Student- Oriented, Work-Oriented, Engaging Students, and Active. Using Q Methodology (Brown 1986), which measures subjectivity -or people’s opinions-average students (as identified by their high school counselors) from four different schools (urban, suburban, parochial, and vocational) identified and labeled these caring teacher themes. Participants in the study ranked and sorted research-based statements related to how teachers show caring (Mayeroff 1971; Noddings 1984, 1986, 1992, 1995; Weinstein 1998; National Association of Secondary School Principals and Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans 1996; National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future 1996). They then reported their attitudes regarding which of the characteristics they felt most importantly describe a caring teacher.

These themes present the participants’ realities and, as is typical of qualitative research, the findings cannot be generalized to larger samples. As a result, these themes and their characteristics can be useful in providing insights into how teachers can demonstrate care to students. In the explanations that follow, the term participant refers to participants in Caldwell’s (1999) “Windows of Care” research project. Each of the four themes is discussed here in terms of its characteristics.

The Student-Oriented Teacher Treats all students with respect.

A student-oriented teacher displays respect through an appreciation for individual uniqueness. One participant revealed, “A caring teacher shows respect by calling me by my name-not my brother’s name, not my sister’s name” (Caldwell 1999, 105). A person’s name gives him or her a sense of identity. As a participant explained, “[My name] is who I am” (Caldwell 199, 105). Often classroom teachers confuse family member names, which can be a violation of self-identity. As Wong and Wong (2004, 70) explained, “When you address someone by name, you are treating that person with dignity and respect.”

Respect is further developed in the classroom by modeling to students how to show respect and share compliments. In many classroom settings, respect is not naturally given from all students to their teachers. A high school participant stated that at the beginning of a semester, he “will give the teacher about one week”; if he does not like what he sees, “then it will be hell from then on” (Caldwell 1999, 163). For this student to respect the teacher, he demands the teacher’s respect in return. Another participant stated, “Respect is a twoway street… if a teacher wants me to respect her, then she must show respect to me” (Caldwell 1999, 102).

Believes in me. Furthermore, a student-oriented teacher shows that he or she cares for students by believing in them. Positive encouragers during lessons, homework, and free time can be effective. Students suggested that teachers can write letters to their students or call them at home. A positive phone call to a student or parents is powerful in showing a student that a teacher believes in him or her.

Participants further stated that they want to be openly encouraged. This can be demonstrated by recognizing student achievement. Providing positive feedback on assignments, rewarding the best class of the week with a small prize, and using behavior incentives are all effective strategies for encouraging students. One participant revealed that he needs to hear and feel his teacher’s belief in him (Caldwell 1999). Implications are not enough for these students. A teacher’s belief in his or her students needs to be overt, such as saying “good job” or writing it on a paper. Demonstrating that they believe in students, another participant shared, “Teachers are there for you and will do whatever they can to help you-give you a card, a paton-the back, or a pen. They will boost you up, and let you know that they care for you” (Caldwell 1999, 104). Whether an affirmation is tangible (prize) or intangible (comment), students have stated that it needs to be open and intentional.

Listens. A caring teacher also listens in multiple ways. According to Wong and Wong (2004, 26), “The three most important words for a teacher are listen, listen, listen.” Forni (2002, 51) offered these basic components for good listening: “(1) plan your listening; (2) show that you are listening; and (3) be a cooperative listener.” By planning to listen, people eliminate sources of distraction by staying focused on the speaker and listening. Individuals show that they are listening through eye contact, which facilitates a sense of personal connection. A cooperative listener “separates what is important from what is not… which gives shape and direction to what the other person says while also trying to understand what he is trying to say” (Fomi 2002, 53). According to humorist Mark Twain (2001), “If we were meant to talk more than listen, we would have two mouths and one ear.”

A teacher can demonstrate listening by adhering to what his or her students are communicating. The use of exit slips and letters to the teacher at the end of a class provides insight surrounding students’ knowledge, attitudes, and opinions of a particular topic. These communication outlets remind students that the caring teacher listens, accepts, and uses their feedback constructively.

Is patient. A teacher is patient when he or she practices self control. A patient teacher allows ample time for students to answer questions and does not get upset easily or display negative body language. A participant shared that when a teacher “loses her cool,” he likes to sit back and “enjoy the show” (Caldwell 1999, 96). This teacher behavior is ineffective, resulting in student response which is opposite of that desired.

In addition, a patient teacher encompasses a “never give up” attitude, believing in one’s self, one’s work, and the potential of students. A patient teacher also never holds grudges. Another participant revealed that he requests a clean slate from teachers each school year (Caldwell 1999).

Encourages me to think. A teacher encourages students to think by providing time and resources for self-discovery learning and by tapping into higher-order thinking skills. Students are encouraged to think when they are asked to explain their thinking aloud (metacognition) and when they express answers to abstract questions (Bloom 1956). Teachers encourage students to think by providing enriched academic projects with open-ended topics. This practice gives students the opportunity to be creative and to think about what is important to them, as opposed to just completing a teacher- generated assignment.

