Things I Know 288 of 365: A managerial approach can include an ethic of care

We fail to realize that the way we manage ignores the fact that very few people – and students are no exception – will expend the effort needed to do high-quality work unless they believe that there is quality in what they are asked to do.

– William Glasser

Glutton for punishment, I picked up William Glasser’s The Quality School by choice a week ago.

Until then, all I knew of Glasser was the ubiquitous table that ends with some variation of, “Children learn 95% of what they teach to someone else.”

It seemed a bit thin as a basis for evaluation.

The basic thesis of Quality thus far is the importance of doing away with coercion in schools as a system for managing students and for managing teachers.

For the less advantaged, boss-management both at home and in school is a double disaster: First, such students have learned fewer need-satisfying behaviors than children from advantaged homes, and they come to school both less willing and less able to do the work. This means that almost from the start they do not do as well in school, even though they are inherently just as capable as the advantaged students who do better.

Writing in 1990, Glasser throws around now-out-of-fashion terms like “boss-manager” and “lead-manager,” and that took some getting used to. Each time I pick up the book, I’ve got to remind myself he was writing in a time when we weren’t yet trying to disguise the use of business principles in education.

By coercing students, Glasser argues, we’re attempting to move them away from their natural tendency to meeting their inherent needs. This ignoring and subversion of needs leads to resentfulness in students. “If we attempt to manage people without taking their needs into account,” Glasser writes, “we will ask them to do things without considering whether or not those things are need-satisfying either now or later.”

Ignore students’ needs enough, he says, and you kill any chance of inspiring quality work. Oh, you’ll get work, but it won’t be quality.

And eventually, you won’t get work from those whose needs are most often ignored or marginalized.

I’m not entirely in agreement with Glasser at all times. That’s one of the signals I’m reading something worthwhile.

What I am digging thus far is the connection his thinking on management inadvertently makes Nel Noddings’s philosophy behind the Ethic of Care. Oftentimes, when I speak of caring to people, I’m heard as a touchy-feely sort who can’t speak in the register of results or blend the thinking of workforce with schooling.

While I’ve some definite issues with looking at the purpose of schools as workforce development centers, I do understand the need to speak the language of my audience.

If I’m not having to define each term as it leaves my mouth, I save time and manage a clear, cogent line of argument.

Adjusting for the 30 years since it was written, The Quality School, offers language of explaining an ethic of care to those speaking for a more managerial or business ecosystem. In that way, I’m finding it quite helpful.

Things I Know 129 of 365: Sometimes, when we say we’re caring, we’re not

Students in a given high school say that they want their teachers to care for them, but “nobody cares.” Their teachers make a convincing case that they do care (in the virtue sense); they work hard and want their students to succeed. Here we have willing carers and willing cared-fors but no caring relations.
– Nel Noddings

Today’s faculty meeting featured an investigation of the Ethic of Care. A group of SLA teachers self-selected into a study of the EoC at the beginning of the year. Once a month since then, they’ve met to discuss selected readings and their thinking on the subject.

In the second half of the year, each group is presenting on its learning from the first semester. Today we talked about caring.

The EoC has been coming out of my mouth quite a bit lately. SLA visitors, colleagues, student teachers, no one has been immune to my verbal storm.

Such is usually the case when I’m trying to work out an idea. Today, in a small group discussion, I think I figured out what I’ve been talking about.

Much of the time when we claim to be caring, we’re really not – at least not like we think we are.

Teachers assign loads of homework or grade harshly while asserting such actions come from a place for caring for their students’ futures.

Parents punish in anger or limit students’ independence under the guise of caring.

Under the definition of the EoC, though, these don’t qualify.

Nel Noddings explains the existence of a caring relationship depends not only on the one caring, but also on the cared for recognizing the actions of the one caring as being, well, caring.

This is tough.

This is really tough.

