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An Empirical Exploration of the Who, What, and How of School Care

by Deborah L. Schussler & Angelo Collins - 2006

This study examines how care exists in one alternative high school for students at risk of dropping out. Specifically, this article empirically explores who is involved in caring relationships at the school, what those relationships look like, and how the organization of the school affects the existence of care. Data were collected during the 2000–2001 school year and included observations, faculty interviews, and in-depth interviews with 16 students. From these data, a construct of care was created that includes five caring relationships, pervasive elements that exist throughout these relationships, and specific structural and ideological aspects that enable the existence of care. Suggestions for how schools can organize to create caring communities and directions for further research are also discussed.

The desire to be cared for is almost certainly a universal human characteristic. Not everyone wants to be cuddled or fussed over. But everyone wants to be received, to elicit a response that is congruent with an underlying need or desire. (Noddings, 1992, p. 17)

Despite Noddings’s assertion that care is a basic human need, care is a concept that has escaped extensive attention in educational research. We exist in an era in which standards and accountability monopolize educational rhetoric, fueling policy decisions faster than one can say “No Child Left Behind.” A penchant for what is easily quantifiable and documented to demonstrate improvement may lead to reluctance in researchers to identify and discuss a less tangible quality like care, despite general agreement of its importance. Unlike academic achievement, care is difficult to quantify. In extant research, theories exist that outline definitions of care (Dewey, 1916; Mayeroff, 1971; Noddings, 1984) and how care should function in schools (Noddings, 1988, 1992; Sizer & Sizer, 1999), but there is a paucity of empirical data providing evidence of how care actually exists in a school. Important questions that extant research has left unaddressied are: Who are the recipients and givers of care? What does care look like in a school setting? How does the organization of a school affect the existence of care? The purpose of this article is to move beyond a theoretical conception and empirically examine how care exists in one school setting that purposefully strives to be a caring community.

To provide a framework for examining care in a school, I1 first contextualize the discussion of care in schools by describing tensions that dominate the current educational climate. Next, I summarize extant definitions of care that shaped how I analyzed care in a study of a high school for students at risk of dropping out of school. I then describe the study, including contextual information about the research site and the participants. The description and analysis of the results constitute the bulk of this article. In detailing the caring relationships that emerged from the data, I present a construct that describes the recipients and givers of care, and elements that are evident throughout the caring relationships. For the students in this study, these elements were integral to their perception that care existed at the school. Because the organization of the school proved essential to the fulfillment of the caring relationships, I also examine aspects of the school organization from both a structural and an ideological perspective. Based on these results, I posit that when care is accepted as a central belief of a school community, structures that facilitate care are more likely to exist, and students are more likely to perceive that they are cared for, which positively affects their ability to achieve academically.


Recognizing the importance of caring relationships within schools is not new. Numerous researchers, in describing the condition of comprehensive high schools, have lamented that these schools are organized in a way that prevents meaningful relationships from developing and thriving (Cusick, 1973; Eckert, 1989; Lightfoot, 1983; McQuillan, 1997; Powell, Farrar, & Cohen, 1985; Sizer, 1984). In a review of research on effective practices of secondary schools, Lee, Bryk, and Smith (1993) stated that “the bureaucratic organization common to large comprehensive high schools produces negative social consequences for both students and faculty” (p. 189). In addition, care tends to undergird the debate over school size (Finn, 1998; McQuillan) and the emerging concept of what it means for a school to operate as a learning community (Bryk, Lee, & Holland, 1993; Darling-Hammond, Ancess, & Ort, 2002; Lehman, 1993; Schussler, 2003).

The literature base within which care holds the most prominence is literature on at-risk students and alternative schools. Researchers who study students at risk of dropping out of school have shown that one of the main reasons that students drop out is the low quality of interactions they have with other people at school. They may feel disconnected from teachers (Altenbaugh, Engel, & Martin, 1995; Bryk & Thum, 1989; Comer, 1988; Ekstrom, Goertz, Pollack, & Rock, 1986; McQuillan, 1997; Wehlage, 1992) or from students (Finn, 1989; Osterman, 2000). In fact, students who dropped out of school specifically cited lack of caring as a reason behind their decision to leave (Altenbaugh et al.; Epstein, 1992; McMillan & Reed, 1994; Renihan & Renihan, 1995). Although research documents that lack of care creates a negative school environment that contributes to students’ decisions to drop out, research systematically exploring the effects of the presence of care is needed. Not surprisingly, a number of alternative school models are structured specifically to foster personalized, caring relationships (Boss, 1998). These include minischools (Penha & Azrak, 1975), use of effective school correlates (Mann, 1989), school-within-a-school (Hon & Shorr, 1997; Nehring, 1998), and the Talent Development Model (LaPoint, 1996). Although these descriptions offer student anecdotes and useful information about program qualities, some lack the methodological rigor required for empirical verification. In addition, care is often only tangentially addressed and not a focus of the research, leaving unanswered many questions about how care actually exists in a school.

Care is also addressed indirectly in research indicating that relationships exist between affect and cognition. In a study of teachers’ emotions related to student-teacher interactions, Hargreaves (2000) asserted that “emotion, cognition and action are integrally connected” (p. 812), yet he concluded that the organization of high school makes emotional connection with students difficult. In a review of research on student belonging, Osterman (2000) concluded that positive affect enhances learning: “Students who experience acceptance are more highly motivated and engaged in learning and more committed to school” (p. 359). A number of studies corroborate that a means to prevent student alienation from academics is through positive student-teacher interactions (Bryk & Thum, 1989; McMillan & Reed, 1994) and through student identification with school goals (Catterall, 1998; Finn, 1989; Voelkl, 1997). Although sparse in number, some quantitative studies show specific correlations between the existence of care and higher academic achievement (Bryk, Lee, & Smith, 1990; Shann, 1999).

Despite evidence that care operates as an important piece of the dropout prevention puzzle and that affect and cognition work in synergy, the myopia of current educational policy focuses primarily on test scores. Use of test scores to define effectiveness traces back to the effective schools movement of the 1980s (Good & Brophy, 1985). However, current policy, specifically the No Child Left Behind Act, does not just make use of tests, it mandates tests. Because the goal is accountability, the stakes for teachers and schools are tremendous. External accountability often supercedes everything else, including a school’s mission and values (see Darling-Hammond et al., 2002; Nathan & Myatt, 1998). When the worth of a teacher, school, or district is measured by student performance on standardized tests, it is not surprising to witness districts adopting tunnel vision, with increased test scores as their primary goal. Fostering caring relationships becomes secondary, at best, when care and academics are viewed as mutually exclusive rather than synergistic. Even in organizations that advocate the inclusion of care in educational policy—like the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, which calls for a “competent, caring, qualified” teacher in every classroom—the discussion focuses on what it means to be competent and qualified with no analysis of what it means to be caring (National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, 1996, 2003). The assumption that care is an understood concept is also evident in a study of preservice teachers’ conceptions of care, in which consensus existed on its importance, yet the participants maintained “idealistic, romantic, and oversimplified beliefs about the relationship between teaching and caring” (Goldstein & Lake, 2000, p. 871). Within current educational policy, two major barriers inhibit care in schools: (1) care and academic achievement are viewed as mutually exclusive, and (2) even when care is acknowledged, the assumption is that teachers and schools know how to be caring.