Another participant explained that she feels a teacher believes in her when the teacher encourages her to think and won’t “settle for my minimum effort” (Caldwell 1999, 100). Effective, caring teachers “have high expectations that all of their students will succeed” (Wong and Wong 2004, 197). They provide endless opportunities and continuous support for students’ mastery of learning objectives.

The Work-Oriented Teacher

Bases my grade on more than homework and tests. The workoriented teacher provides students with opportunities for success by basing grades on more than homework and tests, and by adjusting the workload if needed. This teacher uses a variety of both formal and informal assessments to determine whether or not a student has achieved the intended outcomes. This teacher also incorporates responsibility, accountability, and effort into the grading plan. The work-oriented teacher teaches so that student work can be evaluated in many different ways (Glasser 1998).

Is willing to adjust the workload if needed. Teachers need to be compassionate toward different ethnic backgrounds and be willing to make modifications to match their students’ diverse needs and desires. Teachers must be aware of the whole child as a person. Some students do not have the accommodations nor live in an environment that enables them to complete all assignments according to stated criteria. A male, urban, Hispanic participant in Caldwell’s (1999, 106) study remarked, “Home life is more important than school… I just can’t get the work done, and my teacher doesn’t care.” His circumstances were crying out for adjustments; he wanted to succeed, but could do so only through adjusted means.

Other participants individually shared that they were just not test takers. “When I hear the word test, I get anxiety . . . I get scared. I study but then blank out . . . a test is a big white piece of paper . . . and it is overwhelming” (Caldwell 1999, 107). Students require multiple forms of assessment to match their diverse learning needs.

A suburban male participant revealed that his math teacher had begun giving him adjusted homework assignments (Caldwell 1999). This young man had an after-school job as a “sacker” at the local grocery store and was unable to get all the math problems completed on work nights. Upon learning of his circumstances, the math teacher decreased the number of math problems to be completed for this young man only on work nights. This agreement was kept between the two of them. Reflecting on this teacher’s approach, the young man said, “I guess he really does care about me” (Caldwell 1999, 108). Is willing to give extra time for completing assignments. Being open to giving extra time for completing assignments shows that a teacher is fair to and honest with his or her students. If a student poses a legitimate concern, a caring teacher recognizes the problem and addresses it in a professional manner. A teacher who gives extra time for students to complete assignments shows that he or she cares by demonstrating flexibility and understanding. Wong and Wong (2004, 26) identified an “effective teacher” as someone who “is flexible and adaptable.”

Is willing to change the classroom rules when necessary. Changing classroom rules requires a flexible teacher. Field trips, promotional days, special lessons, and crises can require adjustments to the standard rules and procedures. Moreover, different groups of students may require different rules. The caring teacher incorporates behavior contracts, positive incentives, and rule adaptations to address the diverse demands of students.

Accepts more than one answer to a question. A caring teacher who is work-oriented draws out a variety of student responses. In a classroom that holds discussions, student opinions are valued (Glasser 1998). A teacher could ask open-ended questions to gain many different responses and opinions. Group interpretation and dramatic presentations of a story, such as Reader’s Theatre, allow for multiple voices to be heard. By encouraging students to voice their opinions and providing them with opportunities to present their understandings, teachers demonstrate to students that their beliefs are important.

The caring work-oriented teacher wants and provides opportunities for each student to succeed. Teachers need to be aware of students who are having difficulties and make adjustments accordingly.

The Teacher Who Engages Students

Is an expert in the subject. A caring teacher engages students by being an expert in the subject being taught. Attending workshops and seminars, going back to school for graduate credit or degrees, collaborating with other teachers, and becoming serf-reflecting practitioners are all effective methods for developing a deeper understanding of content. Competent teachers-ones who know their subjects-have the power to model their expectations and create a learning-friendly environment for students (Glasser 1998).

Helps me to become independent. Teaching is at its best when a student is an independent learner and does not know whether a teacher is in or out of the room (Montessori 1965). Teachers demonstrate high expectations of their students by allowing independent work, as well as silent or reflective times. By providing open-ended problem-solving questions, teachers help students learn to think both creatively and independently.

Is willing to give extra time for completing assignments. Teachers who engage students in their school work are willing to give extra time for completing assignments (including tests). These caring teachers administer pretests to gauge how much time is necessary for students to master a skill. Furthermore, they acknowledge and understand their students’ lives outside of school. These teachers know their students’ individual needs and are willing to make adjustments as needed.

Provides opportunities for classroom discussions. Opportunities for classroom discussions help students to learn from their peers. According to Vygotsky (1978), students leam by direct interaction and communication with their classmates. One participant in the research project stated, “I can leam from other students when they explain it, rather than from the teacher. The students are not smarter than the teacher; they just use different words so that I can understand better” (Caldwell 1999, 111).

