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How to build a culture of caring in secondary and higher education

Christine Lee
Christine Lee
Content Manager

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A culture of caring prioritizes relationships over goals; it is a term that pervades multiple spaces like business environments, but one that is particularly relevant to education where a caring culture can impact learning outcomes, better student behavior, and improve faculty retention.

When was the last time we really felt comfortable in an environment? The last time we felt encouraged to ask questions? To admit vulnerability and then receive support in turn? When did we feel like we truly enjoyed the process of learning? In a supportive space provided by a caring culture, process is more valued than the destination. Progress is emphasized over perfection. Students can fail safely, take intellectual risks, be their authentic selves (thus developing authorial voice), and develop a love of learning.

In short, by prioritizing the wellbeing of students over achievement, a culture of caring instills intrinsic motivation and boosts student engagement. In turn, student engagement then increases learning outcomes and strengthens teacher-student relationships. All of these factors also contribute to a culture of academic integrity.

What is a culture of caring?

A culture of caring makes students feel seen and supported with the side benefit that they feel bonded to teachers and develop intrinsic motivation. It is an educational philosophy that promotes positive school culture and can mitigate academic misconduct.

Researcher Dr. Tom Cavanagh states that, “A Culture of Care is a theory that says schools and workplaces should put more importance on relationships than curriculum when determining their institutional purpose. It encourages one-on-one relationships” (Cavanagh, 2009).

According to an Edutopia article on early childhood classrooms, “Caring enhances the child-teacher relationship, especially in a culturally diverse classroom. Being in a constant caring relationship motivates children to learn.” Additionally, assessments can also fall under a culture of caring model, by “not only [being] content focused but also learner focused, valuing the children’s thinking and emotional, cognitive, and academic learning and growth. In this process, teachers can reflect on not only ‘What has the child learned?’ but also ‘How has the child been building their knowledge?’” (Rigonatti, 2022).

While the above is an early childhood example, it is still very much relevant to secondary and higher education institutions. Because a culture of caring focuses on process more than achievement, and progress over perfection, assessments can then be measured by improvement and educators can foster a growth mindset.

In nursing schools, collaboration is heavily emphasized in the form of Interprofessional Collaborative Practice (IPCP) to promote better healthcare practices. Researchers have found that “the underlying facilitator of IPCP was a culture of caring – human connections among interprofessional team members. The culture of caring could be fostered through five processes: building caring relationships, developing an ownership mentality, providing constructive feedback, applying the strengths-based practice, and acting as the first and last lines of defense” (Wei, et al., 2018).

A culture of caring, when properly infused across the learning journey from environment to assessment, can support outcomes from early childhood to vocational environments.

What are the elements of a culture of caring?

Many would attest that a culture of caring is just that: kindness and respect. Others may say that a culture of caring is composed of student engagement (e.g., relationships, respect for diversity), safety (social and emotional safety, physical safety), and school environment (e.g., physical environment, academic environment, wellness). And then there are frameworks that advise a framework of care, welfare, safety, and security (Crisis Prevention Institute).

While there is no universally agreed upon authoritative framework for a culture of caring, Jos Bertemes’ TEDx presentation states that a culture of caring is made up of five elements: ethos (credibility), pathos (empathy), logos (coherence), telos (purpose), and kairos (opportunity) (Bertemes, 2021).

Ethos (credibility)

Bertemes references John Hattie’s research, which points out that teacher credibility is the fourth (out of 150 factors) strongest influence on learning. According to Hattie’s Visible Learning, “Teacher credibility is vital to learning, and students are very perceptive about knowing which teachers can make a difference…If a teacher is not perceived as credible, the students just turn off” (Hattie, Visible Learning).

Credibility, according to Bertemes and Hattie, is composed of teacher competence, trustworthiness, and goodwill; it is not enough that a teacher has deep knowledge of a subject but rather that students trust them and that they show kindness when appropriate.

Pathos (empathy)

Empathy is critical to a culture of caring as it asks each person to put themselves in the shoes of another. Empathy throughout an institution encourages better collaboration towards the common goal of learning. Interpersonal relationships (e.g., respect for diversity, social support from adults, and support from peers) all support pathos in this model.