A number of writers have offered theoretical definitions of care. This section summarizes aspects of the definitions provided by Mayeroff (1971) and Noddings (1984; 1992; 2001) that informed this study, and it concludes with the definition used to analyze the data. Both Mayeroff and Noddings describe care in terms of a relationship, and both describe how the process of developing a caring relationship occurs. A caring relationship involves the caring person understanding the other from the perspective of the other (Mayeroff), which Noddings (1984/1992) calls “motivational displacement” and “engrossment.” The purpose is to help the other to reach her2 potential, or to “actualize” (Mayeroff). Both authors argue the carer must know the other’s desires and needs and be willing to understand the other from his perspective, “to sense from ‘inside’ what life is like for him, what he is striving to be, and what he requires to grow” (Mayeroff, p. 30). Mayeroff delineates requisite elements for a caring relationship, including time, adjusting to meet another’s needs, patience and trust to give another the space to grow, and hope and courage in recognizing the possibilities and potential for growth that exist in another. Noddings claims the caring relationship is incomplete unless the “cared-for” receives the care (Noddings, 2001). “No matter how hard teachers try to care, if the caring is not received by students, the claim ‘they don’t care’ has some validity” (1992, p. 15). Mayeroff does not address whether the caring is received; however, he makes a point of saying that “caring may or may not be reciprocated” (p. 26)

In addition to describing the process of caring relationships, Noddings (1992) addresses how care should function in schools. She claims that the role of teachers is both to cultivate caring relationships with their students and to “help their students develop the capacity to care” (p. 18). Schools can organize more effectively to create an environment conducive to fostering caring by striving for “continuity.” She asserts that schools should have continuity of purpose where care is a central goal, continuity of teachers and students where people get to know each other, and continuity of curriculum based on “centers of care.”

The theoretical definition of care by both Mayeroff and Noddings informed how I analyzed care in a study of a high school for students at-risk of dropping out of school. My purpose was to initiate an empirical foundation about care in school by developing grounded theory (Erlandson, Harris, Skipper, & Allen, 1993). I wanted to conceptualize care as it emerged from the data, having theory inform without cons training me. Therefore, this broad, working definition of care was used for the purposes of data analysis: I defined care as involving a relationship between people that is marked by a desire to understand the other and help the other reach his potential, as well as the concern for an organization that has the capacity to succeed or fail. The next sections describe the study methods and the construct of care that emerged.


This article is based on a larger study that examined the learning environment of an alternative high school referred to as Middle College. Using naturalistic inquiry, the study focused on students’ perceptions of their learning environment. Because care emerged as a prominent theme early in the study, I focused on how it manifested in the subsequent data collection. Specifically, I wanted to know, Who are the recipients and givers of care? What does care look like in a school? How does the organization of a school affect the existence of care?


Middle College is a concept school structured around a loose framework that can be modified for each particular school context.3 The Middle College concept is designed as a collaboration between a high school and a local college. The purpose is to prevent capable students from dropping out of school by creating an academically enriched environment and fostering students’ social and personal development. A major component involves teacher-counselors (Wechsler, 2001) who develop close bonds with students. Because of the deliberate focus both on students’ cognitive and affective development, a Middle College was a good site for initial work examining how care is manifested in a school setting.

The Middle College of this study focuses on caring relationships, high attendance, academic success, and self-confidence. Students must apply to attend. Middle College enrolls students in grades 10-12 so that all students have some experience in a traditional4 high school before attending Middle College. During the 2000-2001 school year, Middle College enrolled 128 students and employed seven full-time teachers, three part-time teachers, one principal, one guidance counselor, and one secretary. Qualifying students had the option of enrolling in college classes for dual credit, and all students enjoyed privileges that did not exist at their traditional high schools, including off-campus lunch and an open college campus.

In addition to its unique structure, the demographics for Middle College students are not typically associated with at-risk students (Ekstrom et al., 1986; Rumberger, 1987). Middle College operates in a suburban school district, and the median income is almost twice the state average. The percent of students on free/reduced lunch in the five high schools ranges from 0.9% to 12.8%. During the 2000-2001 school year, the district dropout rate was 1.3%, with approximately 80% of high school graduates seeking post-secondary education. Average ACT scores were between 20.1 and 23.3. The racial/ethnic composition of Middle College closely mirrored the district; 96.8% of Middle College students were White, compared with 92% in the district, and the remainder were African American. The gender breakdown was 62% male and 38% female. Although the demographics are not typical for at-risk students, they demonstrate that even in high-achieving suburban school districts, some students still struggle to meet their potential. In fact, Middle College is an ideal setting to explore care because students’ basic needs, like food and safety (Maslow, 1954), were met.


The study was conducted during the 2000-2001 school year, the third year of operation for Middle College. The primary means of data collection consisted of three rounds of in-depth interviews with 16 student participants. I chose to use students as the main data source because their perspectives are practically nonexistent in educational research (Cook-Sather, 2002; McQuillan, 1997), yet their agency determines their presence and engagement in school. I first solicited recommendations for student participants from faculty and students. From these lists, I used purposive sampling (Erlandson et al., 1993) to select student participants, the goal being to find variation along the following criteria: academic achievement, perception of academic challenge of Middle College, satisfaction with Middle College, sense of belonging, perception of school vision and purposes, reason for attending Middle College, number of years attending Middle College, year in school (e.g., senior), and gender (see Table 1).

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Interview questions progressed from very general to more specific so that emergent themes could be pursued in-depth. The initial interview protocol consisted of “grand tour” questions (Spradley, 1979) to gain an overview of students’ perceptions of their learning environments. Sample questions included: How would you describe Middle College to a person who knows nothing about it? How would you describe your teachers and fellow students? Why did you decide to attend this school instead of your other high school? What is the best thing and the one thing you would change about Middle College? Although the first-round interview protocol did not include any questions using the term caring, the students used it multiple times in these interviews as they described the environment, their teachers, and fellow students. Therefore, questions pertaining to caring were included in later interviews. Questions were descriptive, structural, and contrast (Spradley) to elicit evidence of care, descriptions of the school constituents demonstrating care, rich definitions of what caring entails, and explanations of how Middle College and students’ previous schools foster or inhibit care. I used the third interviews primarily for member checking (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). Interviews lasted from 30 minutes to 2 hours. All interviews were audiotaped and transcribed in their entirety.

Other data sources included interviews with faculty, classroom observations, extensive field notes, artifacts such as the student newspaper, and daily attendance sheets. The purpose of these data sources was to place information gleaned from the student interviews into a meaningful context and to achieve “between-method triangulation” (Erlandson et al., 1993, p. 138). Faculty interviews were conducted during the course of daily activities, often during lunch or after school, and were summarized in field notes. During classroom observations, I took narrative running records and focused on the instructional methods, the interactions between the teacher and student and among the students, and the level of student involvement.


Following data collection, open coding of all interview transcripts and summary charts of student responses to common interview questions (see the appendix for an example) led to the development of a coding scheme with four broad features, one of which was caring. All transcripts, field notes, and artifacts were read numerous times to look for evidence, definitions, and explanations of caring. Divergent data representing an absence of care or negative effects of care were also sought. The unit of analysis included the word, phrase, sentence, and paragraph level. It was necessary to include various grain sizes for analysis to best understand the data. Some words were used by all participants, such as care. In contrast, various participants labeled some closely related ideas differently. For example, one student used the term friendly, and another used the term understanding to refer to the care of their teachers.

