The Ethic of Care Is Hard

Whenever any of us at SLA talk about our school, the ethic of care quickly comes to the forefront of what we talk about. At its root, the ethic of care is the idea that we care for our students, not just about them. It is grounded in the work of Nel Noddings, and it’s probably one of those ideas that sound really awesome in theory and can actually be really difficult in practice. It is also one of those ideas that you are never done cultivating. You have to constantly work at it, and there are times when, as a community, you really have to put time in to unpack it and think through it.

And in the eleven years we’ve been around, we have seen a growing movement in education around the idea of restorative justice. Restorative justice, at its root, is the idea that when we do wrong, we engage in rehabilitation by connecting with the community and with those we have harmed. There is a fair amount of overlap between the ideas of the ethic of care and the ideas of restorative practices / restorative justice. They are not a perfect fit – and where they do and don’t align might be a blog post in and of itself – but, when done thoughtfully, the two ideas can create a powerful sense of responsibility and community in a school. But to do so, you always have to do the work.

And a few weeks ago, we noticed that we were in a place where stuff didn’t feel quite right. We had a few issues that pushed people to think about what it means to have to face your community after you’ve made a mistake. We faced a few moments where the transactional sense of caring for one another wasn’t going quite right. And out of that, came a need to step back and reflect on who we are and what we believe as a whole community – and for us, that meant talking about these ideas in Advisory.

What follows is a whole-school Advisory activity that we did. For 9th graders, it was probably the first really big deep dive they’ve done into what we mean when we use these terms. For older students, it was a tuning activity – a chance to dig deeper into language and ideas that we talk about — and try to embody — all the time. The slides were meant to get us talking, to get some common terms down. The deck was created as a collaboration of teachers and administrators, so that it was a truly co-created document (and full disclosure – I saw it before we did it, but this was at a time when the district work was rather all-encompassing, so I had little to do with its creation other than agreeing that we were at a moment where it was needed.)



The conversations went well. Students and teachers discussed the ideas themselves, and then grappled with how to deal with the scenarios presented. The scenarios are ones we see all the time in schools, not just SLA. At the root of all the conversations was the thought that healthy communities have to be active communities. We cannot simply just say “we care for one another” without putting in the hard work of thinking about what that means. And we cannot forget that until the rest of the world operates under these principles, then we have to work to hold on to our values as a community, because the rest of the world sends very different messages to all of us.

And that’s the overarching message, I think. If we want schools where we truly care for one another — and where we understand that there is a responsibility to the whole community when we create that — we have to understand how hard that is, and we have to work at it every day – even when it’s hard.

3 thoughts on “The Ethic of Care Is Hard

  1. Pingback: The Caring School: Kind but Not Always Nice – Practical Theory

  2. I have serious and sincere concerns with restorative justice in an educational setting. “Restorative” suggests restitution while “justice” suggests “the administering of deserved punishment or reward.” (

    There are a zillion instances of a student acting inappropriately where shaming, restitution, or punishment may not only be punitive, but counter-productive.

    I truly believe that words matter and while I completely respect what you and your colleagues are doing, despite not knowing the context inspiring this post, we do not repair the school-to-prison pipeline by adopting the penal language.