We need to talk about care

Have you ever had that devastating surge of emptiness? Not a mind going blank moment, but a cognitive blankness…simply not having any thoughts! As a teacher, moments of complete radio silence lead to emotional paralysis and overload, where single words would act as a life-jacket. To be honest, I can’t recall it happening quite like this before, but it happened recently and coincides with my pre-occupation with the concept of care. And it matters!

I approached my bookcase, after all, it is my usual habit, anticipating the reaching out of others’ words. I was not disappointed. Milton Mayeroff writes of caring teachers having bad days and caring writers too. He speaks plainly “…if I evince little desire or ability to modify my behaviour in the light of what actually helps…I am not caring…” As a  nurse I’m immersed in and on reflection, it’s part of who I am, my being, but I’d never made an association with caring as explicitly as this. Doh!

Phillips and Taylor’s little gem of a book ‘On Kindness’ introduced me to the Stoic philosopher Seneca and the moral psychology of oikeiôsis, the attachment of self to others. I just love the way Epicurus described the joys of friendship ‘which dances around the world.’ It seems we’ve forgotten that we get powerful pleasure from our own acts of kindness, acts which today may be viewed with suspicion. Virginia Woolf once said “…it is strange how a scrap of poetry works in the mind and makes the legs move in time to it along the road.” So, as I walked along the road  I was swirling, vibrant, tingling and excited with words and phrases. It’s paradoxical that my walk, I use this word as I dislike everything being called a journey, is awash with words and thinking, as it was an emptiness of thoughts, words and cognition which prompted donning my walking shoes. I feel as though I’m my own rescuer. And it matters, because I care.

Patricia Benner explains it so succinctly, ‘…caring is essential if the person is to live in a differentiated world where some things really matter, while other things are less important or not important at all…caring…fuses thought, feeling and action – knowing and being…’ It feels as though my subsequent re-playing of events, frustration and social phobia may be because I care. However, if caring sets up what matters and is a part of our ‘being in the world’ our dasein (Heidegger), then it brings a dark side of risk and vulnerability. And it takes courage to care.

My reflective process is not about seeing deficits but about seeing alternative lines of action, new avenues, learning to look for the good, allowing my thinking to breathe, to air. As I’m walking I’m pulled up short, I feel as though I’ve been jabbed with a sharp stick! What if I didn’t care? Once a thought like this lodges in a crevice it sets seeds of disconnectedness and distance. I recall Jess, in Icarus Girl who “…when she closed her eyelids saw nothing and was inside herself…and what she felt in there is OK…it’s not bad or wrong…you can be scared and then stop and when she awoke she felt …refreshed, only to then feel brittle and breakable…”

As teachers we care, we wouldn’t want it any other way. As Campbell and Neill claim “…an ethic of care is a central value in …teachers…” However, caring brings risks, vulnerability, paternalism, obligation, and demands. Jennifer Nias suggests that we should care about students’ learning progress and that our own pedagogy needs to be at the top of our professional agenda. She suggests that ‘…unexamined commitment is professionally unproductive…and that teachers are impoverished as people and as practitioners because they care too much…’

What then, should teachers care about? A comparative study of English and French primary teachers demonstrated that the latter felt their professional responsibilities to be both more clear cut and constrained, the English teachers expected more of themselves, set more ambitious goals and took responsibility for a much broader set of outcomes. Consequently they often felt more guilty or inadequate and as Hargreaves suggests “…the failure to question, or to make conscious, the roots of their commitment created guilt traps.”

I leave you with a question, can we care too much?


If you want to read a little more:

Benner, P & Wrubel, J. The Primacy of Caring

Mayeroff, M. On Caring

NIas, J (1997) Would schools improve if teachers cared less? Education 3-13: International Journal of Primary, Elementary and Early Years Education, 25:3, 11-22

Oyeyemi, H. The Icarus Girl

Phillips, A  & Taylor, B.   On Caring

Woolf, V A Room of One’s Own




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