Last week I had the occasion to discuss the question of teacher quality with a small group of intelligent, well-spoken New York City high school students, assembled as part of the Urban Youth Collective program of NYU’s Institute for Education and Social Policy. The students were all members of community based organizations, participating in a summer seminar to learn how to organize around improving their education. In the course of our dialogue, the students responded to a question of how they would identify a quality teacher by highlighting the importance of a teacher “really caring” about them and their academic success. After our conversation, I had some time to reflect on what was said, and still remained to be said, on the subject of “caring teachers.” Those reflections are, I think, worth sharing.
In focusing upon the importance of a teacher “caring,” the students’ expressed not only their own sentiments, but a significant finding in the educational research. From a number of different perspectives, educational practitioners and researchers from Deborah Meier and Nel Noddings to Anthony Byrk and Andy Hargreaves have affirmed the importance of a strong caring and mentoring relationship, based on respect and trust, between teacher and student. “Caring” is not, of course, a substitute for teacher command of pedagogy or teacher knowledge of subject material, but it is central to building sustained motivation and commitment to hard work in students. A “caring teacher” and a “caring school community” are especially important, it seems, for students who are struggling in school and for students of color and students living in poverty working to overcome the achievement gap.
Yet much of the educational literature dedicated to the topic of “caring” in teachers is ultimately unsatisfactory, I have found. The most tireless advocate of an ethic of educational care, Nel Noddings, develops the idea as a moral imperative, something a teacher should do because she is a moral person. Whether this ethical conception is a function of Noddings own training as an educational philosopher, or the fact that she first developed the main contours of her idea of “educational caring” from Carol Gilligan’s work on the distinctive psychology of women, one can only speculate. But whatever the source, one is left with the strong impression that a teacher’s “caring” is a matter of individual moral choice, not fundamentally different from the choice an individual faces when she comes upon a person in distress in the street. For Noddings, good teachers, like good people in general, choose to “care” and become involved. And good communities promote this value in their members.
This conception places all of the moral agency, and thus all of the moral responsibility, in the hands of the teacher. Whether or not a teacher is a “caring” teacher is up to the teacher, and the teacher alone. No actions taken by any other actors — politicians and elected officials, school district officials, school administrators, parents and students — have a meaningful effect on the individual choice of the teacher to “care” about her students.
It is this contention which must be challenged.
No one enters teaching in the United States to become wealthy or powerful. Rather, individuals choose to become teachers out of sense of vocation, of a calling, to nurture and care for young people by providing them with an education. In its 2000 study A Sense of Calling: Who Teaches and Why, Public Agenda found that 96% of new teachers reported that they went into teaching because “it is work they love to do,” that 75% called teaching “a life-long choice,” and that another 68% said that they received a “lot of satisfaction” from teaching. A bare 12% fit the profile of a “non-caring teacher,” someone who “fell into teaching by chance.” Yet after five years, the National Center for Education Statistics reports, 1 out of every 2 new teachers has left the profession. In urban school districts like New York City, the attrition rate is even greater. Something rather dramatic, one might even say traumatic, is happening to caring new teachers in those first few years of teaching.
When asked why they leave are leaving teaching, new teachers tell a tale of being overwhelmed by the demands of a job that often seems impossible, of not receiving support or mentoring from the district or their school administrators, of a complete lack of respect on the part of the district and school administrators for their professional judgment and of chaotic schools which are neither safe nor conducive to education. And while they never expected to get rich at teaching, new teachers were still stunned at the extraordinary disconnect between the difficulty of the job and the rate of compensation for it. While they sacrifice to teach, they don’t how they are going to pay for the college educations of their own children.
