“Even for the most experienced instructor, determining the best ways to establish and strengthen relationships with students in higher education settings can, at times, be difficult” (Strachan, 2020, p. 53). And these are difficult times. All of us are tired of life unlike what we’re used to, most especially college life—lots of empty classrooms, no sports, fewer extracurricular activities, closed campus offices, teachers seen online rather than in offices—the list of what isn’t the same just goes on and on with no end in sight. Students have always needed teachers who care, but do they need a different kind of teacher care during these difficult days? Or is what they need the same authentic concern, only it’s more challenging to deliver when connections are no longer face-to-face? Perhaps a quick revisit of what’s involved in caring about students will help us answer that question.
Most teachers, especially those reading a column on this topic, do care. Our commitments to and concerns about students rise from places deep inside. The challenge is finding meaningful ways of expressing that care. We can say, “I care about students,” even put those words in the syllabus, but it’s actions that prove we that we do. Words can carry messages of care—“Hi, how are you?” asked not as a glib greeting but as an honest inquiry. Respect can be communicated nonverbally—by looking at a student but seeing an individual and then listening with an open, attentive face.
Ways of expressing care are countless. We will never run out of options, but we have to find our way to ones that work for us. We should start with who we are and how we care in other relationships. Caring isn’t easy to fake, at least not very often. Moreover, caring expressions are more spontaneous than planned. A student comes with a problem, or there’s feelings of confusion and frustration as those in a course struggle with a new concept or problem. The teacher must respond in the moment, not from a script but drawing on a repertoire of actions that grow out of their knowledge of students collectively and individually: “caring instructors are open to getting to knowing their students and spend time ascertaining students’ needs and concerns” (Strachan, 2020, p. 54).
Expressions of care accumulate. They get welded to each other and to related features, such as empathy, compassion, and trust. All of these “personal” aspects of teaching provide the foundation for strong interpersonal relationships with students. They are the kinds of relationships that enhance learning outcomes and linger long after the course has ended.
We cannot consider caring for students without caveats. Meaningful relationships with students must remain professional. Teachers can be friendly but not friends with students. These are not relationships between equals, which ethically obligates those who have more power. The boundaries between the personal and professional must be clearly marked and not crossed by either side.
Equally of concern are the demands of caring—for lots of students, in course after course, for year after year, and now in stressful, anxious times. Genuine caring requires energy. It is a gift that comes from inside, not something ordered up and delivered next day. Energy expended requires energy renewed. And finding times and sources of renewal only lengthens the to-do list.
And finally, there are those faculty who don’t care at all about students, don’t care much for them, or haven’t yet found ways of expressing their care. According to a Gallup-Purdue Index report from 2014, only 27 percent of 30,000 American college graduates strongly agreed that they had professors who cared about them. Forty-four percent of another student cohort reported that they’d had an instructor who had given up on them and their learning in the course (Hawk & Lyons, 2008). Those findings are surprising and disturbing if not depressing. So we tell our colleagues to care—just like we tell students to study. No, the motivation to care comes from within. That makes those of us with compassion for students all the more essential.
It’s too bad that “caring” is so often one of those taboo topics in the academy—that soft side of teaching we only discuss with colleagues who recognize the hard fact that its absence prevents learning. Colleagues who care are sources of renewal, as are some pieces of scholarship. The references below further enlarge our understanding of what it means to care and why caring matters so very much, and they’re not the least bit touchy-feely.
Dachner, A. M., & Saxton, B. M. (2015). If you don’t care, then why should I? The influence of instructor commitment on student satisfaction and commitment. Journal of Management Education, 39(5), 549–571. https://doi.org/10.1177/1052562914555550
Grantham, A., Robinson, E. E., & Chapman, D. (2015). “That truly meant a lot to me”: A qualitative examination of meaningful faculty-student interactions. College Teaching, 63(3), 125–132. https://doi.org/10.1080/87567555.2014.985285
Hawk, T. F., & Lyons, P. R. (2008). Please don’t give up on me: When faculty fail to care. Journal of Management Education, 32(3), 316–338. https://doi.org/10.1177/1052562908314194
Strachan, S. L. (2020). The case for the caring instructor. College Teaching, 68(2), 53–56. https://doi.org/10.1080/87567555.2019.1711011
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