Most teachers enter the profession in order to support student well-being and flourishing. Studies show that the establishment of a caring teacher-student relationship makes a significant difference, with a causal impact on student motivation, student engagement, student attendance, and student preparedness, while also being correlated with student achievement (e.g., while we are not prepared to say that successfully communicating care leads directly to improved student achievement, the two are certainly positively linked).
A caring teacher-student relationship is a transformed relationship, positioning the teacher to be a trusted influence and sounding board for the student, which includes the ability to offer criticisms and advice rooted in care and relationship. However, despite a commitment to care, teachers are not always as successful in communicating care as they intend to be. Too often, there is a disconnect between teacher caring intentions and actions, and the perceptions and experiences of their students. Bridging this gap can be the key to the positive outcomes described earlier.
Defining Educational Care
My recent research explored student experiences of educational care (Schat, 2018; 2020; 2021). Study participants described teacher actions that influenced the successful and unsuccessful communication of care. Data analysis and conceptualization identified three primary dimensions of educational care:
- Personal Care: Teacher actions that communicate that the teacher cares for the student as a person
- Pedagogical Care: Teacher actions that communicate that the teacher cares for the student as a learner
- Interpersonal Care: Teacher actions that communicate that the teacher cares for the student as a member of the classroom community
While intertwined and interrelated, each of the three dimensions is distinguishable, and all three are needed for the communication of educational care. However, the research found that each caring teacher-student relationship is unique. The sequence of the dimensions is determined by the needs of the individual student. Some students first need to be noticed and known. Some need to know that the teacher will help them learn. Some need to have their safety and belonging needs met first.
Communicating Educational Care
It is not sufficient for care to be offered. Educational care also needs to be communicated successfully. The research uncovered six components necessary for this to occur, in this sequence:
- Two Care Needs – First, a teacher needs to care for their students. And second, a student needs to be cared for by their teacher.
- Teacher Caring Intentions – The caring process is initiated by a teacher’s intention to offer care to their students.
- Teacher Caring Actions – Next, a teacher acts on their intentions by choosing behaviours that are intended to communicate their care for their students. One of the key insights that emerged in this study is that caring intentions and caring actions are not sufficient for the successful communication of care, even if they are central to the offering of care.
- Student Response – The entire process then turns on the student’s perception and experience. In order for care to be successfully communicated, the student must recognize and respond. Responses can vary significantly: a smile or nod, a verbal declaration, or, more often, a simple change in behaviour that indicates a change in perception.
- Establishing a Caring Relationship – A student’s response leads to what is described as the completion of care, indicating the successful communication of educational care and the establishment of a caring teacher-student relationship.
- The Outcomes of Educational Care – The formation of a caring teacher-student relationship leads to the research-affirmed outcomes of educational care identified earlier, as well as a transformed relationship.
Applications for the Christian School Classroom
Although a blog post is not sufficient for fully exploring implications and applications, this research has highlighted a number of important considerations for educators and educational leaders:
- The Importance of Relationships – While the pedagogical dimension prioritizes the importance of teachers supporting student learning, the personal dimension reminds teachers of the centrality of the teacher-student relationship, and the interpersonal dimension highlights the nature and impact of relationships within the classroom community. Education is a highly relational process, and positive (and negative) relationships can profoundly impact student growth and learning.
- The Centrality of Student Perception – This study carefully distinguishes between teacher caring intentions and the perceptions and experiences of the student. Teacher caring intentions and caring actions are necessary but insufficient. The entire process turns on how the student perceives the teacher’s actions and intentions. Teachers must pay attention to each student’s perceptions. Receptive empathy and effective communication are essential.
- Communicating Care – The three dimensions of care (personal, pedagogical, interpersonal) are often the most important takeaway from this research. They provide both a vision of and a language for communicating care. Teachers who seek to communicate care to their students must attend to all three dimensions.
- The 13 Elements of Educational Care – It is worth noting that the study also identified 13 elements of educational care, 13 distinct categories of teacher actions that contribute to the communication of care. While unpacking the 13 elements is beyond the scope of this blog post, interested readers can explore this in more detail (Schat 2018, 2021).
- Assessing Care Communication – the three dimensions and 13 elements of educational care can also serve as important touchstones and criteria for helping teachers to self-assess their care communication.
- Implications for the Church – It is also important to consider the potential transferability of this study’s insights to the larger Christian context. The Love Mandate (Matthew 22:37-39) reminds us that we are commanded to love God and love others. Christians are not always successful in communicating love. While our intentions may have been good, our impact has not always been positive. As a result, sometimes Christians can get in the way of people meeting Christ and hearing His message and call. Christians need to ensure that the love they are commanded to communicate is completed—perceived and experienced by others. A colleague and I (Schat and Freytag 2020) have identified and explored two important questions: Has the church failed the love mandate? Is care theory a way to re-articulate and re-embody the love mandate? These questions are helpful for any Christian ministry or organization, including Christian schools, to consider as they look to love God and others in the new year.
- Schat, S. (2018). Exploring care in education. International Community of Christian Teacher Educators Journal, 13(2-2), Art. 2, pp. 1-11. Retrieved from https://digitalcommons.georgefox.edu/icctej/vol13/iss2/2
- Schat, S. & Freytag, C. (2020). What can Christians learn from care theory? In P. Shotsberger and C. Freytag (Eds.), How shall we then care?: A Christian educator’s guide to caring for self, learners, colleagues, and community (pp. 1-16). Wipf and Stock.
- Schat, S. (2020). The successful communication of educational care. In P. Shotsberger and C. Freytag (Eds.), How shall we then care?: A Christian educator’s guide to caring for self, learners, colleagues, and community (pp. 17-34). Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock.
- Schat, S. (2021). Exploring student experiences of teacher care communication: The offering of educational care. Pastoral Care in Education.DOI: 1080/02643944.2021.1999311
About the Author
Sean Schat is an assistant professor of education at Redeemer University, located in Ancaster, Ontario, Canada. Prior to his work at Redeemer, Sean spent 18 years as a classroom teacher (middle school and high school) and educational leader (principal, vice-principal, director of staff development). Sean’s dissertation research explored the communication of care in education. Sean’s current research interests include further investigations of educational care, considering interpersonal relationships in education, exploring a Christian philosophy of education, and investigating Christian views of teaching and learning. He can be reached at email@example.com.