Embracing the Feminine and Centering Care in Schools

In her renowned book Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics & Moral Education, Nel Noddings laid out an argument for the importance of care in schools – for students, for teachers, for society. By focusing on compassionate human relationships within the classroom, she argued, we would prepare more ethical, thoughtful, and caring citizens. But 36 years later, our education system has failed to center care, largely because it has refused to embrace the “feminine.”

Since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) nearly 20 years ago, schools have increasingly focused on production – measuring their students in standardized test scores – to the detriment of the human side of education. NCLB, and the subsequent Race to the Top legislation, exacerbated the emphasis on “hard skills” and quantifiable outcomes in schools. Many have written about the human cost of these reforms. But the truth is, K-12 schools – and colleges of education – were already neglecting the “soft skills” needed in teaching and learning, likely because of their association with “women’s work.”

I have written elsewhere about the gendered history of teaching, and the way that has influenced the status of the profession. Because teaching already wields less status in society than other jobs requiring similar levels of higher education, I believe that many people working within this field experience an inferiority complex. I’m not necessarily talking about teachers, though. Instead, I think this inferiority complex is more obvious among  those who have chosen to leave teaching or not to teach at all in favor of working around schools in educational policy, administration, and academia. Because the farther people get from the classroom, the easier it is to convince themselves that education should be treated as a business, the easier it is to forget that what makes this profession special.

Within schools of education, those specialties focused on teachers – namely, teacher education – have been relegated to the bottom of the status hierarchy. Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), for example, has focused heavily on preparing administrators, policymakers, and educational psychologists (the educational professions that make more money) to the detriment of their small and withering teacher education programs. It seemed to me that this was because HGSE, too, desired to make itself more masculine, more aligned with the professions of business, law, and medicine (the most “prestigious” graduate schools within this hallowed university). In fact, during my seven years at this large and preeminent institution, there was not a single professor on faculty whose primary research focus was teacher education .[i]

In other university contexts, scholars of teacher education have struggled to assert their legitimacy. One of the ways they have attempted to do so is by emphasizing the so-called “cognitive” aspects of teaching. These include topics like pedagogical content knowledge, child psychology, and alignment with state and national standards. While these are no doubt important topics, the result of the relentless drum beat of “hard skills” is the continuing suppression of the feminine, the nurturing, the relational. This means that many teachers may enter schools without having learned much of anything about forming relationships with their students – a distinct disadvantage in this innately human profession.

I believe there is hope, however. In recent years, several prominent scholars in education have sought to shift the focus of the profession back to the human beings at the center of this whole educational endeavor. Most of these scholars are people of color – including Gloria Ladson-Billings, Jeffery Duncan-Andrade, Geneva Gay, Ernest Morrell, Tyrone Howard, and Angela Valenzuela – who have argued that if teachers (most of whom are white) are going to adequately serve the students in our schools today (most of whom are people of color), they must get to know and care for them. Others within and beyond academia have taken up the call to support social and emotional learning (SEL) among students, driving efforts to consider what SEL means for teachers, too. And even HGSE now has a project that emphasizes care in schools.

But we still have a long way to go. Because within this largely female profession, that which is considered feminine has suffered. But we should not be afraid to embrace the relational side of teaching, for it is the heart of the work. And if we fail to center meaningful teacher-student relationships, we miss opportunities to prepare better teachers, support better schools, model meaningful connections in the classroom, and build a better world through care.

[i] HGSE has since hired a teacher education faculty member, and has created a new Harvard Teaching Fellows program for Harvard seniors. But to me, these read as incremental steps as opposed to fundamental shifts.