In many educational settings, patterns are firmly developed:

  • Teacher assigns difficult homework to help push students to grow and examine complex ideas.
  • Students become frustrated with the work and blame the teacher for not paying attention to what they see as their limitations.
  • The homework goes undone or incorrectly done.
  • The teacher becomes indignant that the students have ignored or negated what he sees as his clear attempts to show his care for the students and their future.
  • The students’ frustrations grow as they continue to receive work they perceive as reinforcing their teacher’s uncaring.
  • Without reciprocation of his intended caring, the teacher’s capacity to care is diminished.
  • The negative feedback loop diminishes everyone’s capacity for caring.

Simply put, if the one caring is the only one who sees what he’s doing as caring, it’s not a caring relationship and the caring will be unsustainable.

Communicating care means taking time to check in with our students to understand how their perceiving our actions and intentions and then working from that understanding to better communicate what we mean.

Saying and believing we are acting from a place of caring means much less if those we are caring for don’t feel the care.

To me, the best piece of this is Noddings’s contention that the reciprocity of a caring relationship isn’t predicated on the cared for becoming the one caring. For a caring relationship to energize the one caring, all he needs is to have his caring acknowledged.

Last week, a few minutes after I’d dismissed class, a student returned to my room. She’s been struggling mightily this semester with some hard core procrastination and disorganization. It’s drawn a fair amount of my attention and encouragement. Things are improving, but ever-so-slowly.

She popped her head into the room.

“I want to thank you for not giving up on me when it would have made a great deal of sense to do so,” she said and walked away.

She knows I care, and that will make it easier for me to continue to do so.

Things I Know 41 of 365: Caring is reciprocal

Want of care does us more damage than want of knowledge.

– Benjamin Franklin

It should be said, I was ready to go home.

On my way out of school today, I stopped by one of the tables in the hallway near my classroom. Gathering my things, I’d heard some students using their outdoor voices at the table.

I stopped not to tell them to move or repremand them. I started with a simple observation, “You are all sitting within 2 feet of one another.”

A slight smile from one of the students. I went on to bemoan the fact that it was the end of the day and we were all full up on crazy for the time being in that lesser referenced teacher voice that says, “I’m kidding around with you, but truly making a point at the same time.”

My message delivered, one of the students said they’d keep it down. I started to walk away when one of the students who’d been quiet since I’d stopped by said something ugly to another student at the table.

It was one of those moments of stupid. One of those adolescent powerplays meant to show his peers he was grown enough to spit ugly words in front of a teacher. As a former assistant principal of mine once said, he was feeling himself.

In that moment, my simple stop to ask the table to quiet down became something else.

In that moment, I needed to be present. I needed to be caring.

My coat, bag and water bottle in hand, I suggested he and I go for a walk. It took a few suggestions and the encouragment of one of the other students present before aquiesced to my invitation. This was not before he let fly a flurry of words that made a verbal cocktail with the rare quality of being profane without including any profanity.

He would leave, but not without assuring all present that he was the one wielding the power.

We walked a ways down the hall and turned the corner. I’d hoped to make it to another floor, but he had a good 50 lbs and a few inches on me, so I knew not to push my luck.

In these moments, when our students choose not to or are incapable of being the better versions of themselves, we must be the best versions of ourselves.

Standing there, in the hall with the lint of the day stuck to my brain and adored with the accessories of my walk home, I needed to be someone other than a teacher ready to go home.

My tone was soft. My sentences were largely questions. My goal diffusion.

He would have none of it.

“See, she says all of that, and I’m the one in trouble.”

“Who said anything about anyone being in trouble?”

And it continued like that – he intent on being angry and me intent on not.

And, I get this is the role adults must play when they choose to spend their days modeling life for those children in their charge.

We must be present. We must care…even when it’s a drag.

Thus was the internal conversation myself and I were having as sentences like, “What would you expect me to do when two students I love deeply are saying hurtful and ugly things to one another.”

He was having none of it.

Indignation fueled by righteousness can be an intoxicating thing.

One thing he failed to take into consideration, I care for all my students.

In a moment of reciprocity I’m certain Nel Noddings heard wherever she is, one of my students, Lenea, turned at the end of the hall.

The student I was listening to had  let loose a particularly baited and patronizing sentence as Lenea passed by.

I’d barely noticed her passing.

