Caring Guides Teacher Engagement

Literature over the last 30 years has increasingly documented the importance of supportive student-teacher relationships to improving student motivation, learning, and achievement (Davis, 2003). Research suggests caring, or supportive, teachers create qualitatively different classroom environments that feel warm, encourage student to behave in social responsible ways, and emphasize learning over performing. Students who perceive their teachers as caring tend to engage more with the content, take intellectual risks, and persist in the face of failure. Children who had caring, supportive teachers early in their schooling tend to evidence more adaptive academic and behavioral outcomes up through junior high school. Moreover, junior and senior high school students who perceive their teachers as caring are more likely to connect with classroom content and less likely to dropout of high school. Emerging from this literature are three different ways to think about what it means to be a caring teacher.

Caring Guides Teacher Engagement

Aaron Ben-Ze'ev thinks about care as reflecting an emotion state that motivates teachers to engage in different caring behaviors. From this perspective, the emotion of care arises as a function of teachers' making four distinct judgments about their students. These judgments, in turn, can result in them engaging in caring versus uncaring behaviors.

First, in order to care about a student, a teacher must judge the relationship to be important. However, judging importance is merely the first step in moving teachers from feeling care toward engaging in caring behavior. To engage in caring behavior, teachers must believe that without action their goals (either personal or instructional) might be undermined. They must believe they are in control, or responsible and they must judge themselves to be capable of managing the relationship. Within this framework for care, teachers can think about how they create boundaries, either implicitly or explicitly, around what they will care about. Teachers may consider which relationships they care the most about, whether they care equally for all students, and when they struggle to interact with a child do they care about the failure to try to understand what happened and to modify their approach (Muller, Katz, & Dance, 1994).

Caring as a Professional Disposition

Other scholars such as Nel Noddings (1988) and Lisa Goldstein conceptualize caring as a process; that is, something teachers do rather than something they feel. They argue caring is an ethic, or a moral value, that teachers communicate to students through their selection of curriculum, their planning of a lesson, their establishment of classroom norms, and their interactions with students. What teachers choose to teach communicates something to students about the content they care about. The norms


they establish communicate to their students the values they care about and their frequency and quality of interactions with individual students communicates whom they care about. From this perspective, caring is not an entity that exists or does not exist in a classroom. Rather, educators can think of caring as a vector having a direction as well as a force, with teachers exhibiting caring about content, values, and relationships in different ways.

Identifying teacher candidates and socializing the value of caring has become a central task of most teacher preparation programs. Across the literature, several qualities have been identified as epitomizing a caring disposition. Beyond teaching content, caring teachers view schooling as serving either a liberating or marginalizing function. Caring teachers identify the ways in which society, in general, and schools, in particular, maintain existing social structures and incorporate in their lesson plans ways for students to identify these inequities, engage in social critique, and work for change. Caring teachers are oriented towards advocacy for all of their students, regardless of their cultural and economic background. Moreover, they are committed to being systematically and outwardly reflective about their work as caring teachers (E. Davis, 2006). They are so because of the strong connection identified between self-reflection and change. Teachers who are willing to question their own practice in the face of failure, question the usefulness of their beliefs, and view change as a necessary component of growth are viewed as teachers who care about their teaching.

Caring as a Quality Students Perceive in a Relationship

Much literature on caring teachers, however, has less to do with actual teacher caring and more to do with students' perceptions of teacher caring. Table 1 organizes students' perceptions into two dimensions of caring: feeling understood and feeling that understanding is important.

Feeling Understood. First and foremost, students perceive teachers as caring when they make attempts to understand and connect with their students as individuals. Teachers who assume responsibility for developing individual relationships with students and who press them to develop relationships tend to be perceived as

Nurture Yourself 

Successful teachers not only need to care for their students, they need to care for themselves also.

Set aside relaxation time. Include rest and relaxation in your daily schedule. Don't allow other obligations to encroach. This is your time to take a break from all responsibilities and recharge your batteries.

Connect with others. Spend time with positive people who enhance your life. A strong support system will buffer you from the negative effects of stress.

Do something you enjoy every day. Make time for leisure activities that bring you joy, whether it be stargazing, playing the piano, or working on your bike.