Initially, all data on caring were compiled and divided into the following subcategories: teachers’ care, student care, care for school, care for teachers, opportunities for success, flexibility, respect, family atmosphere, sense of belonging, core values,5 school purpose, and care at previous school. This list included two conceptually distinct categories: (1) care that existed between different people, and (2) characteristics that defined those relationships. Therefore, categories were created for each caring relationship, which were titled caring relationships. Five caring relationships were identified and divided into subcategories based on their characteristics. All raw data pertaining to care were then compiled into the appropriate category and subcategory. Next, the raw data were condensed; within each subcategory, a brief phrase summarizing each instance from the raw data was provided, and a tally when the same concept occurred multiple times. Miles and Huberman (1984) recommended using graphics and visuals to move from raw data to abstract concepts. Therefore, after condensing ideas within each of the subcategories, I returned to the compilation of the raw data to conceptualize the relationships between the subcategories. Five characteristics, termed pervasive elements, were identified. An explication of the caring relationships and pervasive elements follows.


The best thing? It would probably just be the family here. Like I said, the students are a family. Well, the teachers are included in that. . . . At our prom, all the teachers are out, joking and dancing with the students. . . . It’s just this unit. I actually think Middle College produces a lot of relationships that will last a lot longer than most high school relationships. (James)

One of the most salient features that students described as they talked about their experiences at Middle College is the concept of care. During the first interviews that I conducted with students, when they were asked to describe Middle College, all 16 participants discussed the positive relationships that existed either between the teachers and the students or among the students. Students used words like family, love, care, personal relationship, and supportive. Positive interactions were evident through my observations as well.

Initially, I equated positive social interactions such as these with care. However, through my data analysis, I realized that this parallel was too simplistic. Care is a much more involved concept that cannot be defined solely by the presence of cordiality. I accepted the positive social interactions as indicators of care because a sense of deliberateness was associated with these interactions. On more extended analysis, I found other indicators of care that were more contentious. More important than the level of cordiality was the intent behind the person’s action or words. When the intent showed a desire to understand another and to help the other reach his or her potential, I classified the interaction as one marked by care regardless of whether it involved a cordial or contentious interaction. In addition, the care at Middle College encompassed both a present and a future orientation. At times, people deemed it necessary to sacrifice cordial interactions in the present in order to help others reach their potential in the future.

Students at Middle College perceived the existence of care as a distinctive feature of the school. They primarily discussed care in terms of relationships with others, but they also described care that included a nonhuman entity or organization, specifically the school. From the students’ descriptions of their experiences at Middle College, I identified five caring relationships that exist at the school: teacher-to-student, student-to-student, school-to-student, student-to-school, and student-to-teacher. These are listed in descending order of occurrence, which I propose indicates the order of importance in the minds of the students. All student participants made comments that referred to the first two caring relationships—teacher-to-student and student-to-student—but only some students made comments referring to the others.

Throughout the five caring relationships, five concepts were consistently evident: opportunities for success, flexibility, respect for students, family atmosphere, and sense of belonging. Because these concepts were evident throughout the data, described by the various participants as they discussed the different caring relationships, I refer to them as pervasive elements. The definition of these terms is grounded in the students’ use of them. For example, students at Middle College used family to connote positive feelings, like a spirit of acceptance and support. Similarly, students described success as the opportunity to meet academic and nonacademic goals in both the short and long term. The construct of care that emerged from this data is represented in Figure 1. The next section describes the top two tiers concurrently because the pervasive elements are foundational for the different caring relationships. These elements exist on two continuums: future/present and contentious/cordial. As shown by the arrows within the caring relationships section, students described various givers and receivers of care.



As students described the learning environment at Middle College, they consistently described interactions with their teachers that demonstrated a desire by the teachers to understand them and meet their needs. Students’ comments concerning these interactions fell into three groups: academic, personal, and social. These are listed in descending order of occurrence and are intended to facilitate my explication of teacher-to-student care. Academic refers to students’ cognitive development, specifically how teachers help students experience academic success. Personal refers to students’ affective development, specifically teachers’ interest in students’ general well-being and ability to deal with nonacademic issues appropriately. Social refers to teachers’ concern for students’ social development, specifically students’ ability to interact appropriately with others. These three categories often overlapped or operated in a cause-effect fashion. Embedded within students’ comments were the perceptions that they had opportunities to succeed, that there was flexibility in how they achieved that success, that they were respected, and that their teachers demonstrated care like family members.

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Students described teachers at Middle College as being concerned about their academic work on various levels. Teachers wanted students to succeed academically, including receiving good grades, graduating, and experiencing success beyond high school: “They care about your grades and they want you to succeed; it just made me feel like there’s somebody that wants me to graduate . . . to do something with my life” (Kathleen).

In addition, teachers wanted to instill a sense of academic care in their students. Katie, who decided to attend Middle College to focus more on her academics, explained that Middle College teachers “care whether you care or not. And they do everything. They do so much extra than other teachers.” Peter also expressed his gratitude for teachers who want students to care, and further defined it as encompassing a spirit of inclusion:

They’ll offer to help you even if you don’t want the help sometimes. And it seems like they suffer if you suffer. . . . They don’t care if you’re a star athlete or if you’re a great musician or if you have no tone at all, or if you’re just like you don’t care about school. They’ll try and get you to care. They’ll try and get you learning.

Kathleen’s and Peter’s comments represent the respect that students sensed because their teachers not only wanted them to succeed but also to care about succeeding. Theoretically, students claim their teachers fulfill the dual roles Noddings (1992) identifies; teachers act as carers, and they help students develop the capacity to care for their academic work. Teachers achieve these dual purposes by forging a personal connection with students. Peter underscored that teachers maintained this attitude of care for all students without exception, which is another acknowledgment of respect that students perceived from their teachers.

Teachers demonstrated their care for students’ academic work by providing them with numerous opportunities for success and being flexible in how students achieved this success. The opportunities for success embodied both a present and a future orientation. They included achieving short-term goals that involved academic content. Specifically, students thought that teachers were interested in helping them achieve academic success through outcomes like receiving good grades. Stephanie described how her math teacher, Ms. Gregory, provided opportunities for her to improve her failing math grade: “And she’s letting me make up everything that I’ve made a bad grade in so that I’ll be able to pass the class for the semester. At a regular school they won’t do that. If you’re failing, you’re failing.” A majority of the student participants specifically noted that Ms. Gregory spent a lot of time during the lunch hour and before and after school working with students who struggled with the math concepts in her classes, as evidenced by their low grades. In a discussion with Ms. Gregory, she explained that she wanted the students to take advantage of this extra help. She maintained the present-oriented goal of wanting her students to succeed academically by achieving good grades, and she offered flexible ways for students to accomplish this goal.

Although Ms. Gregory was interested in helping students improve their grades, she also was concerned with the long-term goal of students’ engagement with the content. She expressed her frustration with a parent who was most concerned about the student’s receiving the math credit rather than the student’s ability to learn the material. The students at Middle College perceived that teachers had a future orientation and a present orientation, noting that teachers were flexible to ensure that students understood the material. They accomplished this task by being acutely aware of students’ status and needs:

A teacher wants to know what’s going on with us, did we understand everything that we did yesterday and if not, she’ll go over it the whole class period if we have to until we get what we’re doing and then we move on. . . . They don’t want. . . us to pass, and then we get to college and we have no idea what we just did. (Leah)

The flexibility was student driven rather than curriculum driven. Teachers’ academic care for students encompassed aspects of content, specifically the short-term goal of achieving good grades, and aspects of engagement, specifically the long-term goal of acquiring a deep connection to course content that would provide opportunities for success beyond high school.

