It started out as a conversation between two colleagues and then expanded to include a group of aspiring educational leaders. What is a caring economy and how does that relate to the world of teachers and principals, their students and families?
Several participants were struck by the quote, “We must give visibility and value to the work of caring for people and nature.” But how do we make caring work both visible and valuable? I shared my own experience working with a principal who was fighting his district’s focus on the state’s tests to the exclusion of the work his teachers and students were doing to improve academic performance. Together with his faculty, they implemented the Project Approach (see http://projectapproach.org/) to provide deep engagement with topics the students identified as important to them. As the culmination of several months of study, families and community members were invited into the school to hear directly from the students themselves through poster presentations and classroom demonstrations what had been learned. Then, following the state tests, teachers met by grade level to disaggregate test data and examine the impact their projects had on student performance. Over time, the school moved from its failing status to a high performing school (see http://www.edutopia.org/newsome-park-elementary-project-learning-video). As a result, families were involved in their children’s learning and appreciated what their children knew. Performance on the tests was only a single indicator rather than the whole picture. According to one participant, “I like this idea of looking beyond the mandated and considering what is important to you...to your school...to your community.
But in the current educational climate, standardized curriculum, teaching, and high stakes assessment is the reality for many teachers and principals. “We measure what we value” was a quote that hit a nerve for my participants. Alfie Kohn, in Schooling Beyond Measure and Other Unorthodox Essays about Education, noted “Collecting information doesn’t require tests, and sharing that information doesn’t require grades” (p. 34). One of the participants in my screencast pointed out, “Caring is difficult to measure in schools… so we tend to grow standardized test-taking skills because that's what we measure. We have more difficulty quantifying caring.” And yet the value of caring was significant for this group of teachers. One of the participants in my screencast wrote, “I am a firm believer in the power of caring for our students and building relationships. There is much research that shows that a strong relationship with the teacher increases student learning and achievement (in addition to making students more caring themselves), plus I've witnessed it firsthand.”
But once again, how do we make caring visible and how do we demonstrate its value to us? What are the barriers to creating a caring economy that recognizes the value of teachers? “Teaching and other human service professions consistently rank at the top of the most “noble” careers lists, but the salaries do not match… I do think a big reason why teachers, nurses, and child care providers earn so little is because these are careers that are majority female and so far they can get away with it.” Another teacher continued, “If we say educating children is the way to transform a nation, a method of promoting peace, etc., then those doing the educating should be paid in such a way that reflects that value. In other words, put your money where your mouth is!”
Participants reflected on the complexity of the issues that must addressed if we are to overcome the current barriers to a caring economy. “For example, the first key to a caring economy is to provide meaningful supports to the people who do the work of care, and [and that includes] parental leave, sick leave, FMLA, flexible work options, etc. As a mother who teaches, I fully appreciate this. Still, when I hear people talk about the need for paid maternity or paternity leave, I can't help but wonder who will pay for that. Taxes would go up, putting a tighter squeeze on an already-struggling middle and lower class. Also, when we talk about things like increased leave time and flexible work schedules, we remember that we are working with real little people, who depend on us consistently being with them. This is especially important when we consider the relationship we have with them. When my children are sick or have other needs, I take off work to be with them. During those times I do think of my students who rely on me. This is not an easy issue to fix.”
Another participant reflect, “Dr. Eisler explains that true prosperity is achieved when all three kinds of wealth [social wealth, natural wealth, and material wealth] are sustainable and vibrant. This made me think about my personal priorities and the demands that society has on me, which I indirectly or directly allow to influence my priorities. I believe that society still values material wealth and there is a pressure that if you do not possess items of value than you are not wealthy. I think these things are of least importance to me, but then again, I value having a nice house (not the most expensive house, but I want something more than a shack) and a nice car, and nice clothing, etc. I could survive on less, but there is this desire to have something better; to want something better for my child. This also makes me think about what values are indirectly, or even directly, influenced on school leaders. I can sometimes see the conflict that my principal has when she is being pressured to demand certain things from her teachers when she may not necessarily believe in their value. I can see this being a struggle that I will need to face and I am one to speak up when I feel that something is lacking in value; I need to learn how to express my discontent in acceptable ways (is this even possible).
These educators have begun to grapple with the significant issues associated with moving from an economy that privileges a few to one that demonstrates the real value of work that this one segment of our population does with and for us. I look forward to continuing this conversation with more of my colleagues.