Logos (coherence)

Coherence, or consistency throughout an institution creates an environment that is fair to all students. When an entire secondary school or higher education institution is aligned with the same goal and vision, then everyone is clear on why they are there. This clarity instills confidence in students and therefore supports student success, according to Albert Bandura’s theory of self efficacy (Lopez-Garrido, 2023).

Telos (purpose)

What is the students’ purpose and is there a plan towards that goal? The goal of your institution informs how students navigate their educational journey. This too creates an institutional environment that promotes school connectedness and engagement.

Kairos (opportunity)

Raise students’ chances for success wherever and whenever possible. By taking an active role in intervention, educators increase opportunities for students. Kairos or opportunity promotes leadership and promotes student self-efficacy.

Why is a culture of caring important to secondary schools and higher education institutions?

Prioritizing student wellbeing over achievement may feel like it goes against the grain of academic performance and thus reputation, but a culture of caring increases student engagement, which in turn increases learning outcomes (Tallon).

It is impossible to meaningfully teach and learn in an environment that is unsafe and insecure, whether physically or psychically.

According to UNESCO’ s International Institute for Educational Planning, “Research has shown that a positive school climate not only decreases student absenteeism and dropout rates (Center for Social and Emotional Education, 2010) but it also has a significant incidence in students’ academic performance (OREALC-UNESCO, 2008).” To clarify, UNESCO also defines school climate as to what extent people feel welcomed, valued, and respected at school and the consistency of policies and practices across the institution.

Some critics of school culture—that of caring or otherwise—say that it isn’t measurable and therefore impossible to prove its efficacy. However, research states otherwise. According to Shann, “The frequency of prosocial and antisocial student behaviors were rated by 1503 students and 92 teachers in four urban middle schools rank-ordered by achievement. The highest achieving school combined an emphasis on academics with a culture of caring that was reflected in higher rates of prosocial behaviors and lower rates of antisocial behaviors among students. The second ranked school had a law and order environment but lacked the synergy that a culture of caring achieved. The lower achieving schools had significantly lower rates of prosocial behaviors and higher rates of antisocial behaviors among students. Both student and teacher perceptions supported these findings” (Shann, 2010).

While school culture is not itself measurable, it has a direct correlation to learning outcomes, which can be measured; and the results state that a culture of caring promotes prosocial behavior and higher levels of student achievement.

“Education is changing from a focus on curriculum to a focus on learning,” according to Dr. Tom Cavanagh, “the research is clear: the key to learning is relationships.”

What are the benefits from a culture of caring?

A culture of caring has positive and measurable impacts on student achievement and wellbeing. As Shann states, “The highest achieving school combined an emphasis on academics with a culture of caring that was reflected in higher rates of prosocial behaviors and lower rates of antisocial behaviors among students” (Shann, 2010). When students understand their school’s vision, know that competent teachers support their learning, and they feel safe to learn, they inevitably perform better. Furthermore, when students are bonded to their teachers, they are less likely to engage in academic misconduct (Boysen, 2007).

An additional benefit from a culture of caring is teacher retention. In EducationWeek, Slade and Gallagher state, “When care is a priority and becomes ingrained in the school’s DNA, and becomes part of its culture, great things happen. Investing in creating a culture of care will not only improve the well-being of staff, it can also improve retention rates….Retaining staff and improving your culture of care can benefit student achievement, and performance, it can also benefit your budgets” (Slade and Gallagher, 2021).

Replacing a teacher, according to the Learning Policy Institute, is a costly effort, one that exceeds $20,000 per hire. When you examine the role teachers play in upholding competence, trust, and coherence in a culture of caring as laid out by Bertemes, teacher retention involves losses greater than money as their efficacy and as ambassadors of care are critical to learning outcomes.

Slade and Gallagher conclude their article by stating, “Caring cultures have other benefits as well, they create a sense of ownership in everyone in a school community and create space for innovation. When individuals have a say in what they do, feel seen, heard, and valued, they develop a sense of belonging and ownership that fosters positivity and enthusiasm. It becomes a virtuous cycle of positive energy where good things happen, people flourish and grow. In these types of environments, trust and psychological safety develop, giving people the confidence to take risks, challenge current thinking, and innovate. When schools are driven by the needs of their people, not just the curriculum or school improvement plan, employee happiness increases, and student engagement and learning skyrockets” (Slade and Gallagher, 2021).