Teachers’ care for students’ cognitive development extended even beyond acquisition of grades or understanding the material. According to the students, teachers wanted students to reach their potential academically. A number of students felt that teachers had high expectations for their academic work and a desire to help students reach these expectations. Students felt that teachers held these expectations not as an abstract concept for students as a whole, but took an interest in them as individuals, helping them feel respected as students. Teachers at Middle College found ways to help individual students be and feel successful. According to Leah, “They’ll do anything they can because they know we can do it. We’re just either having a bad day or something is going on personally or whatever because they all know us, and so therefore, they’re going to keep pushing us to do it.” Teachers demonstrated respect for students by trusting in their abilities and pushing them to succeed even when students were not exhibiting success for whatever reason. Therefore, the pushing included both a degree of flexibility and a sense of knowing. Teachers needed to be flexible in order to understand the circumstances of the students, and they had to know the students in such a way that the academic expectations were appropriate, even when the students’ outward behaviors conflicted with their level of academic capability.


Implicit in Leah’s comment about teachers providing them with opportunities to succeed and reach their potential is the notion that teachers knew students personally and developed a sense of connection on multiple levels. That teachers knew their students as individuals enabled them to better understand the potential that individual students possessed and to know the most appropriate avenues to help them achieve their academic potential. Teachers at Middle College followed Mayeroff’s (1971) idea of “knowing” the other as a necessary component of caring: “To care for someone, I must know many things. I must know . . . who the other is, what his powers and limitations are, what his needs are, and what is conducive to his growth” (p. 9). The following exchange with David, a senior, highlights how the concept of knowing was a fundamental component of caring in terms of his relationship with teachers at Middle College. The essence of knowing appears at the end of this excerpt.

Deb: What are your teachers like here? How would you describe the teachers?

David: I think they interact well with the students. They care about us and I think they have a bigger influence on me than the teachers I had at Central.

Deb: Why is that?

David: Cause, I don’t know, I just feel like they’re more behind me more, like they actually care about me. And, I don’t know, they try to help you get your work done where at Central, either you had it or you didn’t have it, you know. I don’t know. Just the atmosphere, I mean. Not necessarily even the teachers but the principal and everything. It’s more like a relationship than just acquaintances.

Deb: How do you know that? What do they do that’s different?

David: They talk to me.

Deb: About . . .?

David: Anything and everything really, from school work to what’s going on at my house to what’s happening at the weekends.

David’s description indicates that the multifaceted nature of his relationship with his teachers positively affected his attitude. His remarks demonstrate an important intersection between Mayeroff’s concept of “knowing” and Noddings’s concept of caring as a two-way interchange. David had to perceive that his teachers had a sense of knowing him in a variety of ways in order to receive the caring that his teachers rendered. Knowing him in a variety of ways meant that the teachers were concerned with both his academic status and his nonacademic well-being. This sense of being known by his teachers was crucial to David’s perception of their caring. The more personal relationship made teachers’ intent to care visible to students’ perception.

Additional evidence that students felt that their teachers showed concern for students’ nonacademic well-being emanates from the language that students used as they described their teachers. David articulated the depth of the interaction with his teachers by saying that it was more than “just acquaintances” and “more like a relationship.” A number of students used the word friend to describe their teachers at Middle College: “They’re not like teachers at normal schools. They’re like your friend kind of. You can have a personal kind of like conversation with them” (Peter). A few students used family references, specifically parenting, to indicate the support and acceptance they felt from their teachers: “They’re a set of parents. . . . They treat you like you’re one of theirs” (Scott). “I see Mr. Grey and Mr. Elder as father figures. I’m closer to them than I am my father, so I really have those ties, very emotional and intimate. I guess I just like knowing my teachers and my teachers knowing me” (Hayden). The inclusion of friend and parent metaphors indicates that students wanted to be able to relate to their teachers on two levels. They wanted to communicate openly and relate to their teachers in a personal way, like with friends. They also wanted the security and unconditional care associated with a good parenting relationship.

Sometimes the friend and parent roles conflicted. Whereas friends behave as equals, parents must use their position of authority and call on their wisdom to protect the best interests of their less experienced children. Two students expressed deep concern that teachers’ friendlike relationships with students detracted from their ability to assume a parenting role and impose consequences for students’ harmful behaviors. Both Trixie and Leah were specifically concerned with students’ drug use and with the lack of attention that the faculty paid to this problem.

Maybe the whole friend-friend teacher-friend thing, it works to get us to do our work for school. But there are certain times where you just have to break that down and say, “If I can tell you’re high in my class I will get you kicked out of here.” Or give them a zero. Because I’ve known a teacher to actually do that. But there are some who just don’t seem to care. I don’t know. Maybe it’s the whole summer thing coming up and it’s just like everyone wants to get out of here. (Trixie)

Trixie may have been implying that teachers were acting more like friends by taking a present-oriented approach in their caring—worrying about the immediate matter of getting students to do their academic work before summer vacation, as opposed to acting like parents and taking a future-oriented approach in their caring, focusing on students’ overall development and the quality of their choices. In situations like these, some students desired teachers who did not act like a friend, but exercised their authority and acted in the best long-term interests of the students.

In contrast, Hayden perceived the drug situation as a positive rather than a negative aspect of teacher caring. She admitted to using drugs during her sophomore and junior years.

I thought I had them bluffed and fooled all sophomore year and junior year. Like they don’t know I’m high, haha, but they knew the whole time. But they were just waiting for me to change, let me see it for myself. I don’t know if that’s just me cause they know me well enough to where I can turn around and look back on myself and not have somebody else having to do it for me. (Hayden)

Hayden appreciated that her teachers showed what Mayeroff (1971) terms “patience” and “trust” by giving her the time and space to develop. Hayden claimed that because her teachers knew her well, they knew that giving her the time and space so that she could “look back on” herself was more effective in her development than if they had addressed Hayden’s drug problem in the present. Although Trixie’s and Haden’s examples seem to contradict, they both demonstrate the importance of teachers developing a personal relationship with individual students whereby they demonstrate flexibility and respond based on the needs of each individual. This response should assume a future orientation, respecting what is best for students’ overall development.

One negative effect of teachers developing close personal relationships with students was that it sometimes jeopardized students’ academics. A few students noted that they appreciated knowing that teachers would help them with their personal problems, but that an emphasis on students’ personal lives shifted the focus from their academics. Elizabeth expressed frustration with her science class and cited a lack of academic challenge as her rationale for frequently skipping: “There’s really no point in going unless it’s on that one day that we do something.” Elizabeth also expressed gratitude for the same class structure when she described what would happen if somebody came crying or angry to her class: “We sit down and we talk about it. She tries to help us. That’s why we don’t necessarily get work done. I’m glad that she does that cause when I have a problem I can go to her.” These comments provide an example of the delicate balance that teachers must achieve between acting as a friend and catering to students’ personal needs, and acting as an authority figure and maintaining high expectations. Students did not want teachers to assume either role exclusively.

Despite some students’ willingness to take advantage of their teachers’ care, at least as many took the opposite path and assumed greater responsibility. Although Hayden described herself as not meeting her potential academically because of lack of effort, she also expressed a desire to do well in response to her awareness of the teachers’ care.