Keep your sense of humor. This includes the ability to laugh at yourself. The act of laughing helps your body fight stress in a number of ways.

caring by their students. Caring teachers may employ strategies such as personal disclosure, where they share information about themselves as a way to create space for relationships in the classroom. They cultivate a climate in their classroom where students have an “authentic” voice (Oldfather & McLaughlin, 1993). In contrast, teachers who distance themselves emotionally or develop differential relationships (Babad, 1993), where they favor some students over others, are less likely to be viewed as caring teachers.

Teachers perceived as caring tend to endorse different orientations towards classroom management and establish distinctive types of classroom climates and cultures. Julianne Turner and colleagues (1998) suggest teachers perceived as caring tend to monitor the emotional climate of the classroom–particularly with regard to the experience of unpleasant emotions (i.e. anger, frustration) in themselves and their students. Teachers perceived as uncaring tend to express higher levels of unpleasant emotions and may, in fact, use the expression of unpleasant emotions (i.e. yelling, showing disappointment) as a way to regulate their students' behavior. In contrast, students tend to characterize caring teachers' classrooms as “warm” places. Again, it is not that caring teachers avoid expressing unpleasant emotions in their classroom, but they tend to be judicious about their expression of anger, frustration, and disappointment.

Teachers perceived as caring tend to endorse more humanistic orientations towards classroom management (Willower, Eidell, & Hoy, 1976). Caring teachers view students as able to learn responsibility for self-regulating their own behavior and view themselves as participating in the process of socializing necessary skills and values. The classroom becomes a place in which students learn about the value of rules and rule making and the teacher is a conduit for understanding social order. These classrooms tend to be more supportive of students' autonomy and emphasize the value of social negotiation (DeVries & Zan, 1996; see also Reeve, 2006). In contrast, teachers endorsing more custodial orientations tend to view undisciplined behavior as an indicator of irresponsibility and respond by increasing control and enforcing punitive sanctions. Sadly, a strong emphasis on law or order, without explicit rationales, may leave students feeling manipulated. Teachers perceived as caring do have some custodial elements in their classroom; not everything is negotiable and there are consequences for poor choices. However, caring teachers are willing to negotiate some elements of classroom life, they express clear expectations for students' self-management of behavior, and they are willing to endure somewhat more interpersonal conflict in the classroom.

Caring for All Students

This task of trying to understand students becomes challenging when students and teachers come from different cultural backgrounds. Jacqueline Irvine introduced the concept of cultural synchronization to describe the ways in which conflict is generated in relationships between students of minority backgrounds and their teachers when values, patterns of interaction, and ways of being are not aligned. In two seminal studies, Monroe and Obidah (2004) and Blackburn (2005) identified the ways in which majority teachers and minority students become out of sync with each other by misinterpreting each other's intentions and actions. From this perspective, caring teachers are those who seek to develop cultural competence when interacting with students from different backgrounds (Ladson-Billings, 2001) and strive to understand the perspectives of each student in their classroom.

Students Feel Their Understanding Matters

The perception of caring by students also has a strong instructional component. Teachers perceived as caring delineate intellectual boundaries, including what will be learned and the standards for mastery. Caring teachers are focused on cultivating student interest in the content they are teaching and employ a variety of strategies that connect content to their students' lives. Caring teachers set high expectations for all students in their classes and press their students to understand the material, not merely for the sake of performing on a test but to understand the world around them. Among teachers who push their students to excel, what distinguishes teachers perceived as caring is the quality of their interpersonal interactions with students. Across the literature, caring teachers have been defined as warm demanders, an idea conceived by Judith Kleinfeld (1975). Warm demanders exert influence on their students' learning through their relationship. They are not willing to let a child turn in lesser quality work or fail; instead, with compassion, they express their belief that their students can do better and are willing to work with students to improve their work.

