Kids don’t care what you know until they know you care.
I first encountered this conventional wisdom on a small poster in a teacher prep seminar room. Less sentimental than it may seem, the idea re-centered me at many points during my years as a high school English teacher. And when I studied how students describe outstanding teaching for my dissertation, I found over and over again in students’ own words: the teacher-student relationship is central to classroom learning.
In claiming that teachers’ caring is very important, I don’t mean “caring” in a warm and fuzzy sense. For the findings below, care is defined as a set of teacher behaviors that help students to feel emotionally safe and to rely on the teacher as a dependable ally who reduces anxiety, establishes a positive affiliation or sense of belonging, and goes above and beyond to serve students’ best interests.
Caring matters more than any other single teacher behavior. In 84% of the narratives I analyzed, students described ways their teachers cared. While teachers’ ability to challenge and captivate students also occurred in a high percentage of student letters, caring was described significantly more often (see Existence vs. Frequency display above).
Effective teaching behaviors are interrelated, with caring behaviors playing a central role (see Construct Overlap diagram above).
These findings emerged from analysis of letters by students recommending teachers for Princeton University’s Award for Distinguished Secondary School Teaching (DTA). The 193 letters in my study described DTA winners from different kinds of schools (public, independent, religious) in a range of communities (rural, suburban, urban) in 19 of 21 New Jersey counties over a 25-year period (see DTA Winner Demographics map).
Because I was most interested in how students describe outstanding teaching, my data set included only those letters recommending teachers who eventually won the award, as determined by a rigorous process including the candidate’s statement of educational philosophy; recommendation letters from an administrator, a colleague and two students; multiple class observations; meetings with current students, colleagues, and a supervisor; and several stages of winnowing candidates according to preparation and talent, contributions to community, impact on student learning, intellectual leadership, contributions to teaching, and professional development.
To view the full dissertation, click HERE.
[Article copyright 2015 by Peter Horn, Ed. D.]