“One time when I got in trouble in 7th grade, I still remember how my teacher took me aside later and listened to my side of the story. She repeated what I said back to me to be sure she understood what I was saying. Then she explained why she still had to give me a detention because I was disrupting class. Even though I got a detention, I was glad that she didn’t just dismiss what I had to say, like other teachers sometimes did. After that, I actually felt better in school because I knew I had someone to talk to.”
- A high school student reflecting on middle school
In our achievement driven school system, it’s easy to forget how much relationships matter for students’ engagement. In fact, the kind of relationships students have with their teachers affect whether they decide to engage with the learning material and how effectively they do so.
Almost every student has a personal story about a teacher who they believed cared (or didn’t care) about them. For some, it’s a teacher who reached out and helped them feel comfortable or respected in school. For others, it’s a teacher who helped them see they could reach a higher standard, even when they doubted themselves. Sometimes it’s the story of someone who just listened. These stories show how little things can sometimes create a positive atmosphere that brings out the best in students.
Research suggests that students’ relationships with teachers are essential to student engagement. A teacher who makes his or her students feel heard, valued, and respected shows students that the classroom is fair and they can grow and succeed there (1,2,3).
The puzzle for many teachers is not figuring out how to care more about their students—most teachers already care about their students a great deal. We are not suggesting that teachers should stay up late at night grading homework, or spend more time on weekends preparing lessons. In fact, working around the clock can result in emotional exhaustion that leads to detached, depersonalized interactions with students (4).
Instead, the puzzle for teachers is figuring out how to communicate caring to students in a way that feels like caring to them. Students may not always see the long hours their teachers put in, and, even if they did, they might not make the connection between their teacher’s hard work and their teacher’s caring for them as a person.
What makes students feel personally cared for by their teachers? Research has identified several strategies that reliably help students feel cared for. You will likely recognize some of these strategies in your own teaching practice—or you may have strategies of your own that you know help your students feel cared for that are not mentioned here.
Strategy 1: Get to Know Students as People
Strategy 2: Make Sure Students Feel Heard
Strategy 3: Address Disciplinary Problems with Empathy
We will delve into each strategy in greater detail in the following chapters. Please use the following key to identify different kinds of resources within each chapter:
1. Wentzel, K. R. (1997). Student motivation in middle school: The role of perceived pedagogical caring. Journal of Educational Psychology, 89(3), 411.
2. Murdock, T. B., & Miller, A. (2003). Teachers as sources of middle school students' motivational identity: Variable-centered and person-centered analytic approaches. The Elementary School Journal, 103(4), 383-399.
3. Sakiz, G., Pape, S. J., & Hoy, A. W. (2012). Does perceived teacher affective support matter for middle school students in mathematics classrooms? Journal of School Psychology, 50(2), 235-255.
4. Maslach, C. & Jackson, S. E. (1981). The measurement of experienced burnout. Journal of Occupational Behavior, 2, 99-113.