We have various names we give to the sort of process these leaving teachers have undergone; perhaps the most common is “burn out.” Teachers “burn out” not simply because the job is so demanding, although the work of an inner city teacher is right next to that of urban police on a stress scale. They “burn out” because the conditions in which they labor making effective caring — that is, caring which results in positive changes — so difficult to accomplish. Consider the typical school day for a high school or a middle school teacher in an urban school district like New York City. She teaches five different classes, with each class filled close to the contractual maximum of 34 students. In any given day, she can see anywhere from 160 to 170 different students. [The DOE apparently thinks this is not enough, as it has proposed adding a sixth class to high schools as a “productivity improvement” in the current round of negotiations.] And in an urban setting, many of those students bring extraordinary needs — academic, social and personal — to the classroom. How many of those students will the teacher have the opportunity to actually know well? With how many of those students will the teacher be able to establish a meaningful mentoring relationship? And with how many of those students would a “caring teacher” be able to effectuate positive academic and personal change? We place our teachers into a system of educational mass production in front of an educational assembly line, and tell them they should be educational artisans, caring deeply about the unique qualities of every single child.
It is instructive to contemplate the frames and metaphors that urban teachers often employ to describe their work under such conditions. One of the more common frames is triage, the battlefield or hospital emergency room practice of selecting from among the wounded those who can be saved by immediate intervention. That urban teachers should see their work in such a context speaks volumes. It tells us that they believe their work is absolutely essential and life saving, but that they perform this labor in a context where their students are destroyed faster than they can save them. The best they can accomplish is to save as many as possible.
Such conditions have an effect on the capacity to “care.” I am reminded here of the historical studies on the different conceptions of infancy and childhood in the pre-modern and modern West. Before the improvements in nutrition, living conditions and medical care brought by modernity, infant death was the rule, rather than the exception. Faced with the likelihood that a new-born infant would not live, pre-modern parents developed a rather different relationship to their young from the one we moderns have come to see as normal, a relationship which emotionally protected them against the possibility of loss. Only in the modern era, when infant death became the exception, did parents begin to make extraordinary emotional investments in infants even before their birth. Why should teachers, working under conditions which make “effective caring” so difficult, be any less susceptible to forms of emotional distancing than pre-modern parents?
Indeed, what is remarkable, given these circumstances, is how many teachers refuse to surrender against such odds, how many teachers insist upon taking an existential stand, each and every day, to save as many students as they can, how many teachers continue to “care,” even when their caring under these conditions breaks their hearts, again and again. What is unforgivable is the elected officials and district officials who point to such heroic work, and say that “the problem is that all our teachers are not made of such stuff.” They are generals who say, from safety far behind the front lines, “we could win this war, if only the entire army were made of soldiers who will fall on a grenade to save their comrades.”
When we attribute all moral agency and all moral choice to “care” to the teacher, we ignore the moral agency and the moral responsibility of those who have the power and the ability to change the conditions under which teachers labor — especially, the politicians and the elected officials, the school district officials and the school administrators. Far too often, they choose to “not care” about the conditions that make the “caring” of teachers effective. Above all else in this decision to “not care,” it must be said, is the refusal to provide urban schools with the essential resources needed to educate the young people in their care. These are “other people’s children,” and treated as such.
But there is also more. There are ways to organize education which increase the capacity for efficacious caring, which support teachers who care. Part of the great promise of the small school movement was that it would create democratic educational institutions on a human scale, schools in which teachers and students could come to know each other well, and work together closely. What was important was not so much the size of the school itself, especially if that feature were understood in isolation, but the democratic and collaborative culture of the school. The democratic vision of the small school movement was centered on an educational relationship between teacher and student in which teacher caring was supported and made effective. This vision is in danger of being lost in New York City, I am afraid, in the current mad rush to mass produce for political effect new small schools by the scores every year. Far too many new small schools are being staffed with inexperienced school leaders given to autocratic styles of governance and with entirely novice staffs struggling to learn how to teach at the very time that they are taking on the most challenging task of a professional career, starting a new school. Worse, far too many new small schools are becoming what Michelle Fine once called, in a wonderful turn of phrase which captured the development so well, “big schools in drag.” A small school placed in a terribly overcrowded school building, a small school with large classes, a small school which schedules teachers for five classes of 30+ plus students a day, a small school bereft of collaborative relationships among all of the educators and between the educators and the parents, is no great educational achievement or advance. Small surprise, then, that many of the founders and leaders of the small schools movement are now questioning what is being done in its name.
But the democratic vision of the small schools movement, and the powerful example of the first schools it created, reminds us that we know how to support effective teacher caring, if we choose to do so. The problem is not with the teachers. It is with the political will of those who create the conditions in which teachers labor.