You want to do good because you want to do good for yourself and you don’t want to disappoint your teachers. You know how much they care about you. . . . They really worked hard putting in effort, time, extra time. I’ve stayed after school with teachers. I’ve come before school to stay with teachers to work on things. I’ve been tutors for my teachers, student aides, things like that. But you really feel like you’re letting them down if you don’t hold up to your end of the bargain.

Although in this particular quote, Hayden didn’t articulate the behaviors that characterized the types of relationships she had with her teachers, her other statements and those of others do indicate specific things that teachers did to foster caring relationships. David said that his teachers asked about his schoolwork and what happened on the weekends. Leah said her teachers made sure that students understood the material before moving on to new material. Stephanie said that she received help when she did not succeed and had opportunities to make up work with which she struggled. Students linked the concrete actions of their teachers to a general attitude that teachers wanted students to be successful and to develop academically, personally, and socially. Because students could identify actions that their teachers took to demonstrate they cared about students, students like Hayden felt compelled to respond by making the most of these opportunities to succeed.


Students at Middle College perceived that in addition to being concerned with their academic and personal development, the faculty also cared about students’ ability to interact appropriately with others both in the present and in the future. Students indicated that this was as important in fostering their success as the academic aspects of high school.

I think another thing you learn in high school is also relationships. You don’t like a teacher, you have to deal with it. Because in the real world, you don’t like a boss, you have to deal with it. It’s basically just preparing us for adulthood. . . . That seems like that’s the main focus here. (James)

Students did not articulate specific instructional strategies that helped them learn about relationships. However, evidence from a number of students indicates that student communication was important, and that because teachers cared about this aspect of students’ development, they allowed students to have a prominent role in the educative process. Kathleen described Middle College as teaching “people skills” and “how to communicate with people” by being “respectful, but outspoken,” and because of that, Middle College was “preparing [her] for life.” Both Kathleen and James recognized and appreciated that teachers at Middle College had a present and a future orientation and wanted students to acquire skills beyond just academics.


As pervasive in the data as the comments pertaining to the care that students perceived from their teachers was the care that they perceived existed among their peers. Similar to the phenomenon I noted in teacher-to-student interactions, the interactions between students involved a level of depth signifying more than just positive social interactions. Students’ comments concerning the interactions with their peers fell into three broad categories: a sense of unity, an attitude of acceptance, and a spirit of support among the students. Embedded within the data was the idea that a family atmosphere existed, a term used by 13 of the 16 participants; that students experienced a sense of belonging whereby students fit in with others and felt like valued members of the school community; and that students respected each other.

At this point, it should be noted that although students contrasted images of belonging and family at Middle College with images demonstrating an absence of belonging and family at their previous schools, not all students felt alienated from others in a traditional high school setting. In fact, of the 16 participants in my study, one was a representative of the Homecoming Queen Court, one was a representative of the Coming Home Court (similar to Homecoming, but for males), and 10 students made comments indicating that they had many friends before attending Middle College. Not all students were social outcasts or lacked friends at their previous schools, yet students disliked the social hierarchy that existed. As is discussed below, students appreciated the cohesiveness among the students at Middle College and perceived the student-to-student care as an invaluable aspect of the school.

Unity. According to the students, one thing that contributed to their sense of unity was the element of choice. A common bond was created because students chose to attend Middle College and not the comprehensive high school for which they were zoned. Matthew, a senior who had dropped out of school 2 years prior and then dropped back in when he had the opportunity to attend Middle College, described the difference between a traditional high school and Middle College: “It’s just, the way that it’s just a bunch of kids who didn’t like high school. Everybody has that in common so it’s like, we get together and can make it a better high school.” Elizabeth more specifically articulated the reasons that students developed common bonds: “I just think we’re different. I mean, we’re all different because we didn’t fit in, so now we’re here and we thrive on our differences.” Matthew and Elizabeth indicated the seemingly paradoxical reality that defined the sense of unity among students at Middle College: The students were alike in that they were all different. All the students were in some way unhappy or unsuccessful at their previous school. The common element of experiencing a disconnect in the past contributed to fostering a sense of unity at Middle College in the present. The disconnect could involve interpersonal relationships, academics, or both.


Students also demonstrated unity by embracing a spirit of acceptance toward their peers despite obvious differences. Although Middle College was small and targeted a specific population of students, the student body was anything but homogenous. In fact, the small size may have accentuated the diversity. On any given day, a person could see a student donning blue hair, a student wearing a sports team jersey, and a student sporting a sideways baseball cap and “low-rider” jeans. Despite diversity of style, students did not form groups with unwritten rules and a hierarchical structure, a characteristic of many comprehensive high schools (Cusick, 1973; Eckert, 1989; Osterman, 2000). Students avoided judging each other based on superficial criteria such as dress, and those who perhaps would not have had positive social interactions with each other in a traditional high school setting coexisted at Middle College in an atmosphere marked by respect and acceptance. Kathleen, a 10th grader who had only attended the school for 2 months, explained how a “fine, attractive, athletic guy” and “the guy that wears dresses and black coats and mascara” do not think twice about cordially greeting each other in the hallways. Bob provides an additional example:

Here you don’t have to worry about [bullying]. You’ve got your thugs, you’ve got your Goths, and you’ve got every kind of clique here. It really doesn’t matter because once you get to know somebody you sort of look over that and that’s what we do here. . . . We look at what kind of personality you have in your being. (Bob)

Students still labeled their peers as if they belonged to a particular clique, but they explained that such superficial criteria were not a divisive device operating at Middle College. The kind of relationship students described, marked by a spirit of acceptance despite outward differences, aligns with Mayeroff’s (1971) concept of care through “knowing.” It was not possible to know a fellow student by only knowing that person’s label, like “thug” or “Goth,” which was acquired through style of dress, musical tastes, and the like. Although Bob’s use of the term clique reflected language that previously would have represented divisiveness, his attitude demonstrates an absence of traditional cliques due to the ubiquitous spirit of acceptance.


Students offered support to each other both personally and academically. Students did not just try to get along through cordial interactions; they also tried to help each other, even students they did not know well. Katie described how one of her peers, whom she’d “never hung out with outside of school,” typed her parents a letter when they were considering sending Katie back to her zoned school. One example that was cited by a number of students was the way other students helped them feel welcomed as a new student to Middle College. Victoria, an attractive, outgoing sophomore, talked about feelings of alienation when she started at her zoned school of 1,600 students in the middle of her ninth-grade year. When she decided to attend Middle College, her experience was quite different. “Everyone cares for you. . . . When you’re new, they’re not like, ‘Oh, that’s the new girl. We’re not going to talk to her.’ They come up to you and they introduce themselves. They’re extremely friendly.” The students exhibited Noddings’s (1984) “motivational displacement” by fostering a sense of belonging in their fellow students. Because so many participants commented on this, I assume that fostering a sense of belonging was part of the daily activities at the school.

Although most students talked about support from students in terms of their personal lives, some students gave examples of support that extended to academics. Victoria described what happened when Kathleen struggled with math class. “She was really stressed out. She had like four people that day come up to her and be like, ‘Hey, if you need help with your math, I can help you.”‘ When I asked Victoria if that wasn’t like having friends at any school, she replied, “I’ve never had anyone come up to me and be like, ‘Hey, I’ll take time out of my day to . . . help you on your math’ which they did here.”