That is, until I heard, “You don’t talk to Mr. Chase that way,” in a tone, to that point, I was certain only my mother knew.

Appreciative of the vote of confidence, I kept on, “If someone said something like that about you in my presence, you know I’d take issue with it.”

He was mid-rebuttal when I heard Lenea’s voice, “I’ll talk to him, Mr. Chase.”

I turned to look at her.

She was staring at me with that look that says, “Go along now. Get. I’ve got this covered.” And, I knew she did.

I turned and walked down the hall to attempt to diffuse the other side of the argument.

A few minutes later, I walked back down the hall. Turning the corner, I was ready to re-engage. I couldn’t. They weren’t there.

Lenea had moved him physically (and I’m guessing emotionally) farther than I’d been able.

I’ve been mulling that idea tonight. I’ve considered the ninth grader I met when Lenea first entered my room nearly four years ago. I’m uncertain how many times I’ve hugged her, told her how much I’m proud to teach her and made a point to assure her I see the good she’s created.

What I’m certain of, though, is that all those moments, those pieces of mental and emotional investment, those moments of caring, were worth it.

What I’m certain of is caring is reciprocal.

Things I Know 3 of 365: I like to help

Everybody can be great… because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.

– Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I was hoodwinked today.

In the minutes between arriving for the start of the school day and the actual school day, I was tricked into going to SLA’s fifth floor. As my classroom is on the third floor, this was decidedly out of my way.

Diana brought her weekly load of produce to give to the kids and needed help getting it to her classroom. She asked for my help. I moaned and complained, claiming I hadn’t time to go ALL the way up and then ALL the way back down.

I compromised by telling her I’d help get the load to the elevator and then part her company at the third floor.

And then, I didn’t push the right button.

It was nice to see her classroom.

As we were exiting the elevator, I joked it was my midwestern subconscious that led me to help.

I was only partly joking.

Truth be told, I knew when I was complaining in the office that I’d be taking that fruit to the fifth floor.

I like to help.

Really.

A little over a month ago, I met a first-year TFA teacher at my local coffee shop. She was meeting with her program director, and I got drawn in to their conversation. I butted in for a few minutes dropping the pieces of my classroom I thought could be of use as she struggled to reconcile the teacher she wanted to be with the teacher she’s starting out as. When I left, I gave her my card and said I’d be happy to sit with her and just talk about teaching.

A few weeks later, we had coffee and did just that.

Hopefully, we’ll be doing it again soon.

I knew when I heard the frustration in her voice that I’d do whatever I could to help her right the rocky ship of her classroom.

I like to help.

Don’t you?

It’s what I hope for my students every day. I hope that they help those around them. We call it “collaboration,” but it’s really helping. It’s really caring.

Nel Noddings writes, “I would not want to choose, but if I had to choose whether my child would be a reader or a loving human being, I would choose the latter with alacrity.”

I wouldn’t want to choose either, but I would choose the same.

Some unquantifiable part of why I like to help comes from the feeling of worth it brings me. The other equally unquantifiable part of why I like to help comes from the memory of all those times I’ve needed help and it was freely given – the extended deadline, the midnight statistics tutoring session, moving to a third-floor apartment in the late summer heat with the aid of someone who’d known me only a few days.

I will commonly tell whoever will listen that I want my students to leave better speakers, listeners, readers, writers and thinkers.

Chris says he hopes our students leave SLA thoughtful, wise, passionate and kind.

We don’t say it because it is embedded in how we treat one another, but more than all of the above, I think we want them to leave us capable and willing to help.

Help isn’t doing it for someone. Help is doing for someone.

Help is not telling a runner to sit down so you can finish the race for him. Help is handing them the cup of water and telling them to keep running.

Things I Know 2 of 365: I am not a vegan

Not a single turkey you can buy in a supermarket could walk normally, much less jump or fly. Did you know that? They can’t even have sex. Not the antibiotic-free, or organic, or free-range, or anything. They all have the same foolish genetics, and their bodies won’t allow for it anymore. Every turkey sold in every store and served in every restaurant was the product of artificial insemination. If it were only for efficiency, that would be one thing, but these animals literally can’t reproduce naturally. Tell me what could be sustainable about that.

