Caring Schools and Classrooms

Having a safe school is essential for effective character education but far from enough to define an ideal school climate. There is a long-standing theory in psychology called self-actualization. A self-actualized person is one who has reached the peak of a long process of development and maturation. As a motive, it is understood as a drive to fulfill one’s greatest potential. Such people have a wide array of mature and desirable characteristics, such as accurate understanding of the world, trusting their own judgment, positive interpersonal relationships, compassion, and comfort with themselves. However, it is also understood that being self-actualized is only possible when a set of basic human needs are met. These conditions include basic physical needs like food, water, and shelter, but they also include safety. Before one can have a sense of belongingness (one of the three fundamental needs in Self-determination Theory), one must feel safe.

Hence, once one creates a sense of physical and psychological safety in schools, then one can layer on a sense of caring—or what Abraham Maslow—one of the main self-actualization theorists, calls “love and belonging.”

The word caring may appear in more places in character education than perhaps any other character word. It is found in the names of school programs (such as Caring School Communities). It or a synonym (compassion, concern for others, love, etc.) is in almost every school list of core virtues or values. And so on.

There is an old expression in education for teachers: "Kids don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” The emphasis is on kids “knowing” you care. As we have noted for other issues like safety, it does not matter how much you care if kids do not know it. Any good con man can trap you if they can get you to believe they really care about you. It is the kid’s perception that matters most here. We need to ensure both that schools and classrooms have caring climates and that students perceive it as such. Shortly we will address how important it is to assess systematically and effectively how students are experiencing the climate.

We can enhance the climate of caring by taking the time to get to know each other, which we will address in the section on Relationships. We can also create more caring climates by differentiating our instruction, classroom management, and communication to the unique needs of each student. Much of the issues of both safety and caring are being addressed currently by the movement toward Trauma-informed Care and Restorative Practices, which is addressed in the section on Developmental Pedagogy. Understanding what some kids might find threatening or uncaring because of their unique life experiences or the subcultures from which they come opens more possibilities for them to be and feel cared about.

Just greeting all kids and addressing them by name and knowing something personal about them, can contribute mightily to creating a caring environment. We will provide examples of this in the chapter on Relationships in school.

In the United States, where students move from one classroom to the next, some schools require staff to stand in the hallways at passing time, not to monitor student behavior but rather to engage in friendly conversation with students as they move throughout the school. Others strategically place adults around the school at the opening of school to ensure that each child is greeted at least five times before they begin the school day Think about the difference in how children experience the school simply by how they perceive the motives of—and likely treatment by—the adults in the hallway, as prison wardens or as friendly greeters.

We will talk more about behavior management in the sections on Intrinsic Motivation and Developmental Pedagogy, but it is worth noting that flexible, collaborative, and restorative practices also can send the message of a caring environment. This is especially powerful as it happens in crisis, that is, when the child is being confronted about having violated some norm or rule or having hurt somebody physically or emotionally. We all know how emotionally devastating such moments can be. As Marilyn Watson challenges us, we need to re-construe such moments as opportunities for growth, both of the child and of the relationship, rather than simply moments to change behavior. Being treated humanely in crisis is another way of experiencing a school as a caring place.

Assessing School Climate’s 11th Principle is to assess one’s character education initiative. This includes assessing school climate. The National School Climate Center’s work centers on its policies for and methods of assessment of school climate. School climate is probably the most assessed variable in character education.

As part of our Leadership Academy, we require participants to design an assessment plan for their character education initiative. We ask them to consider three broad areas of assessment: Implementation; climate; student character development. Implementation and character development really challenge them, and they typically struggle mightily in understanding how to do both effectively. However, school climate is typically something they are already assessing, often very effectively.

Many schools and districts require annual climate surveys, often not only of students but also staff and even parents. Some measures exist that are scientifically validated and reliable. Some are free and some require purchase. Others simply create their own surveys about school climate. What is most important is just to do it and to do it on a regular basis.

Next most important is what you do with the data you collect. I always recommend that you treat character data the same way most schools now treat academic data; that is, you make the data public and engage in a professional process to scrutinize the data and decide what the data are telling you and how to move forward. Rick DuFour’s Professional Learning Community model is one great framework for doing this. Have teachers reflect on the three PLC questions. (1) what do we want our students to know about character, our core values, etc.? (2) how will we know if they have learned it? (3) what will we do for students who have not? After all, we want the data we gather to drive school improvement.

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