If I asked you to tell me what you remembered most about your favorite teacher growing up, I bet you wouldn’t say much about the subject matter. Instead, I’d expect you to describe how he or she made you feel as you learned that subject matter—the sense of excitement or discovery you felt, or the safety to take chances and make mistakes, or the confidence that you were valued as a human being, warts and all.
According to research, few factors in education have a greater impact on a student’s educational experience than a caring relationship with his or her teacher.
One researcher described it this way: Imagine two teachers teaching the same lesson on poetic construction. One is very impatient with students and the other supportive. Knowing only that, we can probably guess which students learned the lesson better.
Science has found that students who have caring relationships with teachers are academically more successful and showgreater “pro-social” (or kind, helpful) behavior. A caring teacher can transform the school experience especially for students who face enormous difficulties, such as dropping out or dysfunctional home lives. One student who faced these kinds of hardships told a researcher that the greatest thing a teacher can do is to care and to understand. “Because if not,” he said, “the kid will say, ‘Oh, they’re giving up on me, so I might as well give up on myself.’”
Fortunately, research has identified practical tips for teachers to help them build caring relationships with students. Here are some of the tips I find most important:
1) Get to know your students and the lives they live. This is especially important if your students are from a different cultural or socio-economic background than you. Numerous studies have shown that cultural misunderstanding between teachers and students can have a hugely negative impact on students’ educational experience. But research has also shown that teachers who visit students’ homes and spend time in their communities develop a deep awareness of students’ challenges and needs and are better able to help them.
If your time is limited, then ask students to complete an “interest inventory,” which can be as simple as having students write down their five favorite things to do. Their responses will give you ideas for making the curriculum more relevant to their lives—a sure method for letting students know you care about them.
2) Actively listen to students. A teacher who actively listens to students is listening for the meaning behind what students are saying, then checks in with them to make sure they’ve understood properly. This affirms students’ dignity and helps develop a trusting relationship between teachers and students.
If the chaos of the classroom doesn’t allow you to give this kind of focused listening to a student who really needs it, then set a time to talk when there are fewer distractions.
3) Ask students for feedback. Choose any topic—it doesn’t have to be academic—and have students write down, in a couple of sentences, what confuses or concerns them most about the topic. By considering their feedback, you are showing students that you value their opinions and experiences. It also creates a classroom culture where students feel safe to ask questions and take chances, which will help them grow academically.
4) Reflect on your own experience with care. Oftentimes, we unconsciously care for others the way we have been cared for—for better or worse. When one researcher interviewed four different teachers at the same school who all shared one particular student, she found that each teacher cared for the student in the way she had been cared for as a child. It didn’t even occur to the teachers to ask the parents—or the child himself—what the child’s needs might be. Instead, they made assumptions about the child’s background based on their own childhoods; as a result, the child received four different types of care—which may not necessarily have been appropriate to his/her needs.
Reflecting on how you were cared for or not cared for as a child will give you insight into the kind of care you might be extending to your students, and allow you to adjust your care to fit their needs.
As teachers, we often don’t realize how even the smallest caring gesture can have a huge impact on our students. As evidence, I’d like to share the story of Sam, a high school student from south central Los Angeles who had transferred high schools three times before being interviewed by researchers for a study.
After years of feeling uncared for in school, Sam was very surprised when he received a phone call at home from his current school’s office, wanting to know why he was absent that day. His other schools, he said, never called to check on him. A small act of caring—but here’s how Sam said it made him feel:
When they call my house if I’m not here, they’re real friendly. My auntie has an answering machine, and sometimes I’ll hear a voice start to leave a message like ‘Hi Sam. If you’re there, we’re wondering why you’re not in school today…’ If I hear that, I pick up the phone and explain why I’m not there. And they believe me.They trust me, so I trust them.