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June 20, 2023
ASCD Blog

Powerful Student Care in Two Simple Words

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Educators can make sure students feel distinctive and irreplaceable in every classroom.
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What if the goal of schooling was for each child to know they are distinctive and irreplaceable and to believe the same to be true for their peers and their teachers? 
Distinctive. Irreplaceable. Two simple, yet powerful, words. When we were developing the framework Powerful Student Care, we carefully chose these words within it. When something is distinctive or irreplaceable, it is cherished because there can never be another like it.  
The words reminded Grant of his great grandmother’s portrait—the only thing his ailing grandmother wanted to keep when her house went up for sale. The portrait was more than 100 years old, and if she had lost the photograph, the image of her mother’s face would have been gone forever. What if we valued our students, and they, in turn, valued themselves and others as much as Grant’s grandmother treasured that photograph? 

Powerful Student Care

Powerful Student Care, unpacked in our book by the same name, is a humanizing approach to education that allows for introspection and reflection; hones educators’ capacity to observe, question, and analyze information; and uses our professional expertise to deeply know each child and respond to collective and individual interests and needs. 

In what often feels like a hate-filled and divisive world, our students need to know that they are distinctive and irreplaceable.

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Our traditional approach to schooling can fall short for far too many children. Current challenges like a global pandemic, book bans, and gun violence, as well as policymaking that denies the historical trauma inflicted on people of color, violates LGBTQIA human rights, and wages war on educators as “indoctrinators,” are taking their toll. In what often feels like a hate-filled and divisive world, our students need to know that they are distinctive and irreplaceable.
Powerful Student Care disrupts this educational landscape, calling us to consistently bear in mind, in all we do as educators, that each human life is unique and precious and to remove aspects of schooling that disregard students’ dignity. This process begins when we make two significant shifts in our thinking, which subsequently inform our actions.  

Two Key Shifts

First, we redirect our attention from “all students” to “each student.” It is difficult to visualize the faceless concept of all students. Too often all becomes most. We write improvement plans, for example, that purportedly focus on all students, but set goals that define success as affecting just some of them (e.g., 75 percent of students will read proficiently on grade level). When we think about each student, we can visualize a face and name. We can wonder about what makes them happy as individuals and what they aspire to do in the world.  
Second, we aim for students to know that they are distinctive and irreplaceable. Such a conviction comes about as a direct result of their experiences in schools, with their peers, and with their teachers; therefore, we prioritize understanding what each student actually experiences over what we intend for them to experience. 

A Community of Difference

Despite its emphasis on the individual, Powerful Student Care is not an individualistic approach. Our model is about co-creating a sense of community—a feeling and a set of relationships—with and among students that acknowledges difference. A community of difference, as defined in Educational Leadership by Carolyn M. Shields, is "not based on homogeneity but on respect for difference and on the absolute regard for the intrinsic worth of every individual."  
We cultivate this sense of community guided by five tenets: 
  1. Each student is welcomed to be part of our community.
  2. Each student is a valued member of our community. 
  3. Each student is here to do well. 
  4. Each student is here to develop self-efficacy and agency. 
  5. Each student is here to experience the joy of learning academically, socially, and emotionally.  
Each tenet gets translated through “everyday” elements of professional practice, such as the physical environment and routines of the classroom, methods of instruction, the classroom values communicated to students, and student voice and autonomy. Our starting point should be deep knowledge of self and others. We gain knowledge of self through introspection and reflection so we can challenge our mental models, such as stereotyping, othering, deficit thinking, and implicit bias. 

Our starting point should be deep knowledge of self and others.

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In our book, we use four scenarios (based on real-life people and issues) to illustrate how educators can extend the tenets of community to their students. One example of Powerful Student Care in action is that of Wesley, a 9th grade transgender student presenting as Wesley for the first time at the beginning of his high school journey. Through conversations with Wesley, his algebra teacher Stewart Morgan uncovered barriers to Wesley feeling unconditionally welcomed as a member of a community of difference, as defined above. Wesley spoke of being ridiculed by both students and adults, as well as having been repeatedly addressed by his birth name rather than as Wesley. In response, Stewart created a series of mini lessons designed to prompt classroom conversations to help students understand that accepting an individual’s identity is fundamental to safeguarding their dignity.

The Power of an Idea 

We’ve had recent conversations with educators who are using the Powerful Student Care framework. A middle school teacher told Kathleen that shifting her thinking from all students to each student was helping her better understand the students with whom she most struggled to relate. One principal was moved to tears, confessing to Grant that as a child she had needed to hear and feel that she was distinctive and irreplaceable. 
“I come from a challenging background,” she told him. “My siblings are either dead or in jail. I’m the only one who survived. [Those words] would have made all the difference.” 
Teaching is a dynamic, relational endeavor. It requires us to safeguard and uphold each student’s equal worth. Powerful Student Care is a way of being that can sustain us in the work. All else is secondary.

Powerful Student Care

If we want to really understand our students so that we can optimize instruction for them, we must think of each individual student as distinctive and irreplaceable.

Powerful Student Care

Kathleen M. Budge combines 26 years of experience as a teacher and administrator with over a decade of work dedicated to bridging the gap between the university and the teaching profession. She is an associate professor of Educational Leadership at Boise State University, where her research focuses on poverty, rural education, school improvement, and leadership development.

Budge is coauthor of the award-winning book Turning High-Poverty Schools into High-Performing Schools. She has conducted presentations at international, national, and state conferences and webinars, podcasts, and symposiums on the topics of poverty and the whole child. Her consultancies include state departments, boards of education, state and regional service providers, and schools in 15 U.S. states and 3 nations.

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