The Parkland Conversation: Caring & Empathy in Our Schools

Parkland-Shooting-

In honor of the nationally student-organized Parkland walkouts today, I am posting this today.

Take heart reader, by in large, this is not a politically charged post, but it will serve as a call for change as many of my colleagues and the students I speak to each day are clamoring to see happen. I have spent hours since the February 14th tragedy wrestling with the realities of continued shootings in schools, the emotional fallout, political discord, scared children, attention-seeking adults, and the list goes on and on. I have started and stopped this post in my head many times, but as you can plainly see, I have decided my thoughts and the solutions I will try to convey are worth sharing.

Let’s start with what this post will really be about–I want to posit not only the need for our classrooms to be caring and empathetic in general but also the need for building caring and empathetic classrooms from the inside out, starting with teacher preparatory programs. While I am all for some extended gun laws and restrictions, this post will concentrate solely on what we as a society, in our little nook of it, can do to curtail or even prevent these events immediately.

Before we dive in, I would like to invite any educators who read this post to comment on it with their own use of care ethics and responsive classroom techniques and more specifically where and when you encountered those techniques.

I look back on my teacher training program at Kennesaw State University fondly. I enjoyed my major classes, and they typically reminded me that my career pursuit was the right choice for me. I was oblivious to anything that might be missing from the experience. As any other teacher reading this might agree, there are some harsh realities of how the actual classroom operates versus what is discussed or read in the college classroom. Even the student teaching experience gives a limited idea of what leading your own classroom is truly like. That said, there is nothing that beats experience, and teacher preparatory programs have done well to increase the amount of time a preservice teacher spends in a real classroom prior to being certified. In hindsight, however, and especially in light of my doctoral studies, I see a gap in these programs that could be relatively easy to close. There is a lack of care and empathy taught and explored in preservice classes. I would go so far as to advocate for a course entirely dedicated to care ethics and theory with a keen focus on how that plays out in student teaching when observed by university personnel.

An argument might be made immediately of “Don’t all teachers have an ethic of caring? Why would they become a teacher if they didn’t care about kids?” Those are fair questions, but anyone who has been in the teaching field for even a year knows not all teachers carry or practice an ethic of caring in their classrooms. Another argument would certainly be made that there are college and school-based care and empathy programs in place. Again, fair point, but those programs are not pervasive across all teacher prep programs or in every school system. The point here is the programs that exist, many of which are quite good, are scattered and much rarer than they should be.

Let’s start with ‘why’ this argument for care ethics and empathy building in teacher preparatory programs is important to me (and likely important to you). Being an adolescent in American society is undoubtedly difficult–maybe more difficult than it has ever been. Depression and anxiety are at all time highs in our middle and high schoolers. Students are dealing with a more complex society too. Much more complex than my own adolescence just 20 years ago. I see the hurt, fear, and uncertainty in the students I encounter everyday. (I also see the joy, excitement, and brilliance many of them display daily.) The students who are rife with those fears, uncertainties, anger, loneliness will only continue to be those who are labeled and pushed to the fringes if we do not acknowledge their desperate need to be seen, cared for, and mentored continuously. If you recall your own adolescence, you likely can recall moments of identity crisis, uncertainty, and even anger or despair. If you were lucky, you had one adult in the building you entered everyday for school that you felt ‘saw’ you and invested in you. We have a disproportionate number of students who do not have that adult in their life. It is easy to see why–one teacher can only influence a certain number of students and, if we’re honest, most of us adults have a hard time loving a kid who constantly acts “unlovable.”

While I know there is likely no way to get every teacher or person in this country to embrace an ethic of caring and empathy in their classroom everyday, I suspect if every teacher beginning to enter the field were exposed to what they are, then we could make real headway as a society. Teachers enter their classrooms with all kinds of varying philosophies on the purpose of the classroom and learning. Many may not see loving students and showing them care ethic daily as part of the purpose of learning, but I, for one, would like to see that change.

