Should We Care About Our Students?August 1, 2013
There was a little discussion recently on Twitter (not involving me as far as I remember) about the importance of “caring” for one’s students, and a little discussion of what that meant. It may seem a little bit of a trivial subject, of course teachers should care, but there are a few issues here and a few possible attitudes here, some of which I’ve touched on before, some of which I’ve reflected on in the last few days.
I think the first thing to reflect on is why a lot of teachers (by which I mean me) have some cynicism about talk of caring. Sometimes (not, I hasten to add, in the discussion mentioned earlier) it is fake and is used as a cover for the worst possible attitudes. It’s often part of the vocabulary of those who think teaching is all about the present relationship with the student rather than what they will actually need in their lives.
Certainly, anybody who downplays the academic side of education deserves our suspicion even if it is being downplayed in favour of something which seems virtuous. As I argued here:
Teachers who can’t actually teach have to justify their career choice to themselves somehow. A love of children is the most common excuse. You hear it all the time “my subject knowledge isn’t great, but I have really good relationships with the kids”. Roughly translated this means: “the children and I have come to an understanding that they don’t actually have to learn”. Those of us who still aspire to educate are seen as having a dislike for the darling children. I suppose I could attempt to write heart-warming stories of the students who I get on well with, have developed a connection with, the ones I can happily chat with. But who cares about them? What warms my ice-cold heart is not to count some adolescent as a friend, but to count them as a success: those clever young people who have gone from awful comprehensives to study my subject at top universities; those struggling children who start achieving in my subject for the first time in their lives; those average students who have got the grade they never thought they’d get.
Schools are academic institutions not (and I know I overuse this quotation from R.S. Peters) “orphanages for children with parents”. Of course, an academic focus is perfectly compatible with caring about students in the long term, and when parents want their children to be academically successful we tend to take it as a sign that the parents do care, which makes it seem odd that sometimes it seems that teachers who don’t have the same attitude (who perhaps are more interested in entertaining the kids, or attending to their present mood) can be seen as caring. But if we widen our understanding of “caring” to include, as a high priority, a concern for their ultimate academic success, even at the expense of their immediate comfort, then we would again be speaking about something that seems to be an indisputable advantage in teaching.
Could we actually argue against caring even with this wider definition? Well I have heard people – particularly supply teachers and those about to quit the profession – argue anecdotally that appearing not to be too bothered about students has on occasion resulted in better behaviour and the discovery on the part of students that they do want to learn. The idea is that when the teacher is laidback, students cannot easily entertain themselves by thwarting or upsetting the teacher but, after a certain amount of time doing nothing will feel short-changed and demand to be taught. While I don’t necessarily doubt some of these stories, I do doubt that nonchalance is actually a widely applicable teaching strategy. I’ve certainly known classes who would, on the whole, be happy to learn nothing and would find a way to provoke even the most apathetic teacher. I suspect that this approach can only work where students have become adept at upsetting staff who care, and facing no consequence for this, and are, therefore, unable to deal with a different situation.
But if there is a more general case against caring, I think I came close to making it here. I argued that kindness (which I am assuming here to be based on caring) was over-rated as a virtue in education:
My theory is that it comes down to different virtues, in particular: being kind and being just. On the surface there is a similarity. Both kindness and justice require a concern for the worst off, and a belief in either might lead one to help others, particularly those who are suffering. However, there is a major difference. If you help others out of kindness you are helping because you feel like it. Ultimately it is about you. If you help others in the interests of justice, you help them because they deserve to be helped. It is about them. Kindness, while still a virtue, is limited by the extent of your compassion. Justice can only reach a limit by being satisfied. Acts of kindness serve our desire to do good, acts of justice serve goodness itself. Kindness seeks to order our actions; justice seeks to order the universe.
Ultimately, a caring attitude is not necessarily what we need to consider for big questions about what is fair or just. We may feel sorry for people who don’t deserve it or we may have to deal with suffering in a calm, detached way in order to do the most to alleviate it. Concern for justice, and courage in pursuing it, may be more important in the long term than worrying about every unpleasant aspect of life here and now. But, while I was willing to apply this attitude to some of the bigger questions in education, I still could not deny the importance of kindness (and therefore caring) in our ordinary human interactions:
Now, I don’t mean to dismiss kindness. In our day-to-day lives kindness improves the lives of those around us, particularly when it is born of love. In fact, very little else, does more to improve the lives of our friends, families, pets or acquaintances. It is good to be kind, and it is good that it is within our reach.
And I can consider many examples, even in education, of people who talked and showed compassion in the best possible ways. I find it hard to be cynical when Tom Bennett talks about discipline requiring “strong boundaries, governed by love”. It feels like a succession of perfectly unsentimental teachers (am I the only blogger not to have visited?) have told me about the ethos of caring at King Solomon Academy and the positive effect it has there.
Could I actually come up with an example of a sincere (rather than phony) attitude of caring undermining other important aspects of education as my argument about kindness and justice suggests? Well it’s hard because it’s hard to know other people’s motives for certain. Perhaps I can look at my own. Have I ever felt I had been too kind? Only one example springs to mind. There was a lad in a form group I had a good few years ago who, while perfectly likeable and never malicious, was prone to being a bit cheeky and silly. Never anything serious, but enough to be a little annoying. Having achieved quite a significant improvement in his behaviour by keeping one of his parents closely informed, I learnt that his other parent was at home, confined to bed for some time and slowly dying. After that, I found it much harder to be firmer with him. I don’t mean that I let him run wild, and his behaviour had become good enough to save me from any difficult dilemmas, but I did realise that I would find it so much harder to do things that I had done before, like causing him trouble at home over his behaviour at school. Mentally, he moved from being a student I thought needed to grow up quickly to get over his silliness, to being one who I saw as having already had to face more of reality than many adults. Perhaps I became a closer and more sympathetic form tutor, but I doubt that I could ever have been as effective as I once was. Was my immediate feeling of compassion in conflict with his long term interests as a student who needed to settle down and study? Was he better off when I didn’t know?
I don’t have an easy answer to those questions. But another point that came up in that Twitter discussion was that of caring about classes being a reason for turning up. This did make me think. Not because I’m a particular fanatic about attendance – turning up ill can do more harm than good – but because it made me reflect on past events. One academic year the person I loved most in the world died. Unlike during my previous experience of bereavement, I was in a “permanent” position and had an exam class who were taking one of those exams which, for some of them at least, could have a profound effect on their future. I planned my compassionate leave around the timetable of that class minimising disruption. I timed the funeral with regard to when that class had lessons. I turned up at work when nobody expected me to because of that class. I spent not inconsiderable amounts of money on travel because of that class. Perhaps it helped that most of the class were hard-working. Perhaps it helped that I felt sorry for them because the class had got behind because of having no regular teacher before me. Perhaps it helped that the positive attitude of some of the students in that class towards me had been repeatedly made known to SMT and might have enabled me to survive at the school at a time when other teachers were being forced out. But I can’t deny that I cared about that class and it was, as far as I can tell, to their benefit. And, for all the discussion that preceded this, it seems immediately obvious now I consider that class, that it is vital that we care about our classes. I just think that this is something that is ultimately about our actions. The problem with all that I have argued up until now in this post is that I have talked about “caring” as if it was something we feel. Consider it as something we do, and it is obviously part of the job.