Caring About Students Matters

This post was written by Maryellen Weimer, PhD, for Faculty Focus.

Good teachers care about their students. We all know that, but sometimes over the course of a long semester, it’s easy to forget just how important it is to show our students we care about them. I was reminded of this importance by two recent studies, which I read and highlighted for the December issue of The Teaching Professor newsletter.

In terms of research design, the studies couldn’t have been more different. In terms of results, they both came to the same conclusion. The interactions students have with their teachers and the kind of relationships that teachers establish with students profoundly affect students’ learning experiences. And it’s a finding that’s been established in study after study.

But it isn’t always easy to care about students. We may care theoretically, even actually, but when we’re tired, stressed by all that our academic positions require, and pulled by what’s happening at home, showing that you care isn’t all that easy. And then there are those students who themselves so clearly don’t care—about us, our course, their major, or their learning. Caring for a student and having that completely ignored or otherwise disavowed doesn’t do much to motivate continued caring.

So, at the risk of sounding crass, I’m wondering whether you can fake it when you don’t feel it. It may be like what we tell students in their first public speaking courses: “Even if you’re quaking in your boots, if you sound confident, chances are good that’s how you’ll end up feeling.”

And then there are those faculty who don’t care very much and the few who don’t care at all. In one of the studies the researchers did a qualitative analysis of a set of comments written by students who had participated in a Thank-a-Professor program. What was surprising was the number of comments thanking teachers for what most would see as part of our job—being in our offices and welcoming to students, offering to help, expressing understanding, and showing respect. As the researchers point out, the fact that these behaviors merited a thank you would lead one to conclude that students aren’t experiencing them as often as we might expect.

Can you teach someone to care? The behaviors that convey caring in the classroom are well-known: use student names, give them your full undivided attention when they speak, acknowledge and appreciate their effort even when the contribution is marginal, regularly wear a smile, show some flexibility, and be comfortable in the classroom space that students occupy … to name just a few. These aren’t difficult actions to execute, and I can’t imagine any teacher not being able to learn how to do them.

But I do think there’s a rub—you can’t pretend you care for very long. It’s an emotion, a feeling, and those aren’t easy to fake. You may be able to fall back on the behaviors when you need to, but not as a matter of course. The better students know you, the easier it is to recognize inauthentic behaviors. And there’s a price to pay for pretending.

It was also interesting that both articles recommended that faculty development focus less on teaching techniques and more on these “softer” skills. We need to banish that descriptor because it makes it sound like these skills are without substance, that doing them erodes rigor and makes a teacher all touchy-feely. Nothing could be further from the truth. The communication skills used to define relationships are complex. Caring or the lack of it is conveyed by small details intricately choreographed and part of a dance that shows what you stand for as a human being.

I’m pretty pessimistic about teaching someone who doesn’t care to care. I’m more optimistic about teaching those who know how to convey that concern. And I’m downright sure we can help those who care but sometimes get tired. All they need are reminders that it truly matters and the occasional expression of caring that’s returned by a student who’s been touched. “Your course made me a better person” it says on a now-tattered floral enclosure that once accompanied a carnation left anonymously outside my office door. It’s been pinned in front of every desk I’ve ever worked behind.

References: Grantham, A., Robinson, E. E., and Chapman, D., (2015). ‘That truly meant a lot to me’: A qualitative examination of meaningful faculty-student interactions.  College Teaching, 63 (3), 125-132.

Dachner, A. M., Saxton, B. M., (2015). If you don’t care why should I? The influence of instructor commitment on student satisfaction and commitment.  Journal of Management Education, 39 (5), 549-571.

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