Pocketful of Kryptonite

Teaching is a caring profession. I know that the phrase “caring profession” was used a lot in the media during the pandemic to describe a host of jobs that focus on the care of others. Doctors. Nurses. Social workers. Teachers. Caring is our business. It’s not just a description of our roles, but it’s also codified in our certifications and professional expectations. Take the Model Code of Ethics for Educators. Principle 3 of the Model Code lists the responsibilities that teachers have to their students. It includes the following statement:

“The professional educator demonstrates an ethic of care through:

  • Seeking to understand students’ educational, academic, personal and social needs as well as students’ values, beliefs, and cultural background;
  • Respecting the dignity, worth, and uniqueness of each individual student including, but not limited to, actual and perceived gender, gender expression, gender identity, civil status, family status, sexual orientation, religion, age, disability, race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, and culture; and
  • Establishing and maintaining an environment that promotes the emotional, intellectual, physical, and sexual safety of all students.”

I’ve intentionally underlined the phrase “ethic of care” because it exemplifies how the profession (and the larger community) views the teaching profession. Teaching is relational work that is built upon caring. We care. That’s what we do.

Thankfully, most of the people who enter into the caring professions are ones for whom caring is natural. Nel Noddings, one of the educational philosophers who is credited with conceptualizing the “ethic of care,” wrote “that teachers approach student needs from the subjective perspective of ‘I must do something’ rather than the more objective ‘something must be done’ approach. Teachers are motivated by this philosophy to perform conscious acts of ‘being with’ and ‘doing for’ for the sake of their students.” (Owens & Ennis, 2005, p. 393). Most teachers are hard-wired for caring. It’s just who we are. I joked in a meeting recently that caring is the superpower of teachers.

The truth, however, is that while caring is our superpower, it can also be our kryptonite. We care a lot. And maybe that means sometimes we care too much. Teachers have a “fiduciary duty” to care for their students. Fiduciary duty is a fancy legal term, but it means that we act in the best interest of our students. That definition is where things can get a little troublesome for the over-caring teacher. I had one colleague who would stay up all night grading exams so his Calculus students could get their grades back the next day. I bet if you asked him to explain his reasoning, he’d say that it was in the best interest of the students. While that might be pedagogically sound, I doubt anyone would argue that depriving oneself of sleep was part of the expectations of the profession.

While it’s important to demonstrate an “ethic of care” and to fulfill our “fiduciary responsibilities,” it’s also important to care for ourselves and to set appropriate boundaries for our care for others. For my math colleague, I’d suggest setting better grading boundaries and more manageable expectations. Sure, it’s our job to care, but we can’t care for anyone if we don’t care for ourselves first. It’s kind of like the oxygen masks on airplanes. There’s a reason the flight attendants ask passengers to put their own masks on before trying to help others with theirs. We can’t help anyone until we’ve helped ourselves first.

References:

Owens, L. M., & Ennis, C. D. (2005). The ethic of care in teaching: An overview of supportive literature. Quest, 57(4), 392-425.

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