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March 1, 2003
Vol. 60
No. 6

Do Your Students Know You Care?

Caring is not just a way of acting; it's a way of thinking.

Do Your Students Know You Care? - thumbnail
When you enter Ms. Bennett's 3rd grade classroom, you hear classical music playing softly. Students are sitting in small groups at round tables. Couches are arranged casually around the classroom, purposefully giving the space the ambience of a cozy home rather than a traditional learning environment. On Ms. Bennett's desk sits a jar of lemon drops from which she rewards students from time to time. Parents frequently visit the classroom to assist.
Meg is a student in Ms. Bennett's classroom. You can imagine Meg's mother's surprise when she discovers that her daughter does not perceive Ms. Bennett as a caring teacher. Meg explains,She thinks about us having fun, but she doesn't think about our feelings. A caring teacher is a teacher that is responsible and reliable and doesn't need to give candy or lemon drops or anything else. A caring teacher acts like we are older and more sensible and not just 8- or 9-year-olds. We are somebody.
Meg views her 2nd grade teachers as caring. She says, “My 2nd grade teachers were different. They taught us like we were a lot older than the 2nd grade.”

What Is Caring in a Teacher-Student Relationship?

As educators, we have long recognized the importance of developing caring relationships with students. Yet education literature says little about how teachers can develop appropriate caring in their relationships with students.
Caring, in and of itself, implies a relationship, but appropriate caring in teacher-student relationships is demonstrated differently from caring in other types of relationships. We can more easily determine appropriate ways to demonstrate caring in our relationships if we clarify the purpose of the relationship (Bennis, Schein, Steele, & Berlew, 1968).
For instance, we form friendships or romantic relationships for personal satisfaction or self-fulfillment. In these relationships, we expect caring to be mutual, equitably reciprocal, and intimate. These types of relationships are called emotional-expressive relationships (Bennis et al., 1968).
But we don't form our relationships with students for mutual satisfaction or self-fulfillment. Rather, teacher-student relationships are formed to promote learning and academic growth within students. Relationships formed for the purpose of affecting change in one party are called influential relationships. Appropriate caring in these relationships is demonstrated quite differently.
Several key characteristics distinguish influential relationships and shape caring (Bennis et al., 1968).
First, the central concern of an influential relationship is planned change or growth. For instance, teachers intentionally plan learning activities to increase student academic growth.
Second, the successful conclusion of the relationship is termination. When the defined goal has been met, the relationship should end. For example, students should pass onto the next grade or graduate, and children should leave home and care for themselves.
Third, the power between the individuals in an influential relationship is asymmetrical. The change agent holds most of the power and is expected to know and give more than the recipient. With this asymmetrical balance of power comes a responsibility for the change agent to handle the power ethically and respectfully. The way in which teachers handle their asymmetrical power shapes and determines what students perceive as caring behavior.
Influential relationships define the connection between change agents and their recipients, as in doctor-patient and lawyer-client relationships. The most prominent influential relationship is parent-child. Although education literature has little to say about how teachers develop healthy relationships with students, parenting literature is rich with research that provides insights and guidance on how best to communicate caring to children. In particular, parenting research indicates that using an authoritative approach to parenting increases children's perceptions of caring and trust (Glenn & Nelsen, 1988; McNabb, 1990).

What Do Students Perceive as Caring?

Authoritative parents establish their authority but do not require unquestioning obedience. On a continuum of permissive to authoritarian parenting styles, authoritative parenting is in the middle. With authoritative parenting strategies, parents treat children firmly, with dignity and respect (Baumrind, 1971, 1980; Glenn, 1982; Glenn & Nelsen, 1988). Treating children with dignity means honoring their position and their abilities, and seeing them as worthy of esteem. Treating children with respect means showing regard for their basic human right to expression and believing in their growing abilities to manage their own lives successfully. Respect requires listening and sincerely considering what children are saying. The authoritative parenting approach takes for granted that parentshave more knowledge and skill, control more resources, and have more physical power than their children, but they [parents] believe that the rights of parents and children are reciprocal [italics added]. (Cole & Cole, 1989, p. 383)
Reciprocity is key. Teachers who believe that students have reciprocal rights use their power respectfully and ethically.

