Teachers Are Carers—But Who Takes Care of the Teachers?

(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).

Editor’s note: The following essay is an edited excerpt from an earlier version that was posted on Maha Bali’s blog.

“Committed acts of caring let all students know that the purpose of education is not to dominate, or prepare them to be dominators, but rather to create the conditions for freedom. Caring educators open the mind, allowing students to embrace a world of knowing that is always subject to change and challenge.”
(bell hooks, 2003, Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope, p. 91)

As someone who writes and speaks a lot about pedagogy of care, I have recently been asked several times, “What about the teachers? Who cares for the teachers?”

My answer is threefold. There are three types of care that teachers need and can get: care from fellow teachers, care from their own students, and equitable caring policies from their institutions. Can you think of others?

Here are some more concrete examples of the first two types of care I mention. I will say more about the third, equitable caring policies at institutions, in the next installment of this two-part essay.

Teachers Care for Teachers

This one is, by far, the one you (if you’re a teacher) can have control and influence to create and nurture. Nel Noddings writes:

“When … the cared-for is unable to respond in a way that completes the relation, the work of the carer becomes more and more difficult. Carers in this position need the support of a caring community to sustain them.”
(Noddings, 2012, p. 54).

In my own institution, the Center for Learning and Teaching at the American University in Cairo, we have a learning community for new faculty members, so that we meet several times during their first year, and we have an email thread going in between. Although we do give workshops in those meetings, the community is centered around the sharing of experiences and concerns, when we were in person and now that we are online.

The learning community is not centered around particular content we want teachers to know, but around being a supportive peer community in whatever way they need. When the coronavirus pandemic hit in 2020, the cohort that was then with us shifted from in-person workshops to virtual ones immediately, focusing on the topics that concerned them most. Mays Imad also suggests establishing buddy systems and having free writing retreats (I have had one of these, outside my institution, and it helped me get some writing done in a difficult time).

The learning community is not centered around particular content we want teachers to know, but around being a supportive peer community in whatever way they need.

Outside of such an institutional community, I have several Twitter group DMs with international friends, WhatsApp groups with some international interest groups and some local groups that offer relief, and some Slack teams as well. These spaces allow us to joke, share GIFs, vent and sometimes talk serious stuff … and support each other, whether emotionally or with tips and information.

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Sometimes, a relaxing synchronous session can make a huge difference. For me, these have been sessions where I meet up with people online for a coffee. Early in the pandemic I did “Morning Coffee” drop-ins and some people loved them, sometimes just to chat, sometimes because they needed help with something quick and urgent. I also discovered that I enjoy and relax when I attend free Liberating Structures meetups with people who were mostly strangers. The format was interactive, I learned a lot, and came out feeling energized, but without pressure.

Other little things that have helped during the pandemic are gratitude journaling (which I learned about from local colleagues) and meeting up for some desk yoga (which we did during our recent CLT Symposium). This was all done by educators for educators. I think self-care is tough to do on your own, but great to work on together in community.

Students Reciprocate Care for Teachers

If you’re a teacher who genuinely cares for students, they pick up on it right away, and when the time comes, they will reciprocate if you give them the opportunity to do so. We as parents will always give more to our kids than they will give us, yet we want to teach them how to give and care back, right? I think it’s the same with students. We are responsible and accountable for their education and are going to always give more than we get, but it is OK to sometimes ask for some empathy or care back. Three examples come to mind.

If you’re a teacher who genuinely cares for students,they pick up on it right away, and when the time comes, they will reciprocate if you give them the opportunity to do so.

First, during the earlier days of the pandemic, I spent time daily on Slack and each time we met on Zoom listening to students and their worries and anxiety. And when one day I discovered a really close friend and her family had contracted Covid-19, getting this news just an hour before my class, my students listened to me and comforted me in that moment. I couldn’t have taught the class that day without telling someone, and their empathy helped us move forward. I also modeled for them that vulnerability, and we had already established an environment of psychological safety. (See a related article, “How to Build Community in Your Courses, Online or In-Person.”)

This semester was trickier, because I myself got Covid-19 early in the semester before my students could form the needed bonds. I mean, I know they knew I cared for them a priori, from their comments on the syllabus and what we had done so far, but not in any concrete way. But I chose to tell them anyway, because it was affecting me psychologically and physically, and they needed to know I would not be at my best for some time. Their reactions warmed my heart. They were caring and those who had had it before gave me concrete tips to help me through it. It helped a lot.

The third situation was when I got a bad cold (about a month after recovering from Covid) and I coughed so bad I lost my voice. I started class that day and asked two volunteer students to “be my voice” and read out what I typed in the chat. They did and it went really smoothly. I would not do it often, but every now and then, we can lean on students for a minute or two. As long as we know we are continuing to give them care most of the time.

By the way, as a faculty developer, the people I “serve” daily are fellow faculty members, not students. And some of them reciprocated, especially during the pandemic, with sometimes just calling or texting to check up on me. Also, because faculty have more power than regular students, they will also occasionally send emails to your boss or someone even higher-ups to praise you for your work or your department’s work, and respond to surveys with glowing reviews, and naming particular members of your department for exceptional work done.

This all helps a lot and boosts morale. Even if you can’t stop working and exhausting yourself, feeling appreciated fuels you to keep going—and helps you later if you need to advocate for more tangible rewards.

Maha Bali is an associate professor of practice in the Center for Learning and Teaching at the American University in Cairo. She is a co-founder of virtuallyconnecting.org and co-facilitator of Equity Unbound.


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