“Committed acts of caring let all students know that the purpose of education is not to dominate, or prepare them to be dominators, but rather to create the conditions for freedom. Caring educators open the mind, allowing students to embrace a world of knowing that is always subject to change and challenge.”(bell hooks, 2003, Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope p. 91)
As someone who writes and speaks a lot about pedagogy of care, I have recently been asked several times about “what about the teachers? Who cares about the teachers?”. And my answer is threefold. There are three types of care that teachers need and can get: care from fellow teachers, care from their own students, and equitable caring policies from their institutions. Can you think of others? Here are some more concrete examples of the three I am offering up.
Teachers care for teachers
This one is, by far, the one you (if you’re a teacher) can have control and influence to create and nurture. Nel Noddings writes:
“when… the cared-for is unable to respond in a way that completes the relation, the work of the carer becomes more and more difficult. Carers in this position need the support of a caring community to sustain them”(Noddings, 2012, p. 54).
In my own institution, we (Center for Learning and Teaching) have a learning community for new faculty, so that we meet several times during their first year, and have an email thread going in between. Although we do give workshops in those meetings, the community is centered around the sharing of experiences and concerns, when we were in person and now that we are online. The learning community is not centered around particular content we want teachers to know, but around being a supportive peer community in whatever way they need. When the pandemic hit in 2020, the cohort that was then with us shifted from in person workshops to virtual ones immediately, focusing on the topics that concerned them most. Mays Imad also suggests establishing buddy systems and having free writing retreats (I have had one of these, outside my institution, and it helped me get some writing done in a difficult time).
Outside of such an institutional community, I have several Twitter group DMs with international friends, WhatsApp groups with some international interest groups and some local groups, that offer relief, and some Slack teams as well. These spaces allow us to joke, GIF, vent and sometimes talk serious stuff… and support each other, whether emotionally or with tips and information.
Sometimes, a relaxing synchronous session can make a huge difference. For me, these have been sessions where I meet up with people online for a coffee. Early in the pandemic I did “Morning Coffee” drop-ins and some people loved them, sometimes just to chat, sometimes because they needed help with something quick and urgent. I also discovered that I enjoy and relax when I attend free Liberating Structures meetups with people who were mostly strangers. The format was interactive, I learned a lot, and came out feeling energized, but without pressure.
Other little things that have helped during the pandemic are gratitude journaling (which I learned about from local colleagues) and meeting up for some desk yoga (which we did during our recent CLT Symposium). This was all done by educators for educators. I think self-care is tough to do on your own, but great to work on together in community.
Students Reciprocate Care for Teachers
If you’re a teacher who genuinely cares for students, they pick up on it right away, and when the time comes, they will reciprocate if you give them the opportunity to. We as parents will always give more to our kids than they will give us, yet we want to teach them how to give and care back, right? I think it’s the same with students. We are responsible and accountable for their education and are going to always give more than we get, but it is ok to sometimes ask for some empathy or care back. Three examples come to mind.
First, during the earlier days of the pandemic, I spent time daily on Slack and each time we met on Zoom listening to students and their worries and anxiety. And when one day I discovered a really close friend and her family had contracted covid, getting this news just an hour before my class, my students listened to me and comforted me in that moment. I couldn’t have taught the class that day without telling someone, and their empathy helped us move forward. I also modeled for them that vulnerability, and we had already established an environment of psychological safety.
This semester was trickier, because I myself got COVID early in the semester before my students could form the needed bonds. I mean, I know they knew I cared for them a priori, from their comments on the syllabus and what we had done so far, but not in any concrete way, you know? But I chose to tell them anyway, because it was affecting me psychologically and physically, and they needed to know I would not be at my best for some time. Their reactions warmed my heart. They were caring and those who had had it before gave me concrete tips to help me through it. It helped a lot.
The third situation was when I got a bad cold (about a month after recovering from Covid) and I coughed so bad I lost my voice. I started class that day and asked 2 volunteer students to “be my voice” and read out what I typed in the chat. They did and it went really smoothly. I would not do it often, but every now and then, we can lean on students for a minute or two. As long as we know we are continuing to give them care most of the time.
Btw, as a faculty developer, the people I “serve” daily are faculty not students. And some of them reciprocated esp during the pandemic, with sometimes just calling or texting to check up on me. Also, because faculty have more power than regular students, they will also occasionally send emails to your boss or someone even higher up to praise you for your work or your department’s work, and respond to surveys with glowing reviews, and naming particular members of your department for exceptional work done. This all helps a lot and boosts morale. Even if you can’t stop working and exhausting yourself, feeling appreciated fuels you to keep going. And helps you later if you need to advocate for more tangible rewards (see next section where I mention “excellence award”).
