The Caring School: Kind but Not Always Nice

[I want to expand on some of the ideas of yesterday’s post, The Ethic of Care is Hard, because I think it’s important to think about many of the ways it plays out in practice.]

Sometimes, when I am talking to educational traditionalists about SLA and our ethic of care, I get comments something to the effect of “Well, you can’t be nice all the time…” (seriously… I’ve also gotten comments about “participation trophies” from more than a few folks) and I think that shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what caring is. It makes the mistake that caring is just some sort of stereotype for sweetness and light. It makes the mistake of conflating caring and nice. And oftentimes, caring is anything but.

A caring school doesn’t lack for critique – it works under the assumption that we all work to find the best versions of ourselves, and as such, we push each other to strive toward that vision of ourselves.

A caring school hold people accountable for their own behaviors, but it does so in ways that doesn’t assume “behavior” as some fixed characteristic, but rather, recognizing sometimes the things we label as “behavior” are really skills that we haven’t mastered yet.

A caring school understands that we’re all growing, and we’re all flawed, and we’re all human.

A caring school recognizes that there’s not one ideal outcome we hope for all our students — all of us — but rather that our goal is to help one another become – and sometimes discover – the best version of ourselves.

A caring school understands the difference between authoritative and authoritarian. It recognizes that teachers are teachers and students are students, but more importantly, teachers and students are both on the continuum of human behavior and strives to understand each other’s behavior, not explain it away.

A caring school recognizes and values the identities – racial, sexual, religious, gender, ethnic, and more – of all its members, working to ensure that everyone feels valued, understanding that all of us have lives outside our halls that must be valued – that who we are inside school and outside school must be integrated for us to be healthy.

A caring school has to walk the very fine line of taking care of the individual and taking care of the community. This requires a lot of dialogue – and even more listening. And it requires imperfect solutions where, often, the explanation of “why” is just as important as the “what” of the consequences of actions.

A caring school understands that sometimes you have to say and do the really hard things – and that’s meant everything from telling parents things about their children they didn’t want to hear to telling a student that they weren’t going to make it to a June graduation and more – but it means that, even in the hardest moments, it means acting with humility and grace and with the understanding that those are the moments, hard as it can be, that we have to make sure students feel cared for.

A caring school understands that all our needs are in constant tension and we have to be honest with each other about what we all need to thrive, and that when we are honest about that, we stand the best chance of coming to a place where everyone feels valued, valuable and able to have their needs met.

A caring school is still one where people get angry with one another. We even yell and scream from time to time, but we apologize – students, teachers, principals, when we lose our temper.

A caring school is never one where we shy away from the hard conversation because it’s not nice or polite or might make someone uncomfortable. We have those conversations, because those conversations are in each other’s best interests as we work toward that best vision of ourselves.

A caring school isn’t always nice. But those who inhabit it always try to be kind. And sometimes that means, when we have to say hard things to one another, that we do so in ways that give us the best chance to hear one another and learn from one another and still feel cared for.

A caring school is one where we argue to learn, not just argue to win. But we still argue.

A caring school is one where there is time in the schedule set aside for people to see each other as people, not just students and teachers of subjects. And it’s one where we work on the skill of treating each other with care in the same way as we would work on our writing or our mastery of mathematics or our ability to create a great unit plan, because caring is not just a mindset, but a skill.

And all of it takes work.

To close, the other thing I always hear, even after I explain all of this to people, is that the “real world” isn’t like this — that, in the real world, people don’t always take care of each other this way. I have two responses to that.

First, SLA kids have the rest of their lives to learn that the world can be a cruel, horrible place, they don’t need to learn it from us.

And second, maybe if the kids experience communities of care, where people really do aspire to help each other find the best versions of themselves, maybe their create those communities once they leave our halls where ever they go next.

And wouldn’t that be something.

9 thoughts on “The Caring School: Kind but Not Always Nice

  1. Yes! Yes! Yes!
    Thank you for articulating an important piece of what makes SLA such a special place

  2. Since the election, our 8th graders have been a bit more “outspoken” than usual. As we enter our first Historical Literacy Unit of Study of the year, the Rev War and the founding of our nation, I have also heard, “Well, that is why we have freedom of speech…it’s in our constitution,” especially after someone, under their breath, calls someone else a “liberal” or a “Republican”in a not-very-nice way and with a tone that slices; quick and fast. Chris, this post reminds me that it is not about what someone “is” or “isn’t” but rather about creating learning communities where, in good times and bad, we remember that we are still, at the very core, all human beings…with hearts that beat, blood that pumps through our veins, tears that flow when no one is looking and sometimes when everyone is and that at the end of the day, we all have to close our eyes and in our own silence, know that we did the best we could today, to care for each other.
    I needed this today.

  3. I like this. I guess it just rings true for me and I have been lucky enough to be part of a school where this has (whether we’ve labelled it or not) been a guiding principle, a standard and I liken the distinction of kind v nice to that of fair v equal. Good for kids to see, to talk about and to be a part of.

  4. Beautifully articulated. I’ll be sharing your thoughts with my staff. Our school follows a very similar approach to working with adults and children, opting for collaboration over competition most of the time, and choosing restorative practices in classroom and school management. This model has resulted in less absenteeism amongst staff and students, higher academic achievement and a place that the community members don’t have to be in, but choose to because they feel they belong, are valued, appreciated and that they make a difference.

  5. Chris, I loved this post — and even more, I love that this is the culture of your school. Because shouldn’t we prepare our students for the best world possible because they might just create it?

  6. Hello,

    I just wanted to share how much this post resonated with me. Given my personal upbringing within a more urban context, much of the rules and regulations we were subject to were administered within this authoritarian manner that you mentioned. Due to the lack of consideration for our input, it was inevitable that this dynamic fostered a polarizing relationship between staff and students. As a prospective educator myself in search of fostering a more supportive and inclusive learning environment, I believe that you provide a perfect representation of what I aim to achieve. From my limited experience within the classroom, many students have shown an apathetic approach to their learning which in turn, negatively affects community-building within the classroom. Talking to the students who expressed this apathy, there seemed to be a common theme in which they viewed their voice as irrelevant. They were under the assumption that their voice could not realistically affect how the classroom ran. Knowing this, it is important that I actively incorporate the student’s feedback within my classroom in order to create an authentic supportive learning environment.

    Thank you!