Learning does not come first. First comes caring…

beach flower

I’ve been thinking a lot (more) about the role of caring in teaching – and ultimately learning. Caring is a word we toss around without really considering its meaning. Even your bank cares about you. Or your insurance agent. Or your grocery store. But, what about a teacher who cares?

Let me start with a little bit of a back story. As I have noted here before, I started my higher ed career as a nursing educator. I started teaching at a time in my life when I was barely clear on my own nursing expertise (we’ll save a discussion of the wisdom of that for another post). Nursing was/is an interesting profession. Then (and I would imagine now) there was a great deal of conversation (read that debate) over what exactly it is that nursing contributes to health care that is different and unique – thereby necessitating advanced education. We nurses spend a lot of time talking about what we bring that is NOT medicine, or PT, or OT, or you name any number of other health care professions. So reader, let me toss it out to YOU: What exactly IS it that nurses do? See. You get the picture. Some nurses claim caring as that special and unique thing. I won’t quibble over that here. The point is that engaging in the caring dialogue from years gone by introduced me to some thinkers/thinking about caring that I might otherwise have missed.

Like lately, since I have been seeing this thread of caring woven into so many conversations about teaching and learning (some examples a little later) I had occasion to pull out a book we had students in our nursing program read as an entre’ to their understanding and embrace of their nursing-as-caring mandate: Milton Mayeroff’s piece ‘On Caring’ was so worth pulling out and re-reading – given its relevance to an education context. When I read it last, I was thinking in the context of nurse caring for (and about) the ill, or the vulnerable. Now I’m thinking about the teacher caring for (and about) their ideas, discipline (enough to want to share it with others) and caring for (and about) the students (learners) they are sharing with.

In both instances, some of the caring ‘essence’ that Mayeroff writes is the same:

To care for another person, in the most significant sense, is to help him grow and actualize himself. (I’ll say more about this as I thoughtfully make my way through the book again…but in a future post).

And this further from Mayeroff:

From a loose stringing together of ideas, a tight fabric emerges; ideas intertwine and tend to reinforce each other, making for a mutual deepening of meaning and a gain in precision. With the growth of an idea comes a deeper understanding of what its basic assumptions are, what it can and cannot do, and a clearer sense of what is relevant and irrelevant for its future development.

So, there are important caring relationships when it comes to teaching and learning:

Caring for/about ideas

It seems like this goes without saying. I appreciate the way Mayeroff points out the importance of devotion as essential to caring. He writes:

…it is through devotion that caring for this other acquires substance and its own particular character; caring develops in the process of overcoming obstacles and difficulties…devotion is shown by …being ‘there’ for the other…it [devotion] is shown by my consistency, which expresses itself in persistence under unfavorable conditions, and in my willingness to overcome difficulties.

I’m thinking here about what a faculty member goes through to become a subject matter expert in their chosen field. They most certainly experienced unfavorable conditions but overcame those to reach a classroom and stand before it as teacher. So, caring deeply for one’s discipline and wanting to share that by teaching another seems implied. Can we always assume that? I’m not sure. Should we always assume that? I would like to.

Caring for ‘the other’

To help another person grow is at least to help him to care for something or someone apart from himself, and it involves encouraging and assisting him to find and create areas of his own in which he is able to care…learning is to be thought of primarily as the re-creation of one’s own person through the integration of new experiences and ideas, rather than as the mere addition of information and technique”.

Wow. Let that gem from Mayeroff sink in a bit. I wonder how often we as educators give any thought at all to whether we are helping our students learn to care – about themselves, about learning. Do we?

Ingredients of caring:

Mayeroff (pp. 19-35) offers these interesting ingredients of caring:

  1. Knowing – One important reason, perhaps, for our failure to realize how much knowing there is in caring is our habit sometimes of restricting knowledge arbitrarily to what can be verbalized.

  2. Alternating rhythms – I must be able to learn from my past…there are times when I do not inject myself into the situation…rhythm of moving back and forth between a narrower and a wider framework…wider connections within a larger framework…

  3. Patience – …not waiting passively for something to happen, but is a kind of participation with the other in which we give fully of ourselves. Patience includes tolerance of a certain amount of confusion and floundering.

  4. Honesty -I must see myself as I am; I must see what I am doing and whether what I am doing helps or hinders the growth of the other.

  5. Trust -The teacher must trust his ability to provide a climate friendly to learning.

  6. Humility – …caring involves continuous learning about the other…

  7. Hope – …is an expression of the plenitude of the present, a present alive with a sense of the possible.

  8. Courage – …going into the unknown…following the lead of the subject matter…informed by insight from past experience…

A thing [ingredient] that I might add to this list of ingredients is ‘presence‘ (I’ve written about before).

