Student Caring: A Call To Action
In this reflection about student caring, Learning Experience Designer Dave Goodrich explores the question of what makes an effective teacher effective. Is there one common thread between faculty who engage and inspire students throughout their lives?
By Dave Goodrich
Good teachers possess a capacity for connectedness. They are able to weave a complex web of connections among themselves, their subjects, and their students so that students can learn to weave a world for themselves. – Parker Palmer in The Courage to Teach
Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care. – Theodore Roosevelt
In a recent design challenge that our new learning designer Caroline White sent out to our Hub team on Slack, we were prompted to recall a course, professor, or other learning experience that engaged or inspired us. I am fortunate to be able to immediately think of multiple faculty members who have inspired me greatly, each of them in distinct and unique ways.
So, it made me begin thinking about the common traits of these educators.
What makes an effective teacher effective? Is it knowledge? Is it communication skills? Is it passion for the subject matter? Is there one common thread between faculty who engage and inspire students throughout their lives?
Do your students care whether you care about them?
Steven Meyers seems to think so. In 2009, he wrote an article in College Teaching that explored how effective teachers all carry within themselves the capacity to make it clear to their students that they care about them and their success.
Now, at first glance, this may seem like a given. In fact, caring for students may feel so intuitive that it could be easy for people to find this to be trivial or an overly simplistic conclusion. But what if caring was more complicated than one might assume?
For example, meet Amelia Leighton Gamel. Amelia is a teacher who has devoted her life to helping first-generation college students with their reading skills and strategies. She does this because she knows how important literacy is for student success in their college careers and in their lives in general. Watch this video to see a bit of what caring about students looks like for her:
I’ve had the privilege of working with instructors like Amelia in my role as a Learning Designer over the past decade. I reached out to Amelia to ask her some questions regarding her work as an instructor who cares deeply about her students. This is what she said:
First of all, Amelia, could you tell us about your own inspiring experiences in education during your childhood that have influenced you as an instructor today?
My background most definitely influences my approach to working with students.
I was a first generation college student. My mom was a high school dropout who lived in the projects and English was a second language for my paternal grandparents. I came from a low-income, single-parent home and a lineage of generational poverty.
I share a lot of experiences with the students I serve. I, too, have had times when I thought college was a place I didn’t belong and success was something reserved for others. I also know what it’s like to have to learn how to navigate college because as a first generation college student, everything is new and unknown territory.
When I look at my students, I often see myself, but instead of looking at where they’ve been, I focus on where they’re going. I see all that they can be and I feel fortunate that I get to be a part of their journey.
When did you begin to realize your own life-calling to being a literacy instructor?
My passion and strength is working with underserved, urban students who come from low-income backgrounds or a culture of poverty.
I think my life calling is really about leading students to success. This can be done in any capacity as an administrator, instructor, or initiative leader.
I want students to be successful and have a chance at being all they can be. I know the odds are not in their favor. Knowing this inspires me to work tirelessly to make sure students are literate, prepared, and motivated to persist.
How can you tell that your students are aware of you caring about them? What does this look like? How long does this take?
I know my students know I sincerely care about them when they start truly engaging. They are respectful and cooperative. They arrive on time. They work hard and try their best. They want me to be proud of them, and I am. The more aware they are that I care about them, the harder they try to be successful.
When my students know I care about them, my classes look like a group of cooperative, engaged, students who feel comfortable enough to be themselves and take risks without worry of judgment.
It takes about two weeks for me to see signs that students are aware that I care about them as people.
How has your teaching evolved since the time you first began to develop these approaches?
I’ve always been focused on student engagement and success, but I had to learn how to make that happen.
When I first started teaching, like most every teacher, I wanted my students to be all the things we expect them to be: respectful, cooperative, attentive and engaged. When they weren’t, I tried to respond in ways that would bring about change and get them back on track.
As I evolved as a teacher, my thinking shifted from responding to students’ behaviors to preventing them. I began focusing on creating classroom communities where my students felt safe, respected, and cared for so they would be receptive to my instruction and guidance. I soon learned that developing relationships with and among students were the keys to the kingdom.
What are two or three things a teacher could do right now to start demonstrating that they care for their students?
There are so many ways teachers/instructors can demonstrate care for their students, but two come to mind as being crucial:
- interacting with students with compassion and empathy; focusing on understanding, instead of being understood.
- making sure our interactions with students are respectful and judgment-free. It’s important we know that it’s often not what we say but how we say it that determines how our words are received.
Thank you, Amelia, for the inspiring work you do and for taking the time to share your experiences with us.
What about you? What do you do to show students you care?
(Consider sharing your example on social media using the hashtag #StudentCaring so that other faculty can glean from your ideas)
What is one thing you could do to better demonstrate the care you have for your students?
You can learn more about Amelia and her work at ameliagamel.com. You might also consider subscribing to a great resource called the “Student Caring” podcast for topics, strategies and ideas to explore further. In it, instructors are invited to join professors de Roulet and Pecoraro as they encourage each other to achieve success. You can learn more at studentcaring.com.
- Meyers, S. A. (2009). Do your students care whether you care about them? College Teaching, 57(4), 205-210.
- Palmer, P. J. (1998). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.