A few years ago, I transitioned from teaching elementary students to being in a middle school setting. I had to overcome many challenges with this move; however, the most difficult task proved to be with discipline. Going from a classroom full of eager students who, for the most part, wanted to act appropriately, to seven classes full of preadolescent middle school students, made me reflect on my teaching style and personal desire to see my students flourish in all aspects of life. I knew I had some work to do.
One of my students had a bad reputation among all teachers and administration. She was unruly, would dismiss any demands to act appropriately, and did not care if she was admitted to in-school detention or got suspended. One day I approached her about excessive tardiness in my classroom. As she began to yell her explanation, I quietly asked her to step outside. She immediately stomped out as I followed her silently.
Once out of her peers’ earshot, I calmy asked her, in a preadolescent tone, “What is your deal? Why do you always act this way?”
As her breathing slowed and her voice lowered, she said, “These people don’t know me. They don’t know what I’ve been through. They don’t know what I’ve seen in my life.”
Those statements settled heavily on my heart, and I made it my mission to show her that I cared about her and wanted her to succeed. I took advice from a well-known researcher of caring in the classroom, Nel Noddings, who believes the act of caring goes far beyond just a warm, fuzzy feeling. Further, see feels that humans have a variety of needs, including expressed needs, inferred needs, internal needs, and overwhelming needs (Noddings, 2012). From my observations and discussions with my student, I realized that she demonstrated an overwhelming need for love and safety stemming from emotional wounds from neglect.
Building a Caring Relationship
To accomplish my mission, I needed to model what care looked like, incorporate dialogue about care, allow her to practice caring, and provide confirmation when she demonstrated caring behaviors toward others. The following steps can help guide you through the art of building a caring relationship with your students:
- Model: Create caring relations with students and provide caring experiences.
- Dialogue: Provide a safe space for students to open up about personal opinions, challenges, and/or beliefs to encourage a caring relationship.
- Practice: What does care look like? Provide opportunities for students to practice caring toward others.
- Confirm: Provide confirmation to students who demonstrate caring relations with their peers or other adults through various positive reinforcement methods such as: Coupons for Care, Caught Doing Good certificates, going to the Treasure Chest, and so on.
Teachers can promote a caring community by allowing all students in the classroom to get to know one another. Setting the tone at the beginning of the academic year by providing experiences in which students get to know one another’s likes, dislikes, hobbies, and so on, allows students to know each other on a personal level. Allowing students to share personal experiences of bullying or self-esteem issues might foster new friendships. Initiating dialogue to express caring words at the beginning of school to encourage care in the classroom will set a positive tone for the rest of the school year. Practicing how to care is an appropriate way of becoming the one caring.
Some examples of practice can be group work activities, team-building games, leadership opportunities, or community service. The act of confirmation is an uplifting tool in bettering the other. It builds trust between the one caring and the one being cared for. Contacting parents or guardians about their child’s encouraging behavior is a great way of showing confirmation. I firmly believe in calling home with positive reports! Overall, providing opportunities to demonstrate care and allowing students to practice caring could have a domino effect in your classroom and promote a generally positive, safe, and enriching learning environment.
You might wonder if I ever built a connection with my student, and the answer to that is yes. She taught me to ask questions, demonstrate care, and treat my students as real people with real feelings and real issues. In fact, our relationship experience became the focus for my dissertation study, which I dedicated to her. My advice to you is to go beyond the warm smile or high-five and get to know your students on a personal level. They just might surprise you!
By Kelli Smith
Dr. Smith is an Assistant Professor of Elementary Education at Auburn University at Montgomery (AUM). She teaches courses on literacy education, foundations in education, and education psychology. She is passionate about building positive teacher–student relationships.
Noddings, N. (2012). The language of care ethics. Knowledge Quest, 40