To move this conversation forward, let me take a moment explain an ethic of caring and care ethics. Nel Noddings of Stanford University has spent her scholarly career promoting and theorizing an ethic of caring, which she suggests stems from a mother-to-child care ethic where the carer and the cared for develop a reciprocal caring relationship toward one another. In order for this ethic to develop, the carer (i.e. mother, father, teacher, mentor) must demonstrate and practice acts of care consistently and continuously with no expectation of the cared for (i.e. child, student, mentee) reciprocating the same level of care. Sounds simple, right? Love the child even when they act unlovable and ungrateful. The word ‘unconditional’ may come to mind here, but to be clear, I am not making a case for unconditional love towards students no matter their behavior. Showing a care ethic toward a student is demonstrating elements of care that may be hard to enact when that students actions and behavior are off putting, negligent, and illogical. Theses elements include patience, empathy, seeking to understand first, acknowledging your biases, and remaining authentic in your own actions and discourse to name a few. If you are like me, and I think most humans are truly the same at our core, we struggle with one or more of those elements in our day-to-day interactions with people let alone children/students. An ethic of caring does not appear and remain in a person overnight. There is a mindfulness to it that demands reflection in order to grow and move towards that ethic.

The reality to developing a reliable ethic of caring in a teachers classroom it takes years, but the catalyst for this development should be in teacher training at the very least the university level. A teacher familiar with reflective teaching practices and a strong awareness of care ethics has a leg up to begin those practices in their first few years of teaching. This awareness is so vital to beginning the effort to provide caring and empathetic classrooms for all students, which, I believe, would curtail violence in schools and public places far more efficiently than arguing gun control or concealed carry by teachers. If you’re a teacher reading this, you know how important classroom relationships are to a successful learning environment–an ethic of caring should be the crux of that relationship building.

Having stated my case for explicitly and pervasively teaching care ethics, theory, and empathy to preservice teachers, I do want to share what I know is already happening to expose teachers to this approach to teaching already.

1.) A responsive classroom model has been around for a hot minute. Ruth Charney wrote the text Teaching Children to Care in the early 90s. I have only read portions of the text myself, but this is a nugget from early in the book that I appreciate:

quote

Let’s bear in mind the word discipline is derived from the Latin root disciplina, meaning learning. I know I lose sight of this often myself.

2.) From Teaching Children to Care comes the Responsive Classroom Model. When you visit the site, you can see this has been shaped into a national movement/organization. I have to admit I had not heard of it myself until recently. I’ll explain why this is important later. Here’s a video they share on their site that overviews the approach:

3.) A text that apparently makes it rounds with preservice teachers is The First Six Weeks of School, which is published by the Responsive Classroom organization. Seeing a book like this as a staple in some undergrad programs is encouraging. I know from an account from a former professor of mine that he has seen the book toted around his university.

That’s what I know, which isn’t nearly enough, which is why I want to here from other educators about their preservice experiences with learning about and implementing teaching practices that promote empathy and an ethic of caring.

Here’s where I will end today’s post. What little I do know about care and empathy training available to preservice teachers has made me aware of a gaping whole/need that the three points above simple do not address–teaching with care ethics and strategies in mind at the high school level. Each of the texts and resources above are oriented primarily for elementary and some middle school. I take real issue with the cap on teaching with care in mind at age 10 or 13. While so foundational and important at the earliest stages of learning, empathy building MUST be continued at the high school level. My question–why didn’t it come up in my undergrad studies as a future high school English teacher, and why is it so hard to find others who have been trained for it that teach at the high school level? (Who knows; maybe I will look to explore this myself at a much deeper level.)

We can and, again, MUST do better for ourselves as educators and for the teens we teach, so many of whom are suffering, hurt, disenchanted, disconnected, and feel unloved–students who still need us to desperately discipline them (teach them) through practical approaches to showing understanding and care.

I’ll leave you this from the Responsive Classroom principles: “How we teach is as important as what we teach.”

Amen.

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