Further, Mayeroff (pp. 39-50) describes what he terms ‘illuminating aspects’ of caring:

  1. Self-actualization through caring – there is a selflessness…

  2. Primacy of process – work with what we have from where we are
    (I hear Teddy Roosevelt there!) 😉

  3. Abilities to care and be cared for – I must be ‘up to’ caring- willing and able

  4. The constancy of the other – caring is a developmental process
    (there’s that word again – p-r-o-c-e-s-s)

  5. Guilt in caring – In caring, I commit myself…I hold myself out as someone who can be depended on…

  6. Reciprocation – Caring may or may not be reciprocated. Things cannot respond to me as I respond to them; their ‘personality’ has largely been given to them by me.

  7. Caring as a matter of degree within limits – Caring is compatible with a certain amount of blundering and lapse in interest and sensitivity to the other’s needs…
    ( We will make mistakes)

Examples/Enactments of Caring

How this all plays out in actual practice is something I think about a lot…looking for patterns of conversation and teaching and ways of being in the classroom that evince those ingredients and illuminating aspects. Of course, caring expressions vary from teacher to teacher. And I should note that some of my own personal biases definitely color how I perceive what I see happening. (For example, I bristle when colleagues start to bemoan ‘students these days’ and list their own pre-conceived judgmental measures of acceptable student behavior. I cannot abide it. I usually don’t respond very well to such conversations. Lists of ‘things that drive your professor crazy’ and syllabi full of prohibitions and negative presumptions that set the bar of expectation at the lowest possible level do NOT – at least in my opinion – express caring.

Rather, the reverse is the kind of classroom environment (and relationship) I hope for. Rob Jenkins writes about that ‘unconditional positive regard‘. He quotes Madeline Hunter:

Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

And they lead me to the inevitable conclusion: If any given teacher/educator does not care – then why stand up in a classroom?

Further, I have written here before about things like the relational, reciprocal nature of teaching and learning. Caring really is the thing that makes those relations possible and genuine. It’s the glue that holds the relationships together. Nel Noddings writes:

I do not mean to suggest that the establishment of caring relations will accomplish everything that must be done in education, but these relations provide the foundation for successful pedagogical activity.

I want to point out some evidence of caring – including the key ingredients Mayeroff proposes- I have noted as shared in the work of a few colleagues. These practitioners of caring inspire a sense of hope and optimism for me that transformation of education can indeed happen. The ‘system’ is in fact NOT beyond hope. Look for the caring ingredients and illuminating aspects Mayeroff proposes in the work of these few selected of my colleagues I have been fortunate to discover – and follow – who do, fill me with hope – for all of the best possible changes in the way we do ‘education’:

(I should probably go ahead and apologize ahead of time for the inevitable and unintended omissions that are a danger of enumerating a list of examples like this):

  1. Michelle Pacansky-Brock has been teaching us about ‘humanizing‘ for a while now. She talks about things like presence and empathy. Yes.
  2. If you have followed the work of Michael Wesch at all, you know that his recent sharing of his teaching notebook is a beautiful continuation of his work and writing about ‘soul making‘.
  3. Ken Bain describes the ‘passionate and compassionate concern‘ that excellent teachers hold for their students.
  4. Would anyone argue that Maha Bali LIVES as a personification of caring – each and every day? This post of her especially resonates with me – where her own self-examination can serve as an example for all of us with regard to our understanding of ‘the other’ that Mayeroff speaks of: Which Kind of Change is Most Human?
  5. Finally, I’ll suggest that caring is at the very heart of what Cathy Davidson describes in her wonderful series on Designing a Student-Centered Classroom series over at HASTAC. So much goodness in that writing that rests solidly on the foundation of the elements offered by Mayeroff (at least in my humble opinion).

Okay, I’ll stop there. As usual, this has become a ramble and has grown much long than I expected. There is much more to say…and I won’t promise there will or won’t be future posts. But, suffice it to say that caring – and caring pedagogy – are important topics and things I will continue to observe and look for patterns of.


2 thoughts on “Learning does not come first. First comes caring…

  1. This was beautiful Cindy. Agree and learned a lot. Looking forward to discussing further with you.
    And I am humbled and touched by what you said about me

  2. Maha,
    Thank you for reading! I learn so much from you – especially giving care for others. I am so grateful to have made a connection with you. I have no idea how or when it first happened, but it is truly one of those things about connections made (on the Internet) that cannot be explained…only lived.

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