What if classrooms were rooted in care?

A fifth-grade teacher helps a student with a computer-based lesson in class. Photo by Allison Shelley for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

One of the scariest moments for me as a parent was leaving my boys at their childcare center for the very first time. Little did I know, but this community of teachers, children, and families was going to be foundational, not only in my children’s development, but also in my own as a parent. Over a decade later now, one thing that has stuck with me from those early days is being part of a community that believed infants are resourceful and competent. Teachers trusted that even the youngest learners knew what and how they wanted to learn, and they were committed to creating spaces where children could explore their curiosities. They had created a community of care that began with listening to their students.

Building that sense of connection with students is no less important as they grow. Particularly now, educators need to prioritize listening to learners. The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted what school looks like and more clearly revealed the deeply entrenched systemic inequities in school systems. There is no doubt that schools need to change, and in some ways the current crisis in education has provided a new starting point for learners. Going back to what “normal” used to be is not safe or supportive for many students. At the same time, we cannot presume to know what every student is experiencing or needs right now.

For example, at a time when so many adults are decrying “learning loss” and imperfect homework assignments, we have only to listen to students to hear that there may be a lot going well in education right now. YouthTruth’s Spring 2020 survey, which included 20,000 students from 166 schools in nine states, asked students about their experiences learning at home and how their schools could help. True, students struggled with distractions at home, stress with having to care for family members, and staying motivated with fewer opportunities to connect with their friends and teachers. But it wasn’t all bad. Some students appreciated having the flexibility to learn at their own pace, take breaks when they need to, exercise more, and be closer to their families. Students spoke to how they were learning to care for their own wellbeing and for the wellbeing of others, to manage their time under different constraints, and their desire for greater agency in how they learn.

Some things I like about learning at home is having a bit more flexibility with how I learn and being able to work at my own pace. I hope we will be able to work more at our own pace next year.

A student on what they like about distance learning, YouthTruth's report

Care is foundational to agency. We want learners to be able to lead with their curiosities, to delight in their discovery of ideas, to feel a sense of accomplishment when they collectively shape new ways of knowing and doing with others. Agency becomes possible when learners are in an environment where they are heard, recognized, and appreciated for who they are and what they inherently bring to expand our minds and hearts. Caring relationships can help validate learners’ experiences and build trust, so that they can feel free to take risks in exploring new connections and relationships.[1] That trust and connection are key to 21st century learning.

Nell Noddings writes about the mutual benefits of caring relationships. “Caring implies a continuous search for competence. When we care, we want to do our very best for the objects of our care.”[2] Learners in caring relationships open up about their interests and needs, which gives teachers meaningful insight into what they can do to be more responsive. This may go beyond the lesson plan, textbook, or even a teacher’s disciplinary expertise, and caring teachers are deeply motivated to help students navigate their different learning trajectories.

Educational systems, not just classrooms, must also be rooted in care in equitable ways. In their session at the 2020 Open Education Conference, Maha Bali and Mia Zamora began that conversation by asking the audience: “What is care without equity?” and “What is equity without care?” In their exploration of these questions with the community, they surfaced how care intersects with the systemic and structural dimensions of schooling. Equity without care might result in tokenism or going through the motions of inclusion without doing the work to listen, connect, and create space for compassion. Care without equity is the burden that many teachers carry when they give beyond what they are compensated for in time, resources, and emotional labor in trying to fix what the system has failed to address. Together, care and equity have the power to move us toward social justice, where the needs and interests of individuals and communities are recognized and supported in policies and practices.

Centering care and equity in learning

So what would it look like if we rebuilt schools to center learning around care and equity? As a starting point, students would engage with lessons and texts that incorporate their experiences, languages, and cultures. They would have opportunities to read stories created by authors who reflect the diversity of their communities and grapple collectively with challenges that are relevant in their lives. With our work in open education at Hewlett, we are curious to explore how open educational resources (OER) can be more engaging and responsive from their design to their application in classrooms.

To be transformative, learning experiences would need to intentionally address systemic injustices by ensuring that students, whose voices have been left out or marginalized, are part of the decision making about what they are learning and how they want to learn.[3] These students would be invited to bring their experiences to co-design or facilitate lessons. Activities would incorporate opportunities for sharing new knowledge and ideas with families and communities. Assessments would include time reflection about what progress looks like from students’ perspectives.

Schools also would need to prioritize relationships to support these kinds of interactions in the classroom.[4] Relationship-centered schools incorporate structures (schedules, small learning communities) that enable educators to get to know students, collaborate with each other, and engage families in collaborative decision making around teaching and learning. Teachers, students, and families have multiple opportunities to inform school governance policies and practices. Relationship-centered schools also would incorporate policies to ensure teachers receive compensation for the extra time they are taking to learn about their students and families, for example, through home visits.

To truly center learning around care requires a commitment to rooting out racial and economic inequities at all levels that diminish the potential of learners and the contributions of educators. As Bettina Love says, “For equity work to work, it must be handed to the community. We have to actually trust the people we say we want to empower to make structural changes, not just tinker at the edges of injustice.” This begins with listening to students, particularly Black, Brown, and Indigenous learners, and trusting in their wisdom to guide the changes that are needed to demonstrate care and equity in our classrooms, schools, and education systems.

[1] Jagers, R.J., Rivas-Drake, D., & Williams, B. (2019). Transformative Social and Emotional Learning (SEL): Toward SEL in Service of Educational Equity and Excellence, Educational Psychologist, 54:3, 162-184, DOI: 10.1080/00461520.2019.1623032

[2] Noddings, N. (1995). Teaching themes of care. The Phi Delta Kappan, 76(9), 675-679.

[3] Bali, M., Cronin, C., & Jhangiani, R. S. (2020). Framing Open Educational Practices from a Social Justice Perspective. Journal of Interactive Media in Education, 2020(1), 10. DOI: http://doi.org/10.5334/jime.565

[4] Darling-Hammond, L., Schachner, A., & Edgerton, A. K. (with Badrinarayan, A., Cardichon, J., Cookson, P. W., Jr., Griffith, M., Klevan, S., Maier, A., Martinez, M., Melnick, H., Truong, N., Wojcikiewicz, S.). (2020). Restarting and reinventing school: Learning in the time of COVID and beyond. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute.

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