Teachers can spark classroom discussion by posing questions that generate opinions or debates on topics of interest to students. Moreover, inviting speakers into the classroom to activate discussions and ignite enthusiasm is an effective technique. By engaging students in cooperative learning, educators provide them autonomy over their learning (Glasser 1998).

Offers “extra credit” activities. Opportunities to enhance one’s grade beyond regular classroom work was noted, but with caution. Students want and appreciate having opportunities to succeed. Mentioning test anxiety as a culprit in undermining success, students request other means for assessing knowledge in the form of bonus points. However, the impact of bonus questions on exams was disputed with statements such as “grades should not be based on little stupid things. People can pass a test because of trivia, but not know the content covered on the test.” The teacher’s proper usage of time also was a concern, as noted, “Teachers don’t use time well. I need more time for math and wasn’t given it. Some kids get extra work or extra credit, but I can’t get extra test time-it isn’t fair” (Caldwell 1999, 113). Extra credit activities need to have guidelines, consistency, and impartiality.

The Active Teacher

Is energetic. The active teacher is energetic and exhibits a passion for learning. For example, the energetic high school social studies teacher might dress in character for a Civil War topic. A primary or middle school teacher might have morning activities that get the “juices flowing” and elicit an eagerness to participate. An energetic teacher could join students in doing jumping jacks during physical education class; or use fun, upbeat physical transitions, such as greeting students at the door between classes or singing a song or playing music during a transition. The energetic teacher integrates the fine arts with any subject matter.

Has a sense of humor. According to a participant in the study (Caldwell 1999, 113), “A teacher without a sense of humor is like a pen without ink . . . just flat.” A sense of humor might include a designated time of the day for sharing jokes or funny experiences with one another during circle or reflective time. Age-appropriate riddle transitions also can be created to keep students guessing what is going to happen next.

Tells stories and uses examples. By sharing experiences, teachers help students remember concepts. Dewey (1938) stated that it is the teacher’s responsibility to assist students in making sense of the world by sharing stories and experiences. Teachers can teach diversity by offering different stories for holiday celebrations. Circle time is ideal for telling stories and learning to express emotions (Kriete 2002). Connecting with students through stories and examples brings learning alive as it takes theory into practice. Storytelling can enrich the content with connectedness and with challenges for critical thinking (Egan 1986). Stories make abstract truths concrete, and clearly show the relationship between action and consequence.

Provides interesting assignments. Interesting assignments keep students centered on the task at hand. Caring teachers spend time “finding interesting things for children to do and interesting ways for them to learn” (Haberman 1995). Diversifying instructional methods and assignments taps into the multiple intelligences of students in the classroom. Students learn best from strategies that match their strengths (Arnold 2007). Administering surveys to students results in assignments based on the interests of the students. In addition, differentialing instruction based on students’ strengths, interests, and learning needs leads to more motivation and success in the classroom (Arnold 2007).

Bases my grade on more than homework and tests. An active teacher bases grades on more than homework and tests by giving extra credit opportunities and by using varied assessment measures, including authentic assessment and portfolios. Authentic assessment involves the teacher closely observing students as they learn. According to Vacca and Vacca (2005, 39), “Observation should be a natural outgrowth of teaching; it increases teaching efficiency and effectiveness.” When teachers observe students as they learn, they give immediate feedback through body language, permitting them to easily make adjustments in their instructional methods to better achieve concept attainment.

Though portfolios require a commitment from both teacher and student, they provide opportunities for students to self-explore. “A distinct value underlying the use of portfolios is a commitment to students’ evaluation of their own understanding and personal development” (Vacca and Vacca 2005, 39). The active teacher is dedicated to fairly assessing all students based upon their educational needs.

Closing Thoughts

The four themes from “Windows of Care” demonstrate the complexity of caring, which entails more than warm and fuzzy feelings. Care is a “hover” word. It is ubiquitous as it hovers around us everywhere. With day care, elder care, lawn care, pet care, and handle with care, it is a word that creeps into our conversations. Care is challenging; it is flexible, personal, and dynamic. Its meaning varies from person to person.

Developing an ethic of care in the classroom is complex. Caldwell’s (1999) four themes and their characteristics can be used to reflect on one’s own ethic of care in the classroom in a dedicated effort to address the educational needs of all students.

“Teachers must be aware of the whole child as a person.”


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Paula F. Caldwell is an Associate Professor of Education at Mount Union College in Alliance, Ohio. She specializes in classroom structure, management, and introductory courses. Her scholarly interests include the caring teacher. She serves as Counselor of the Omega Iota Chapter of Kappa Delta Pi.

Stephanie A. Sholtis is an 8th-grade language arts teacher in the Brunswick City School District in Brunswick, Ohio. Her scholarly interests include exceptional learners and the caring teacher.

Copyright Kappa Delta Pi Winter 2008

(c) 2008 Kappa Delta Pi Record. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.

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