Implications for Teachers

To be caring means to be willing to critically evaluate what and for whom one actively cares. Doing so entails being reflective of whether there is a match or mismatch between the things one cares about and the needs of one's students. To be caring means to be thoughtful about the scope of one's caring—including the extent to which one cares about maintaining or challenging the status quo, representing an authoritative view or allowing student conceptions to be at the forefront, and to create potential for what is personal to mingle with what is academic. To end here, however, would fail to acknowledge a tension in the caring teacher literature in that teachers who care more may be more prone to feeling emotional exhaustion, to becoming burnt out and to leaving the field (Sutton & Wheatley, 2003). Finally, to be a caring teacher inherently means to identify ways to care for oneself (Ben-Ze'ev, 2006); to create healthy intellectual and interpersonal boundaries and to identify sources of support for when the task of caring for a student, or a group of students, is beyond one's resources.


Babad, E. (1993). Teachers' differential behavior. Educational Psychology Review, 5, 347–376.

Ben-Ze'ev, A. (2000). The subtlety of emotions. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Blackburn, M. (2005). Talking together for a change: Examining positioning between teachers and queer youth. In J. A. Vadeboncouer & L. P. Stevens (Eds.) Re-constructing “the adolescent”: Sign, symbol, and body (pp. 250–270). New York: Peter Lang.

Davis, E. A. (2006). Characterizing productive reflection among pre-service elementary teachers. Teaching and Teacher Education, 22, 281–301.

Davis, H. A. (2003). Conceptualizing the role and influence of student-teacher relationships on children's social and cognitive development. Educational Psychologist, 38, 207–234.

Davis, H. A. (2006). Exploring the contexts of relationship quality between middle school students and teachers. The Elementary School Journal: Special Issue on the Interpersonal Contexts of Motivation and Learning, 106, 193–223.

DeVries, R., & Zan, B. (1996). A constructivist perspective on the role of the socio-moral atmosphere in promoting children's development. In C. T. Fosnot (Ed.), Constructivism: Theory, perspectives, and practice (pp. 103– 119). New York: Teachers College Press. Goldstein, L. S. (1999). The relational zone: The role of caring relationships in the construction of mind. American Educational Research Journal, 36, 647–673.

Irvine, J. J. (1990). Black students and school failure: Policies, practices, and prescriptions. New York: Praeger.

Kleinfeld, J. (1975). Effective teachers of Eskimo and Indian students. School Review, 83, 301–344.

Moje, E. B. (1996). “I teach students, not subjects”: Teacher-student relationships as contexts for secondary literacy. Reading Research Quarterly, 31, 172–195.

Monroe, C. R., & Obidah, J. E. (2004). The influence of cultural synchronization on a teacher's perceptions of disruption: A case study of an African American middle-school classroom. Journal of Teacher Education, 5, 256–268.

Muller, C., Katz, S., & Dance, L. (1999). Investing in teaching and learning. Dynamics of the teacher-student relationship from each perspective. Urban Education, 34, 292–337.

Noblit, G. (1993). Power and caring. American Educational Research Journal, 30, 23–38.

Noddings, N. (1988). An ethic of caring and its implication for instructional arrangements. American Journal of Education, 96, 215–230.

Oldfather, P., & McLaughlin, H. J. (1993). Gaining and losing voice: A longitudinal study of students' continuing impulse to learn across elementary middle level contexts. Research in Middle Level Education, 17, 1–25.

Pianta, R. C. (1999). Enhancing relationships between children and teachers. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Reeve, J. (2006). Teachers as facilitators: What autonomy-supportive teachers do and why their students benefit. Elementary School Journal, 106, 225–236.

Sutton, R. E., & Wheatley, K. F. (2003). Teachers' emotions and teaching: A review of the literature and directions for future research. Educational Psychology Review, 15, 327–358.

Turner, J. C., Meyer, D. K., Cox, K. C., Logan, C., DiCintio, M., & Thomas, C. T. (1998). Creating contexts for involvement in mathematics. Journal of Educational Psychology, 90, 730–745.

Ward, J. R., & McCotter, S. S. (2004). Reflection as a visible outcome for pre-service teachers. Teaching and Teacher Education, 20, 243–257.

Ware, F. (2006). Warm demander pedagogy: Culturally responsive teaching that supports a culture of achievement for African American students. Urban Education, 41, 427–456.

Willower, D. J., Eidell, T. L., & Hoy, W. K. (1967). The school and pupil control ideology. Penn State Studies Monograph No. 24. University Park: Pennsylvania State University.