Equitable Caring Policies at Institutions
This is the most difficult but most important one. As bell books wrote: “Teachers who care, who serve their students, are usually at odds with the environments wherein we teach” (bell hooks, Teaching in Community, p. 91)
The two above (teachers and students caring for teachers) are like band-aid solutions for temporary situations. But of course no matter what happens, we may need them, because situations where we need emergency care always exist, and it helps to have a sustained/able community to fall back on). It’s good to have a caring community of educators you can lean on, internal or external to your work environment, and to be able to occasionally be vulnerable with students. As Mays Imad reminds us, “nurture is our nature”.
But the real issue is institutional demands on our time that can burn us out, no matter what we do in terms of self-care and community care. These systemic issues will reproduce a cycle of exploitation unless we resist and interrupt them.
So if you are in a position of power in your institution, make sure you are giving people proper time off and not asking them to work on weekends or when they are sick (my boss is really good at that). When I had COVID, I worked about one or two hours a day, and only because I wanted to, it was my choice. I also knew I had people to talk to and there was a culture of care within my department, people offering to take over for me in workshops, etc., because my boss instituted this culture. And whenever each of us was sick, the others took over smoothly and naturally, with gentle nudges from her, and recognition of the importance of these actions for the overall health and wellbeing of the department.
If you are not in a position of power but you are in a position of advocacy, try to take collective action to ensure you and your colleagues are not exploited or that their affective labor is unrewarded. Faculty who are great mentors for students tend to be asked to take on more graduate theses for example, but in some institutions, there is no time release or additional pay, and number of theses is unequally distributed across faculty. This has to stop. I don’t think the answer is to equally distribute this kind of work. It is not unreasonable to assert that “humans vary in their abilities to give and receive care” (White & Tronto, 2004, p. 450), just as they vary in other areas. It is just that those who do more care work and do it well have not been historically rewarded for it, not by money, release time, or even moral recognition. It gets taken for granted.
There also need to be equitable work policies that don’t demand the same degree of research output for every person regardless of how much effort and time they put into other things like teaching and service. Again, I see it so often that people who care get an unequal load of service work, which takes effort and time but is not as rewarded as highly as research. Advocate for at least recognizing affective labor. In my institution, for example, I helped write the documentation to apply for my department’s staff getting an “excellence award” for their work in 2020. As a faculty member, I didn’t get any of the financial fruits of this, but I made the effort with so much passion because they deserved it so much, and I was advocating for them. I also enjoyed finding quotes from faculty members giving us glowing reviews for our work. Part of our advocacy for my department is keeping track of these when unsolicited but also constantly surveying so we keep getting feedback.
We also need to recognize the ways in which this pandemic affects us unequally. We are all juggling, but some of us are juggling with fire. Women especially have the additional burdens of family care as well which is heavier when working from home. Ethnic minorities in the US have a heavier economic burden, and then if you are African American or Asian American, you get the additional burden of ongoing violence and injustice against your people and the trauma of that. People with preexisting mental health challenges have been harder hit by this pandemic that is affecting us all mentally to varying degrees.
We also need to advocate for empathetic institutional policies that enable us to care for our students in smoother ways. Like flexible grading policies. Like removing surveillance technologies from our classrooms. Like allowing alternative grading policies that reduce anxiety and promote learner autonomy. Like anything removing any barriers that prevent neurodivergent and minority students to thrive! Like more collaboration between different departments on campus to support students with disabilities and mental health challenges, so that the burden is shared equitably with those who have expertise. That faculty should have access to mental health support as well as students. That female instructors should be paid on par with their Male counterparts. That maternity leave policies are fair (in Egypt they’re quite good, but I still had to include this as a general point).
And yet, even as we advocate for more equitable systems in our institutions, those of us who care come from a different place, where our care and service as a form of political resistance:
“Service as a form of political resistance is vital because it is a practice of giving that eschews the notion of reward. The satisfaction is in the act of giving itself, of creating the context where students can learn freely. When as teachers we commit ourselves to service, we are able to resist participation in forms of domination that reinforce autocratic rule. The teacher who serves continually affirms by his or her practice that educating students is really the primary agenda, not self-aggrandizement or assertion of personal power”(hooks, 2003, p. 91)
And that’s why it is particularly exhausting. But that’s also why having a supportive community of teachers with similar values matters. And this is also why student support matters – even if it is just the reciprocity of showing they have learned or appreciate our efforts. This is what keeps us going. It’s not like caring people can stop caring on a whim. We care because this is who we are and we cannot go against who we are. But we will be exploited and burned out if we do not take this to a level of advocacy so that we are not always in a struggle.
Do you have other suggestions?
P.S. I haven’t here tackled the need to care for faculty developers in depth, but you can just look at the whole thing and replace the section on “students” with “faculty”. I’ve revised it to insert something on that as well, accounting for the power of faculty vs students. For more on affective labor for faculty developers, start with the work of Lee Skallerup Bessette such as this article.
Feature image: Photo I took of a tree in New Giza Club, New Giza, Egypt.