– Frank Reese, Farmer

via Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals

When I was a freshman in high school, I announced to my mother I was going to become a vegetarian.

I told her the idea of eating meat after all the dissections we’d done in biology classes grossed me out.

She understood what I was saying, but suggested there might be another reason for my dietary shift. Betsy, the girl I was trying to date at the time, was a vegetarian, and my mother suggested this might be a more likely catalyst for my decision.

I argued ardently against this line of reasoning.

Now, older and wiser, I can admit she was correct.

Almost 15 years later, Betsy is married with two children, and I’m still a vegetarian.

What’s more, I’ve watched pretty much every food documentary out there, read the best of Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser and the rest.

Whereas misplaced teenage lust was the impetus for going veg, the decision to stay that way has come with a fair amount of research.

I should say, because it needs saying, I’ve never been a proselytizing vegetarian. In college, after explaining the idea of eating flesh grossed me out, I claimed the notion of killing animals didn’t bother me at all.

Just typing that now helps me to see what kind of dork I was in college.

Still, I’ve never been one to spread the good word of vegetarianism. If you want to be all omnivorous with your bad self, have at it.

I’ll be at the salad bar.

Then, in October, I read Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals.

It was the first time I’d read someone make the moral argument for vegetarianism that made me care.

“Food choices are determined by many factors, but reason (even consciousness) is not generally high on the list,” Foer wrote. And, it started to get to me – even as a vegetarian.

From the moral argument, to the ecological argument, to the nutritional argument, to the sustainability argument – Foer put it all in front of me.

And so, on Black Friday, I decided to conduct an experiment. For one month, I would eat a vegan diet. Suddenly, I couldn’t distance myself from the treatment of the animals producing the dairy or egg products I’d told myself were acceptable because none of them was killed.

So, for one month, I ate like a vegan.

I read about veganism.

I visited vegan websites.

I talked to vegans.

I went to a vegan restaurant.

And, I have to tell you, it felt pretty good. After two weeks, I noted an uptick in energy, and my body felt lighter.

On the downside, I was a pain to choose a restaurant with. Plus, I needed to eat. All. The. Time.

Taking the processing out of my food meant my body didn’t take as long to, well, process it.

In the last week of my experiment, I was seriously considering turning vegan. On the drive from Philadelphia to Illinois, I had a rather lengthy phone conversation with Ben who cautioned me against being fanatic about the whole thing. After we talked, I did a gut check. Nope, not fanatical.

When I walked in my house, my parents ran me through the list of vegan foods they bought at the specialty food store to make certain I’d have enough to eat throughout my stay.

The decision was getting easier and easier.

My mom even made a special dish with rice pasta to take to my grandparents’ annual Christmas Eve celebration.

At my grandparents’, I realized I am not a vegan.

I care about the effects of factory farming, and I realize my place and the part I feel compelled to play in working against a treatment of the land and animals that would set my great-grandfather rolling in his grave.

At the same time I was reading Eating Animals, though, I started reading Nel NoddingsCaring.

And here’s why I can’t be a vegan.

Faced with the corn casserole and the sugar cookies shaped and decorated to look like each of my grandmother’s grandchildren, I realized I care about animals, but I care for my family and they care for me.

In the face of the feast prepared by my family and the reasons for that feast, I realized saying, “I’d love to try a cookie, but I’m not sure where the eggs came from,” wouldn’t quite be in keeping with how I want to honor the care my family shows me.

I allowed myself a 48-reprieve from the experiment. I focused on enjoying the company and offerings of family. The day after Christmas, I picked it up again.

I’m sure there are those who would argue I’ve violated my rules. Maybe I did. When the rules are arbitrary, though, I am uncertain as to how much it matters.

And here I am, again a vegetarian.

Only now, I’m working to be more thoughtful as to the source of the eggs and dairy I choose to consume. The politics of food and what I say when I decide how to feed my body are trickier now than they’ve ever been before. The stakes are getting higher. They require, as so many things do, thoughtfulness – not fanaticism.