The caring relationships between students had positive implications in terms of their attitude toward academics and their academic achievement. A number of students claimed that the social environment fostered a better learning environment. “Now that everyone gets along and everyone’s really friendly, it’s a lot easier to learn” (Peter). Peter described being concerned for his safety at his previous school because others thought that he dressed strangely and threatened him. Some students claimed that their grades improved as a result of the social environment. “Last year was incredible for me. I came, I was accepted, brought into the family, and my grades soared and I really enjoyed it” (James).

Students’ examples of support from their peers accentuate the anomalous nature of the student-to-student interactions at Middle College. The relationships extend to areas beyond typical friendships. Students offered support to each other personally and academically, and they offered support to close friends and those whom they did not consider as close. The personal and academic support that students offered each other illustrates the family atmosphere that existed at Middle College, and the level of respect that permeated students’ care for fellow students. Being deliberate about caring for each other appears to be embedded in the daily interactions and the mindsets of the Middle College students. Unfortunately, their descriptions indicate that this mindset contrasted with their experiences at their previous, traditional schools.

Divergent data.

Although the students overwhelmingly described Middle College as a family atmosphere, some divergent data exist, showing that a family atmosphere was lacking. Students who were seniors and had attended the school for at least 2 years predominantly offered this evidence. They stated that the family atmosphere was more prominent in previous years, and they regretted that the current year didn’t have the same feeling. Joe, who attended Middle College since its inception, articulated why he believed the family atmosphere changed from the first year to the third year: “First year, everybody was new . . . so we were all in the same boat together. And the next year, we had the old kids and we had new kids and man, it was some drama at the beginning of the year.” Some seniors partially blamed themselves, stating that they weren’t on as “personal” a level with the younger students. That the seniors cited a lack of a family atmosphere is not surprising because seniors generally exhibit a need to move on to the next phase in their lives. Caesar succinctly stated the need to move on: “It’s just like still a middle school atmosphere to me. I’d just like to get on with it.”

Caesar provided the most evidence supporting the lack of a family atmosphere at Middle College. However, his remarks contained many inconsistencies. He claimed to be generally “ignored by all” stating, “I haven’t talked to some people the entire year. The only way they know my name is other people saying my name.” However, he admitted that he had not approached many of his classmates to try to get to know them. In fact, he said he didn’t have a desire to associate with most students at Middle College because they lacked his maturity. He apparently desired a sense of belonging, but not with the current students at Middle College and not unless somebody else initiated it. Despite the belief that Middle College lacked a family atmosphere, Caesar still claimed it was an improvement over his previous school, and when asked what one thing he would change about Middle College, he did not offer any information. What is ironic about the students’ comments contradicting a family atmosphere is that in citing evidence against it, they acknowledged the importance of it as a vital part of the school.


I classified school-to-student care as separate from teacher-to-student care because students described Middle College as an entity unto itself. It was not just a group of individuals who separately acted in caring ways. As an organization, Middle College maintained its own values and purpose, which conveyed a culture of care to students. It also was organized to enable the pervasive elements and provide individuals with opportunities to act in caring ways.

Students’ comments seemed to indicate that they felt that they were on the receiving end of the care they received from the school based on the school purpose. Specifically, they felt that the school existed to benefit them. David commented, “This school doesn’t even have to be here. This is here for us, not anybody else.” According to Matthew, the school existed “to help kids who want to graduate, who want to get through school and move on and succeed. . . . It’s like they actually want you to do good.” Students perceived that they were valued as people because the overall purpose of Middle College was to better meet their needs and help them reach their potential. When asked how Middle College differed most from their previous high school, Kathleen responded, “Positive attitude, like the positive environment.” Elizabeth said, “You feel safe here and you feel like people care about you here and you don’t feel like that at other high schools.” Unlike their previous schools, students described a culture of care that was just kind of woven into the fabric of Middle College.

Students also perceived that the way the school was organized conveyed care by enabling the pervasive elements—opportunities for success, flexibility, respect for students, family atmosphere, sense of belonging—and the different caring relationships at Middle College. Students were cognizant of actual structures at the school that communicated to them that they were respected as people and that their development was important. At their previous schools, students overwhelmingly perceived that the structures in place indicated just the opposite. James determined, “Their system of punishing you is better organized than their system for teaching you.” In contrast, some students described structures at Middle College that were focused on maintaining the integrity of the student rather than the integrity of the rule. For example, Peter explained how at Middle College, tardies were counted in a way that held him accountable but were not detrimental to his academics, whereas at his previous school, accountability to the rule was the sole concern. Peter responded by rarely being late, which my observations confirmed. Because the school structures and its focus on creating a culture of care through its purpose and values were fundamental in enabling the other caring relationships, it is discussed in more detail in a later section on school organization.


The next two caring relationships—student-to-school and student-to-teacher—show a shift in focus from the three relationships described previously. First, these two relationships show students as givers of care instead of receivers. Second, these two relationships are characterized by a desire to be protective of the cared for. All students interviewed liked Middle College better than their previous schools, and a majority expressed overt concern for the success of Middle College. This concern was evident in their interest in the school achieving a good reputation and in their desire to protect the school from those whose behaviors and attitudes opposed the school’s ideology. Given that Middle College serves a population of disenfranchised students, most of whom were at risk of dropping out, it is noteworthy that students expressed care for the school in both their words and their actions.

Students demonstrated care for the school by showing a desire for the school to succeed and achieve a good reputation. In this form of care, the care was directed to a nonhuman entity, the school, but implicitly demonstrated care for fellow students because of the school’s ability to affect their success. For example, a number of students expressed anger at students who were abusing their privileges at the school, jeopardizing other students’ opportunities for success. Peter said, “Only 125 kids are allowed in this school and the kids who are here that are taking advantage of it . . . need to make room for the people that do need to be here and that can perform well here.” Some students, including Peter, advocated kicking students out of Middle College if they could not fit within the parameters of the school. When asked why somebody should be asked to leave Middle College, Katie responded, “Just because there might be 10 other people here who would take it seriously and come here and they would actually put it to use, and they’re not. They’re wasting somebody else’s chance. They’re wasting their own, too.” Later in our interview, Peter said, “Those aren’t the people we need here. And that kind of gives the school a bad name . . . because people think that this is a school for slackers.” Trixie wanted some of the positive things that students in the school participated in, like the drama students reading to elementary students in a nearby school, to be publicized so that the school could shed the reputation of being for the “quote unquote bad kids.”

Some students felt a sense of responsibility to take actions to protect the school when other students did not conform to the school’s ideology. Leah and Trixie spoke frequently with the principal, suggesting ways that the school should be changed to prevent the “slackers” from applying or to get rid of them if they managed to get selected as a Middle College student. Leah wanted a student to sit in on each entrance interview because the students “know how teenagers talk” and can detect someone “saying stuff just to get in here because they think it’s an easy ride.” Joe talked about actions that he and others took to protect the school:

Somebody comes in here and they start disrupting things, they’re not about our business. I don’t know if that’s a good way, but if they’re not here to do what they need to be doing, kick them out. That’s what happened the first year is this dude came here. He wasn’t doing nothing but causing a ruckus, you know. We kicked him out, you know, made sure he didn’t come back.

Joe and some of his fellow students put pressure on the student who was not conforming to the school’s ideology to either abide by these fundamental beliefs or leave. There was no formal structure in place for students to exercise this authority, but they cared enough about the school to take these measures to protect the school in the absence of any formal structure. Students understood that there were certain things that students needed to do at Middle College; they also understood that there were things that students should not do. Because students cared about the success of the school, some took action to curtail others who inhibited the school’s success. Sometimes this meant that students sacrificed cordial interactions with others in the present to help the school reach its potential in the future.


