Why caring for is so much more than caring about

Last week, I wrote about why education has largely eschewed the feminine and failed to  fully embrace the relational side of teaching. But in some educational pockets, I see hope in the renewed focus on care in schools. See, for example, Harvard’s Making Caring Common. This represents a wonderful trend, moving towards more humanizing practices in spaces that are too often treated like assembly lines. However, there are different kinds of care, and they are not equivalent. And I am afraid that the much easier to practice, but much less-impactful form of care is the one that will dominate education reforms.  

Building on Nel Noddings, Angela Valenzuela distinguishes aesthetic care from authentic care in schools. Aesthetic care is what Noddings would call caring as a virtue, or caring about someone (as you would an object). It is a general state of being, an attitude, akin to being nice. It’s not inherently negative, but it can be performative. I can look like I am caring when I do not get angry, when I treat everyone the same, when I smile. Many of us, and perhaps particularly women, have been socialized to be this type of caring. We have learned to walk with a soft step, to avoid controversial topics, to do what we are told, to show that we care about issues, about how we look, about living things. Performing aesthetic care can make us look good to others. But that does not mean we have learned how to care for others.

Some displays of aesthetic care can be useful in schools. For example, when a teacher stands at the classroom door every day to greet students as they enter the room with a smile on their face, it can make students feel welcome, appreciated, or even seen for that brief moment. It does not require much of the teacher to do this – they do not have to know anything about their individual students to perform this daily ritual – but it can set the tone for the class. The class can feel like a caring one. And this matters, but it is not enough.

The teacher who cares about students is also likely the one who is arrives on time everyday, always follows school rules and procedures, and never challenges administrators or district mandates. It is the teacher who knows every student’s name but maybe does not pronounce them all correctly. It is the teacher who is always nice to students, but may not challenge them academically. It is the teacher who performs small acts of care (see above), but is not available to students when they need extra help on an assignment, when they need an adult to talk to about a personal issue, or when they need someone to advocate for them. From the outside, aesthetic care looks good. And maybe it is better than no care at all. But it does not foster the deep and meaningful bonds that many of our students need.

On the other hand, there is authentic care. This is a genuine and critical form of care, what Noddings would call caring as relation. Authentic care necessitates getting to know another so you can care for them. It is active, requires deep engagement and understanding, sparks reciprocity, and involves reflection and vulnerability – because being personally authentic sometimes requires risks. Those who care authentically practice what they preach and often expect a lot of themselves and others. The exchange of such care might be challenging sometimes, but it is truly rewarding because it is real. The most natural example I can give for this type of care is that found in parenting. But while our most potent expression of authentic caring might be reserved for our children – as an extension of ourselves – we can all find ways to extend authentic care beyond our homes.

In the classroom, the teacher who enacts authentic care gets to know students as whole people – learning about their families, cultures, interests, hobbies, learning challenges, hopes, dreams, and fears. It is the teacher who opens their classroom during lunch to offer respite to students; who holds high expectations for all students and helps them reach these with in-class and after-class support; who connects with parents/guardians to support and encourage students; who shares pieces of themselves with students, too. The teacher who cares for students is also the teacher who is kind, but may not always be “nice” – they are willing to push students to achieve, ignore a school discipline policy in order to keep a student in-class (even when they have briefly displayed defiance or brought in forbidden food), design culturally responsive curricula when the district has mandated a white-washed canonical course, or passionately advocate for students when they are apprehended by a school resource officer for a trivial infraction. The teacher who cares for their students is willing to fight for them.

I know from personal experience that teachers are already saddled with more responsibilities than they can handle. But I would say that if they had to prioritize, authentic care for their students should come first. Because from that, everything else will follow. When students are cared for by teachers, they are engaged in the academic content, feel safer in the classroom, and have better academic and life outcomes. Caring for students is so much more than caring about them.

As human beings, we do not always have the energy to care for those around us. It’s so much easier just to care about people, things, issues. But when we can, we should try to practice authentic care, because all of us can benefit from the more meaningful human connections that ensue – both in and out of classrooms.