Observing Teachers Using Their Power

For my research on how teachers develop close and trusting relationships with students (Deiro, 1996), I observed six teachers' classrooms for one and one-half years and interviewed the teachers and their students. I chose the six teachers on the basis of a student inventory measuring the level of closeness and trust that students felt for their teachers. The teachers I observed all taught academic subjects (biology, literature, social science, and math) in either junior or senior high school. Three were male, three were female; and they had diverse ethnic backgrounds.
I was inspired by how respectfully the six teachers treated their students. They used a considerate tone of voice and a receptive manner when speaking to or about their students, and they worked to earn their students' respect. These teachers trusted that students were doing their best, given their developmental level and life circumstances. For example, Dean, an inner-city 9th grade biology teacher, made the following comment to me during lunch period one day:These kids . . . have already made more decisions in their lives than you or I have had to. You can't treat them like kids; you treat them like adults. Take, for instance, the kid sitting up there studying. [He pointed to a small boy.] He's a gang member and has been faced with situations you or I have not dreamed of.
I observed Tom, another teacher, during a quarter when John, a retired military man, was his student teacher. I asked John what he thought Tom did that communicated caring to his students. He said,I think it comes down to respect. There is a definite two-way respect in this classroom. You know, a lot of teachers expect the kids to respect them . . . but it's not reciprocated.
This reciprocal respect is demonstrated in how these teachers discipline.

Disciplining with Respect

When disciplining students, these teachers did not give up their power; they simply wielded that power in a different way. For example, Gail called students up to the podium to talk to them individually. When I asked her what she said to the students, she responded,It is usually something that you don't want to say out loud. Even praise—some students don't like you to praise them in front of their friends because they will be seen as teacher's pet. So I kind of do it quietly.
The six teachers extended to students the opportunity to make their own mistakes and live with the consequences without harsh judgment. They approached discipline as an opportunity to teach rather than punish. For example, John, Tom's student teacher, described what happened one day when the class had a substitute teacher:The kids ate [the substitute] alive. It was pathetic. The kids were on a feeding frenzy! Early the next morning, I mentioned it to Tom. He was furious! Tom doesn't like his class acting like that. He confronted the class with the information I had shared, but he did it in an interesting way. He didn't tell them I told him. He said, “I hear there were some problems yesterday. What were they?” The kids immediately started confessing. And it wasn't Jimmy telling on Susie or Susie telling on Bobby. The kids who had been the problem students said, “I did this.”
Tom handled the entire discipline situation respectfully. He calmly and clearly expressed his disappointment and asked John to express his embarrassment as a student teacher observing the class behave so discourteously. Then, together, Tom and his students worked out a plan to ensure that the problem would not recur. He treated the students like adults and taught them problem-solving skills. Tom's disappointment was enough punishment to amend the behavior of his students.
None of these caring teachers was nicie-nice. Being permissive, sweet, warm, or gentle is not the prerequisite of caring. Caring teachers can be stern and strict. They can even appear detached and aloof. But they must be respectful to be perceived as caring.

Student Responses to Respectful Treatment

The deep level of respect held by the six teachers for their students communicated genuine caring. And students reciprocated with respect. A student in Dean's biology class comments on how respect for the teacher improves student behavior:Well, everyone respects [him]. Like, if people don't respect the teacher, and the teacher tells you to do [something], [we] will just talk back and then the teacher will have to make us leave or something . . . and we won't care.
Annette, a student in Dale's math class, talks about the respect that Dale gave her, despite her behavior:After being suspended for a while, you come back and it's like totally weird being in school again. And you know, I walked into Mr. Smith's classroom and he's like, “Hey Annette! You're back! Congratulations, you made it! Have a seat. Come on. We're waiting for you.” He welcomed me.
In response to that respectful treatment, Annette admitted to trying harder and doing better in Dale's classes; instead of Ds, she's now getting Bs.
A teacher's respect and an ethical use of power are key to students' perceptions of caring. With respect, teachers can communicate caring to students when disciplining them, correcting their assignments, lecturing, or playing with them. In the opening vignette, we see that Meg, in the words of a 9-year-old, was simply asking to be treated respectfully. She does not want lemon drops or to be treated like a baby. She wants to be treated as capable, significant, and influential. Such respectful treatment can go a long way toward creating a caring learning environment, promoting the academic growth of students, and enhancing a teacher's ability to make a difference in students' lives.

Baumrind, D. (1971). Current patterns of parental authority. Developmental Psychology Monographs, 4(1, Part 2).

Baumrind, D. (1980). New directions in socialization research. American Psychologist, 35, 639–652.

Bennis, W. G., Schein, E. H., Steele, F. I., & Berlew, D. (1968). Interpersonal dynamics: Essays and readings on human interaction (2nd ed.). Homewood, IL: Dorsey Press.

Cole, M., & Cole, S. R. (1989). The development of children (1st ed.). New York: Scientific American Books.

Deiro, J. (1996). Teaching with heart: Making healthy connections with students (1st ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Glenn, H. S. (1982). Developing capable young people: The leader's guide. Fair Oaks, CA: Sunrise Books, Tapes, and Video.

Glenn, H. S., & Nelsen, J. (1988). Raising self-reliant children in a self-indulgent world. Rocklin, CA: Prima Publishing & Communications.

McNabb, W. H. (1990). The developing capable people parenting course: A study of its impact on family cohesion. Unpublished dissertation, Pepperdine University, Malibu, CA.

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