[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.