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A Caring Relationship is at the Center of Outstanding Teaching

With schools beginning this month across the United States, I have been focusing on what intentions educators have as they enter the academic year. People choose teaching for many reasons and I believe that, universally, teachers care about their students. I have been privileged to work with hundreds of educators who are passionate about what they do. Nel Noddings, the Lee L. Jacks Professor of Education, Emerita, at Stanford University, asks teachers to think beyond "care" in the sense that they conscientiously pursue certain goals for their student and work hard to achieve those goals. When Noddings speaks of "care," she is arguing that educators establish relationships of care and trust.

The relational sense of caring forces us to say that it is not enough to hear the teacher's claim to care. Does the student recognize that he or she is cared for? Is the teacher thought by the student to be a caring teacher? In this relational sense of caring, we need to look at both what teacher's intentions are and how students experience those intentions.

In her work "Caring and Competence" (1999), Noddings suggests that caring relationships provide the foundation for successful pedagogical activity. When we listen to our students we gain their trust, and in an on-going relationship of care and trust, it is more likely that students will accept what we try to teach. Building this type of caring relationship allows students to see learning as cooperative with the teacher rather than teaching as something we do to students.

After gaining their students' trust, Nodding's second stage of care is for teachers to engage those students in dialogue. Teachers learn about their students' needs, working habits, interests, and talents. Knowing the student in this way enables teachers to plan for their individual progress.

According to Noddings, the final area of concern in building caring relationships is related to what she calls competence. As teachers acquire knowledge about their students' needs and realize how much is needed beyond the curriculum, teachers are inspired to increase their own competence. Teachers who live in caring relationships with their students aspire to greater goals with their learners.

The writer and educator Parker Palmer tells of the time he walked into a college classroom during his third decade of teaching. He went into the classroom grateful for the opportunity to teach but when he came home that evening he was convinced that once again he would never "master this baffling vocation." Annoyed with his students and embarrassed by his own "blunders" Palmer wondered "might it be possible at my age, to find a new line of work, maybe even something I know how to do?"

Palmer, like Noddings, concludes that education is ultimately relational and that beyond the techniques and strategies he has at his disposal, he must be authentic with his students. For Palmer, that means a strong sense of self. Only by knowing yourself can you connect with students, and connect students to your subject. For Noddings, a caring relationship with students is at the core of pedagogical success. This is the message I shared with my faculty as we head into the school year.

This blog is based on part of the welcome address Rabbi Malkus delivered at the start of CESJDS Staff Week on August 21, 2017.

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