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Teachers Who Put the "A" in Caring

by Gary Gordon

Last week, I challenged the conventional wisdom that teacher quality is defined by subject-matter knowledge and skills. (See "Best Teachers in a Class of Their Own" in Related Items.) While these two areas are critically important, knowledge and skills alone do not make excellent teachers. Gallup's 30 years of research suggest that talents -- naturally recurring patterns of thought, feeling and behavior -- explain the success of the best in a number of fields, including teaching.

This is the first in a series of articles that will examine the individual talents that great teachers use to build relationships. The first talent that I will discuss is "Caring."

Caring teachers convey warmth, friendliness and personal concern for their students. Caring encompasses concern for a student's personal worth and development. These same descriptors also emerge when asking students, parents, teachers or principals to describe great teachers.

What Do Caring Teachers Do?

Teachers with this talent demonstrate their care for students on a personal level. Some teachers care about students' learning, which is different from caring about students personally. Others do care personally about their students but find it difficult to express. Teachers with a real talent for caring show students that they care through a set of measurable behaviors, described below.

  • Caring teachers start with each student as a person. They learn students' names quickly. They know their students' interests and regularly talk with them outside of class. They like students and are not afraid to show it. Illustrating this, one highly rated teacher whom Gallup interviewed explained, "When kids feel liked, they feel school is a good place to be."
  • Caring teachers put forth special effort, often devoting many more hours to their work than other teachers do. Students say caring teachers make class interesting. They check students' work and give more feedback when students do a good job. In a 2001 Gallup focus group*, another highly rated teacher summarized this behavior as "winning them [the students] over."
  • Caring teachers minimize the distance between themselves and their students. They show respect for students by treating them not as equals, but as competent partners. They ask for students' opinions and ideas. They trust students, and they express their confidence in them. They create safe environments in which students can ask "stupid" questions or request clarification.
  • Caring teachers talk to students about their problems. They provide emotional support. They are good listeners and act as models, mentors and friends, while maintaining an adult role in the relationship.
  • Caring teachers exceed the typical job requirements. They are involved beyond the classroom -- attending student activities and recognizing students at the mall and the grocery store. They invite students to their homes for special occasions.
  • Caring teachers send students to the principal's office very infrequently, even though they may have students with discipline problems in their classes. They keep students who would otherwise drop out in school. A top-rated teacher in one of Gallup's focus groups said, "Students will perform for teachers they feel comfortable with."

Another focus group participant described the impact of caring this way, "Young people have always been thirsty for a caring adult. It doesn't matter the age. They will be drawn to you like a magnet. And, if you begin to exhibit that (caring) in the classroom, you're going to have to peel them off like Velcro."

A well-known saying asserts, "I don't care how much you know, until I know how much you care." Caring teachers establish relationships with students. They go beyond transmitting content. Teachers who care can touch lives forever.

Next week, we will explore one of the talents that explain a teacher's motivation to teach and stay in teaching -- Belief.

*Focus Groups. National Teacher Study. The Gallup Organization. 2001.

Readers interested in some of the existing education literature on "Caring" may contact the author by clicking on "Message to the Author" above.

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