A couple of day ago, I was having a conversation about caring for students with Kim Tanner, the very caring director of VSU’s Access Office. I count her as a long time good friend and colleague of mine. She’s probably one of the most caring people on our campus. Our conversation, already reading some “heavy stuff” in student journals and responding to them as requested, reading each student’s face and body language inside and outside class, reading each of their single “How I feel” word on the whiteboard, and just plain shooting the breeze with them got me to thinking about how quick so many of us are to say “I care about the students” and how slow we are to understand what it requires to act caringly towards each of them
Why is that? The words sounds so noble, don’t they. At a glance, it’s a statement of education based on service to others. With it we seem to call ourselves to account to have attitudes and engage in actions that can touch other lives. And, a lot of academic really mean it. But the mere utterance of “I care about” isn’t enough. It may be the right thing to say. It may be the expected thing to say. But, it doesn’t automatically dub us with educational knighthood. It in itself is inadequate to the task of helping each student receive the education she or he needs. The danger of “I care about students,” then, is that once uttered, you can go about you business errantly believing “What a good teacher am I;” that the words can so easily ring hollow; that such a personal and fulfilling claim can in fact be impersonal and empty; that such a noble stand can have ignoble consequences. It can be little more than mere abstract ethics or a theory of good, or something PC. But, it’s not the needed moral and ethical resource it should be. It’s almost an empty sentence unless we do more. No, whenever we utter that claim or hear it, we should ask, “To whom are you specifically referring?” After all, how can you care if you don’t identify whom you care about, know about whom you care, why you care, and how you can care.. Think about it. What does true and deep “care about” mean? What emotions, attitudes, and actions does sincere “care about” require? And, more important whom do we specifically “care about?” If we don’t have an answer to these questions, then we are little than the caricature of the person who claims to love humankind but cannot stand people. If we’re honest, we know a lot of academics who proclaim her or his care for students as a body while remaining oblivious to the plight of the individual student or whose “care about” is conditional and selective.
You see, saying you care about is easy; doing the caring is a whole different story. Caring takes a lot, a lot, of effort and energy. It is consuming, draining, inconvenient, uncomfortable, and at times painful. Only then can you really experience being uplifted, fulfilled, meaningful, inspired, and satisfied. In any event, it requires that we embrace the humanity and individuality of each student. That is because caring is what I call “educational particularity.” Caring is personal. It is unconditional and non-selective. It is a human growth hormone. It deals with a face, a name, a particular person’s story, and her or his situation. Social and emotional distractions, burdens, and pressures outside the classroom are critical in understanding the actions of a student inside the classroom: job, parents, peers, sports, sorority, fraternity, family, finances among others. The inner emotions and attitudes are critical in understanding the outer actions of each student; hopeful beliefs and hopeful thinking and self-efficacy and increased self-expectations play critical roles. Caring means we must intervene to lessen the drag of negative feelings, heavy experiences, and disbeliefs that serve as significant obstacles to engaging in learning and academic achievement. After all, isn’t that’s what an education is all about: to enable and encourage and support transformation and the empowerment of each student.
When you care at a personal and individual level, you ask one question: How can I empower a student so that she or he isn’t paralyzed in fear, doesn’t feel defeated and isolated and lonely, isn’t weakened by powerlessness, isn’t dominated by pessimism and self-doubt, doesn’t feel passive and helpless, isn’t saddened by hopelessness, doesn’t feel unnoticed and devalued?
The most effective answer lies in the context of an on-going, warm, upbeat, respectful, responsive, empathetic, and trusting relationship with each student. Most of a student’s ills can be cured with large doses of engaged, close, and non-punitive caring. We have to act within specific situations with specific persons; we have to learn the specifics of those people and those situations; and we have to respond to the details of that person and her or his situation. Each student is a particular human being with different needs, different problems, and different stories. Because each story is different, caring may require something different for one from caring for another. So, part of caring is being attentive, for it is within the personal context that we must care and educate. We must first see and listen to each student if we are to help her or him to help herself or himself. In caring education, there is no substitute for seeing, listening, recognizing the needs of each student. That means attention, attention, attention must be paid to each student. Paying attention to each student, listening to each student’s story, letting have her or his voice, establishing her or his identity, maintaining her or his integrity, taking the human experience as seriously as we do transmitting information. In many instances, as in journaling, we have to practice a silent presence. We have to learn how to see, learn how to listen, how to be empathetic, and how to be patient. Otherwise, all these generalizations, these “I believe,” these “in my opinion” are simply our own stories, our own perceptions, our own descriptions of a student whom we do not know, have not heard, have not seen, and certainly have not positively touched–and probably rarely exists.
While we are proclaiming “I care about each student” with our lips, we must have caring for each student fully in our hearts and deeply in the back of our minds. It has to come naturally; it won’t happen if its forced or “strategized;” it won’t happen if we have to remember checking off 20 things on a list. Then, and only then, will our words express our true feeling and be our true guide for our actions. If we can do this, we can “care about” with a clear vision, with patience, with empathy, with belief, and with faith in each student; then, we can offer our two greatest gifts to each student: love and hope.
Make it a good day.