To a lesser extent, students were also protective of their teachers and demonstrated care mostly in terms of not wanting the teachers at Middle College to be taken advantage of. Taking advantage of teachers usually meant not putting in an effort and not responding to the effort that teachers put into helping students succeed. Students mostly implicated their fellow students as holding responsibility for not caring for teachers; however, some students’ words contradicted their actual actions. Hayden is a good example because she recognized that what she said and how she behaved conflicted: “I don’t like how, including myself, how it’s abused, how sometimes we take the teachers for granted and allow them to bend over backwards and we’re not bending the same. I mean, that’s my situation right now.”

Some students felt obligated to reciprocate the care that they perceived the teachers gave to them. In a way, showing care to their teachers meant allowing their teachers to help them. By taking their teachers for granted, students prevented their teachers from reaching their potential as teachers, as Hayden described. At least 6 of the 13 participants indicated a desire to show some form of reciprocation for the teachers’ generosity of care for them. Like Hayden, some students wanted to reciprocate through their academics, and some specifically talked about reciprocating through their attitude.

He’s [principal] given so much to me and the rest of us here that it’s only right to obey, I guess. I don’t want to say obey like, “yes master,” but like to listen to him, to respect him and respect his authority. Because he doesn’t have to go out on a limb. He never had to, you know, he didn’t have to start this school and give us this opportunity, so it’s the least I can do. (James)

Although the category of student-to-teacher care contained the least amount of data compared with the other four forms, considering the age of students in this study and that they were previously disenfranchised from school (with some on the verge of dropping out), that this category emerged at all is notable.


As they described the different forms of care, students both explicitly and implicitly identified a number of organizational factors that enabled care to exist at Middle College. As shown in Figure 1, the organizational factors are foundational and foster the existence of the pervasive elements that are evident throughout the caring relationships. At Middle College, the organizational factors included structural aspects of the school, namely the small size of the school and the smaller classes, and ideological tenets, which I refer to as core values. It was the synergy of these structures and ideological tenets that (1) created opportunities for individuals within Middle College to act in caring ways, and (2) created a caring institution.


Students indicated a number of structural factors that fostered care at Middle College, especially the teacher-to-student care and student-to-student care. The size of the school and the size of the classes surfaced as the most compelling explanation for why teachers at Middle College could know students personally and provide them with academic support that would lead to opportunities to succeed. James explained why he initially thought the academics at Middle College were easier than at Grandview, his previous high school: “They [classes] felt easier because they’re so much smaller. . . . It’s a lot more personal and it’s a lot easier to ask a question and have it answered and you get the attention you need to learn.” Matthew also pointed to school size as a cause for teacher caring, but he coupled that with teachers’ attitude as he explained how Middle College is different from his previous high school:

I don’t necessarily know if that’s a big deal, that there’s less kids. I guess it’s more personal relationships with the teachers. They seem to display the attitude that they actually care. You’re not just a number. You actually have a face at this school because I guess, that has to do with there’s not as many kids.

The order of Matthew’s statements is as telling as the content. In explaining how Middle College was different, he began by talking about the school size. Then he decided it was not the size, it was the nature of the relationships he had with his teachers and the teachers’ attitudes. However, at the end of this excerpt, he stated that the nature of the relationships that he had with his teachers was a result of the size of the school. Matthew’s statements coincide with findings from extant research on the correlation between school size, class size, and academic achievement. Smaller school size and smaller class size do not ensure that students will learn more, but small size creates conditions that are conducive to more personalized teaching practices (Alspaugh, 1998; Bryk & Thum, 1989; Evertson & Randolph, 1989; Finn, 1998).

Similarly, the small size of the school and the smaller classes contributed to student perceptions that students cared for each other at Middle College. Because students consistently used the term family, I specifically tried to ascertain why a family atmosphere existed and whether students thought that a family atmosphere was possible at their previous schools. Some students said that the small size of the school gave them “no other choice” than to “spend time with someone and . . . truly figure out who they are” (Bob). Katie juxtaposed the effect of the environment on student behavior at Middle College with the effect of the environment on student behavior at comprehensive high schools. “I wondered that myself. Why can’t it be like this at another school? Maybe it’s just because there’s so many people at another school. . . . We were just like them. And if we went back, we’d be the same.” For Bob and Katie, the size of the school enabled people to have more personal, caring relationships. Katie’s comment indicates that the same students, when placed in a different social context, would respond differently. A student who demonstrates caring behaviors in one setting may be less likely to demonstrate caring behaviors in another. Therefore, although a small school does not ensure that students will be accepting and supportive of each other, it creates conditions that are more conducive to a culture of caring.


Students’ comments imply that certain structures are necessary but not sufficient for enabling caring. Undergirding students’ comments about Middle College as an organization are references to ideology, which I refer to as core values. Core values are the intangible glue defining the essence of Middle College. Because Middle College maintains core values focused on care, the school structures are purposefully designed to foster caring relationships among the individuals within the school and to ensure that the school as a whole operates as a caring institution. Key characteristics of core values are that they must be deeply rooted ideologies and not just superficial rallying points (Bryk & Driscoll, 1988; Bryk et al., 1993), they must be agreed upon by the members of the group (Irmsher, 1997; Myers & Simpson, 1998; Raywid, 1993; Strike, 1999), and they must bind people to the group in a “covenantal way” (Sergiovanni, 1992).

That caring relationships constituted the deliberate, deeply rooted ideology of Middle College is evident both in students’ awareness that it was an essential part of what the school stood for and in the ability of the school to articulate this focus. The cover letter to the student application form states that every faculty member at Middle College makes it a

daily priority to establish a nurturing learning environment to foster student self-esteem and confidence. The establishments of solid caring relationships between teachers and students, and peer groups who accept them as individuals, create a sense of family which enhances the school environment in the areas of attendance and academic success.

Because caring relationships were an essential focus of Middle College, the structures were designed to be conducive to individuals behaving in caring ways. Stated simply, core values were deeply rooted ideologies that shaped the school’s structures. Students’ comments provide much evidence to support this supposition. As students talked about the possibility of a family atmosphere existing at their previous schools, some of their responses indicated that it was possible if new structures were put in place. For example, Bob mentioned instituting focus groups so that smaller groups of people in a large school could get to know each other better. Peter said that bigger schools could be more family-like if they “teach acceptance.” In these examples, the commonality is not the structure, but the rationale for the structure, which was having caring relationships as a core value.

It is one thing for a school to articulate its core values, sometimes referred to as vision (Myers & Simpson, 1998; Watkins & Marsick, 1999) or shared purposes (Rossi & Stringfield, 1995), but it is a greater challenge to ensure that members of the school community agree upon them (Murphy, Beck, Crawford, Hodges, & McGaughy, 2001). Middle College possesses more latitude than traditional schools in establishing core values because it is a school of choice. Students accept the values when they choose to enroll. According to Victoria, “Here you don’t have to be with us. When you go to that interview it’s like you’re pretty much saying I’m going to be kind to everybody and act like a part of the family.” Traditional high schools have the difficult dilemma of being inclusive while simultaneously establishing “boundedness” (Beck, 1996), whereby a unified set of values are adopted by all. Because the diverse student body of a traditional comprehensive high school attend by default and not choice, it is difficult to establish values that are “thick enough” to create a cohesive community (Strike, 1999). Middle College is able to bind people to the community by clearly articulating core values that people must accept if they want to attend the school.

