Perspectives on Caring in the Classroom: Do They Vary According to Ethnicity or Grade Level?

By Garrett, Tracey; Barr, Jason et al. | Adolescence, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview
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Perspectives on Caring in the Classroom: Do They Vary According to Ethnicity or Grade Level?


Garrett, Tracey, Barr, Jason, Rothman, Terri, Adolescence


INTRODUCTION

For years, understanding of effective classroom management was rooted in behavioral theories of teaching and learning. The primary emphasis for classroom management in a behavioral model is the use of techniques that bring students' behavior under stimulus control (Brophy, 1999). These behavioral models encourage dependence on rewards and penalties. In contrast, over the last decade, there has been a push to move beyond these behavioral-control approaches and implement approaches that focus on relationships and developing a caring community such as the Just Community (Power, Higgins, & Kohlbert, 1989), the Child Development Project (Battistich, Watson, Solomon, Lewis, & Schaps, 1999) and the Moral Community (De Vries & Zan, 1994). Advocates of these community-based approaches contend that building a caring classroom community and strong interpersonal relationships can make all the difference between a functional and dysfunctional classroom.

This shift toward approaches focusing on caring relationships and community is consistent with the research on students' perceptions of "good teachers." Over the years, research has affirmed that students who perceive their teachers as "good" teachers are more likely to engage in prosocial, responsible behavior, to adhere to classroom rules and norms, and to engage in academic activities (Osterman, 2000; Wentzel, 1997). However, what exactly does it mean to be a "good" teacher?" According to Woolfolk-Hoy and Weinstein (2006), three factors are central to students' perceptions of a "good" teacher: the ability to exercise authority without being overly rigid; the ability to make learning fun; and, most importantly, the ability to establish positive, caring interpersonal relationships.

Studies repeatedly demonstrate the importance students place on a teacher's ability to develop effective interpersonal relationships with their students. For example, Battistich, Solomon, Watson, and Schaps (1997) found positive effects of a caring community on elementary students' attitudes and behaviors which included cooperativeness, helpfulness, concern for others, and altruism. Similarly, Davidson (1999) found that students preferred teachers who communicated interest in their well-being and in return were more attentive and conscientious during class.

In addition, prosocial behavior appears to be fostered in students from such schools and classrooms in which a sense of a caring community has been achieved (Battistich, Solomon, & Watson, 1997). A sense of community stems from student behaviors that are influenced by teaching practices and classroom atmosphere. Teacher practices that stimulate active student participation and teachers who model positive interpersonal behavior are critical to building a sense of community among school students (Battistich, Solomon, Kim, Watson, & Schaps, (1995).

The bottom line is that students want teachers who care about them. However, the difficulty lies in the question, what does it mean to care? Research has shown that students can clearly articulate a definition of caring and identify specific behaviors of caring teachers such as the willingness to help with schoolwork, showing respect, treating students fairly, and helping with personal problems (Cothran & Ennis, 2000; Cothran, Kulinna, & Garrahy, 2003; Osterman, 2000; Wentzel, 1997). However, to complicate matters, some of this research also indicates that white students and high-achieving students identify different aspects of caring than African American students and low-achieving students.

White, mainstreamed and high-achieving students frequently cite aspects of academic caring whereas African American and low-achieving students cite aspects of personal caring. For example, in a study of 100 middle school students, Bosworth (1995) found that, among students of color, the most frequently cited expression of a teacher's care was the teacher's willingness to help with personal problems and to provide guidance.

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