Making a learning environment enjoyable and safe and trusting by prioritizing relationships benefits all, from students to faculty and staff.

How do you build a culture of caring?

A culture of caring involves all levels of an institution, whether secondary or higher education. To that end, leaders are the first component to instilling a culture of caring throughout their institution, first leading by example, and then establishing frameworks and facilitating communication.

Model a culture of caring in leadership roles

According to Ryu, principals play an important role in establishing a culture of caring. “We find that leaders influence caring through the way in which they exemplify/enact their educational vision and personal values, but also through the adjustments they make to organizational priorities and structures. This analysis of leadership highlights the way that caring in schools transcends individual relationships and becomes an aspect of the organizational culture” (Ryu, et. al., 2020).

Tangible and visible ways to enact a culture of care as a leader involve demonstrating care as an individual, showing the human side of leadership, and may involve adapting leadership style to different individuals. Engage your team in non task-oriented discussions, ask how they are doing and what they need to reduce stress, ask questions when you genuinely need more information, and listen actively. Adjusting your style to different individuals may also help in making an impact (Slade and Gallagher, 2021).

Modeling a culture of care can impact staff, faculty, and students, many of whom look to adults and role models to understand how to respond and behave in challenging situations.

Include a culture of caring in your strategic plan

By including a culture of caring in a strategic plan, both secondary and higher education leaders and administrators (superintendents, presidents, deans, provosts, directors, etc.) can establish its long term importance at a school or district. Doing so, when referring back to Bertemes’ framework, aligns coherence and purpose at your institution. One example is Fairfax County Public Schools’ strategic plan on a culture of caring, which lays out multiple components of their plan.

A multi-component approach provides a wide variety of programs and support services that can target a larger set of behavioral issues and address the broader social culture of your school. It also sends the message that a culture of caring is a campus-wide (or district-wide) responsibility with senior leadership support.

Establish a Care Team

Engage people at all levels of your institution and engage key stakeholders to become ambassadors for a culture of caring. For instance, at the University of Florida, Anthony DeSantis, Dean of Students, launched a “U Matter, We Care” initiative in 2011. In his presentation at NASPA, Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, DeSantis described a Care Team composed of a university-wide network including the Career Resource Center, the Counseling and Wellness Center, Recreational Sports, Deans, Student Government, and University Police. The Care Team also included representatives from campus student groups, all of whom worked together to do outreach (DeSantis).

The NEA states that communicating across partners (students, staff, administrators) at an institution, administrators and leaders can ensure that efforts are more likely sustained over time. Collaboration and buy-in from all stakeholders can contribute to further development of a culture of care (O’ Brennan & Bradshaw, 2013; Greenberg et al., 2003; Rigby, 2007).

Survey multiple perspectives

Data-driven decisions can more effectively and accurately address the needs of an institution. By surveying students and parents as well as faculty and staff, multiple perspectives, even when divergent, can provide critical information on priorities. When establishing a culture of caring, any divergent opinions can also then be addressed. Even when a culture of caring is established or ongoing, this will obtain feedback as to whether or not people feel it is effective (Hough, Harvard University, 2014).

Data can come from surveys but also discipline data, school-wide data, and demographics as well as psychometrics and item analysis from student assessments that speak to trends and correlations between a culture of caring and learning outcomes.

Provide training and professional development

Setting aside a budget for training and professional development not only expands the skills and mindsets of staff and faculty at an institution, it sends the message that administrators and leaders made a tangible investment in building a culture of care.

Training also provides students with independent living skills, social and emotional skills, and resilience. This may have measurable outcomes not only in learning but in student retention, and therefore a more robust budget. It can increase help-seeking from all key stakeholders and encourage collaboration.

Conclusion: How to build a culture of caring in secondary schools and higher education institutions

A culture of caring, when supported throughout an institution and modeled for students by leadership, faculty, and staff produces tangible results for everyone involved. Improved student learning outcomes, better student behavior and fewer instances of misconduct, as well as increased teacher retention are some of the measurable effects experienced at campuses that prioritize relationships over curriculum. These outcomes—in turn—support institutional reputation and uphold reliable budgets for administrators and academic leaders.

Moreover, it makes teaching and learning more enjoyable.