Middle College also binds people to the community by the sheer nature of the specific core values that it maintains as an organization. Caring relationships characterize one of Middle College’s primary core values. The nature of these relationships calls for students to care for themselves by trying to reach their potential, to give care by helping others reach their potential, and to allow themselves to be cared for by other members of the Middle College family. Because the organization’s values validate the needs of the individuals within the organization, specifically the students, a balance is achieved whereby the organization thrives and the individuals within the community experience opportunities to thrive. Successfully navigating the tension between the needs of the “collective we” and the needs of individuals is imperative in a successful school community (Myers & Simpson, 1998; Noddings, 1996).

The fundamental importance of care as a core value cannot be understated. Care as a primary core value of Middle College not only created structures that enabled individuals within the school community to act in caring ways, but it also established a culture of care that gave students the perception that Middle College was a caring institution.


In this article, I move beyond a theoretical conception of care to explore empirically how care exists in a high school serving students at risk of dropping out. A complex model emerged (Figure 1) that included who was involved in caring relationships, how those relationships were manifest, and what conditions supported caring relationships. Three main conclusions emerge from this data: (1) students at Middle College both wanted to be cared for and wanted to demonstrate care. This desire to receive and give care manifested in a number of different relationships; (2) care seems to be associated with positive outcomes, including students’ desire to demonstrate care and creation of an environment more conducive to learning; and (3) most useful for helping schools to become more caring is the finding that some conditions seem to enable care to exist. Particular elements, like a family atmosphere, seem to facilitate students’ perception of different caring relationships, but most important, it is the requisite need to establish care as a core value that dictates the structural aspects of the school.

Although these conclusions should have relevance in other contexts, this study has limitations. As stated previously, Middle College is a small school that serves a specific population of students, making it better able to maintain caring relationships than the typical comprehensive high school, which serves a larger, more diffuse population. Another limitation involves the choice and number of data sources. Although they provided detailed, conceptually rich descriptions, the construct generated is based on the perceptions of 16 students. Although limited in scope, the conclusions drawn begin to provide an empirical foundation and indicate meaningful directions for future research on how care exists in schools.

The first conclusion, that students want to be cared for, seems so obvious that it is trite. Yet, students consistently contrasted the care that they perceived at Middle College with a lack of care that they perceived at their previous schools. Students are major stakeholders in the educative process, and because they have agency, they can determine their participation or nonparticipation in school; therefore, their perception of the learning environment is crucial even though it is generally ignored. This study corroborates Noddings’s (1992) assertion that students’ perceptions are important if care is to be received. Not surprisingly, the most prevalent caring relationships described had the students on the receiving end of care.

However, most students also articulated a desire to act in caring ways that included reciprocating care, one positive outcome of a caring school. Although neither Mayeroff nor Noddings claimed that care must be reciprocated, these data suggest that for some students, a result of receiving care is a desire to respond with care, though sometimes students only articulated this desire and did not act on it. If one role of teachers is to “help their students develop the capacity to care” (Noddings, 1992, p. 18), examining the reasons that students respond with care becomes necessary. Future research should explore the relationship between receiving and reciprocating care, focusing on students’ perspectives in a variety of school settings.

Another positive outcome involves academics. Previously in this article, I argued that a relationship exists between affect and cognition. For many adolescents, especially those at risk of dropping out, lack of care correlates with lack of academic achievement (Altenbaugh, 1998; Bryk & Thum, 1989; Epstein, 1992; Finn, 1989). Unfortunately, extant research neglects to address whether the opposite is true. Although not conclusive, the evidence from this study indicates that the presence of care creates an environment conducive to learning. This does not mean that care equates to academic success. Not all students at Middle College necessarily reached their academic potential. However, the presence of the caring relationships seemed to lessen factors that inhibited students from learning previously. Because caring relationships and learning appear to be tightly coupled, care should not be excluded from policy discussions involving academic achievement. In fact, how to create caring schools should become a primary rather than peripheral focus.

I hypothesize that the third conclusion from this study, identifying the conditions that allow care to exist, is most essential for strengthening the theoretical and practical understanding of care. At Middle College, certain elements pervaded the data, suggesting that these elements facilitated students’ perception of different caring relationships. Specifically, students felt cared for when they perceived that they had opportunities to succeed, that they were respected, that there was flexibility to accommodate them, that a family atmosphere existed, and that they belonged at the school and were not alienated from their teachers and fellow students. The ubiquitous nature of these elements in these data raise the theoretical question of whether these specific elements explicate caring relationships in all school settings or if the caring construct is malleable in different school contexts. Must students perceive all five elements to receive care?

Most important, and most useful from a practical standpoint, is the role that the organizational factors play in promoting care. There are cogent indicators that the ideology and structure of a school both facilitate students’ perception that the school is caring and provide opportunities for people within the school to act in caring ways. Students contrasted the care at Middle College with a lack of care at their previous schools because their previous schools were not structured in a way that fostered the five elements, probably because care was not a core value. This study suggests that care must be a deliberate focus, fundamental to the school’s ideology, if schools are to create structures that enable caring relationships. At Middle College, the small size of the school and the small size of the classes created conditions that allowed teachers and students to develop personalized relationships with each other, but small size had to be coupled with care as a core value. It is the strong ideological tenets that give purpose to any decisions about structure. Numerous researchers note the futility of changing only structures as a means to create better schools (Scribner, Cockrell, Cockrell, & Valentine, 1999; Wasley, Hampel, & Clark, 1997; Watkins & Marsick, 1999). Deal and Peterson (1999) state, “Reforms that focus only on changing structure or school governance will never succeed” (p. 137). They argue for a change in “cultural patterns.” Because it is unrealistic for most schools to have an enrollment and class size as small as Middle College, it is important for educators to investigate how schools can hold care as a core value and still exist within certain structural parameters. The school-within-a-school model is one possibility. To test the viability of the caring construct, it is imperative to explore care both in restructured school settings, like school-within-a-school, and traditional comprehensive high schools.

If care is an important quality in schools, both in its own right and because it creates conditions conducive for learning, then understanding contextual factors that facilitate caring relationships is imperative. Recognizing the importance of care is insufficient. If we are to engender schools that exist as caring communities, rigorous empirical research must continue to explore the who, what, and how of school care, and care must be viewed as a viable focus that guides school policy.

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The authors extend special thanks to Edward Fierros, Neil Knobloch, David Schnitz, and Christine Brady for providing feedback on earlier drafts of this article.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 7, 2006, p. 1460-1495
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12563, Date Accessed: 12/6/2021 7:46:41 PM

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About the Author
  • Deborah Schussler
    Villanova University
    E-mail Author
    DEBORAH L SCHUSSLER is an assistant professor of education at Villanova University. Her research interests include the role of affect in student learning, school organization, and the moral development of prospective teachers. Her most recent publication is “Schools as Learning Communities: Unpacking the Concept” in the Journal of School Leadership (2003).
  • Angelo Collins
    Knowles Science Teaching Foundation
    E-mail Author
    ANGELO COLLINS is the executive director of the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation and is coeditor of the Journal of Research in Science Teaching. Her research interests lie at the intersection of teacher education and performance assessment and policy within the context of high school science. Typical publications include “National Science Education Standards: Looking Backward and Forward” in the Elementary School Journal (1997) and “Portfolios for science education: Issues in purpose, structure and authenticity” in Science Education (1992).
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