Care and Decision Making for Teachers: A Fledgling Theory

My colleague Ollie Dreon recently blogged about care as teachers’ superpower and kryptonite. The two of us work together often, and one theme in our conversations over the years has been how and to what degree we show care for our students and ourselves in complicated and nuanced teaching situations. His post got me thinking about care again, and about a fledgling theory I have, and I’d love your feedback on it.*

Striking a healthy balance between caring for students and caring for ourselves as teachers can be a real struggle, especially for those of us who view teaching primarily as a relational activity. I am going to use “Will I accept late work?” as an illustration of a teaching decision I need to make while considering how to care for students and myself. But first, the fledgling theory in Venn diagram form.

I have found an active tension among three factors when I need to make a decision: my philosophy of teaching and learning, my responsibility to prepare my students to meet competencies and expectations of the profession they are about to enter, and my own well-being. I usually arrive at my best decisions about whether and how to care for my students and me when I consider each of these in relationship to one another.

Will I accept late work? Let me consider this through each of the three factors.

Philosophy of Teaching and Learning: Yes, I will accept late work, because I know that learning doesn’t happen according to a timetable and due dates are largely arbitrary in a college setting. I know that some students want to sit with ideas longer before responding, writing the paper, or creating the artwork. Some ideas have to gestate. I also know students encounter real life setbacks and emergencies that may be legitimate excuses for late work and I want to model the ethic of care Ollie described in his post.

Preparation for the Profession: No, I will not accept late work, because my students’ ability to meet deadlines will matter when they are teachers. I want to prepare them by being transparent and clear about professional expectations of our field. While some deadlines in their work will be flexible, a failure to complete the state-mandated professional development hours by the deadline will result in them losing their teaching license. Outside of an emergency situation, it isn’t acceptable to show up to a parent/teacher conference having done no preparation, or to arrive late for an art show opening you are hosting that 300 guests have shown up to see.

My Well-Being: I can accept late work if I will have time to give feedback on the work later than when I planned to do so. Otherwise, the student’s late work might mean me staying up later than I should, or spending more time on my computer instead of with my family in the evening. If giving the student an extension requires me to renegotiate my own time/boundaries, I should not accept the work.

You can see the tension, yes? I have run many teaching decisions through these three factors. It’s not a perfect theory, and the decisions that have resulted aren’t perfect either. What this theory does is force me to articulate what caring for myself looks like in each situation, and to situate it into the decision making process. This theory also illustrates the constant negotiations teachers make, and why it’s so easy for teachers to take caring for themselves out of the equation just to make the decision simpler. (I’m guilty of that, too).

Teachers make so many decisions, and each of our factors are different. Today I hope we (teachers) give ourselves grace for all of the lackluster decisions we’ve made, and find a centeredness and courage to keep our well being as a non-negotiable factor in the decisions we make in the days to come.

*I once thought I’d submit these ideas, contextualized by a bunch of other theories, to a more scholarly outlet than my blog. But I’m a full professor now, and this blog comes without me needing to respond to the infamous Reviewer 2 who will tell me I didn’t cite Deluze and Guattari (or themselves) enough. Plus, how I make scholarly decisions as a full professor is something I haven’t mapped out in a neat Venn diagram. So have at it, internet reviewers/friends! I need your feedback.