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Posted at 4:00 PM ET, 10/19/2010

Missing from reform debate: The power of caring

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by Dorothy Stoneman, founder and president of YouthBuild USA, a youth and community development program that addresses core issues facing low-income communities: housing, education, employment, crime prevention, and leadership development.There are 273 YouthBuild programs in 45 states, Washington D.C., and the Virgin Islands.

By Dorothy Stoneman
So far, I find the public discussion about “Waiting for Superman” missing the fundamental question: What makes for a great school where students feel safe, cared about, and eager to learn?

We are woefully off the mark when the conversation is all about superintendents and principals needing power to fire inept teachers and not about using their power to create a caring, learning community.

The morning after seeing the movie, I asked students at Washington DC’s YouthBuild Charter School: “Somehow your regular public high schools didn’t work for you and you left. Why is this school working for you?”

Their answers were profound: “I love to come to school now because the teachers here care about me. They see who I really am. They ask who I want to become. Then they teach me what I need to learn. The other students are like my brothers and sisters. We’re like a family here. Teachers have time for us and stay after school and come early to help us. If I don’t come to school, they call me. They even come to my house. I don’t know why they care so much, but they do, and so now I care about myself and my own education.”

In the 32 years since I started the first YouthBuild program in East Harlem, more than 100,000 students have attended 273 YouthBuild programs in America’s poorest communities. They work for their GEDs or high school diplomas and learn job skills by building affordable housing for poor families. Students virtually always say the same thing: When they can tell the teachers care, they start to like school.

I taught second grade at PS 92 in Harlem in 1965 and know how hard it is to face a class of 30 children with the weight of the world on their shoulders. Some of my own early training and supervision was misguided. I was told to protect myself from burnout by creating professional boundaries. I was told discipline was paramount, and to just do my best to present the material and that it was up to the children to learn it.

Then I went to teach at the East Harlem Block Schools, one of the first independent public schools.

At this parent-controlled school, I was told the opposite: Visit every child’s home, get to know their parents and the community, show how much you care. I was told to figure out how to educate all the students to fulfill their potential. Parents served as assistant teachers, turning them into partners; teachers met in teams.

Now, 40 years later, I get phone calls and Facebook messages from former students telling me how much they loved that school community.

Superintendents and principals need to tell teachers to surprise the students and the parents with how much they care.

I remember surprising my students during my first year of teaching second grade when I burst into tears, saying, “I am not here for the money or because I have to be. I am here because I care about you. Please sit down and listen to the lesson.”

I was embarrassed to cry, but later that day, I overheard one of my students say to another, “Miss Stoneman really cares about us. She cried. She is here because she wants to be.” Of course, this is not the best example of caring, but over-hearing that comment made a lasting impression on me.

This important debate about our education system needs to include the power of love, the role of principals in building a caring learning community that includes the teachers’ development, the involvement of parents, the cultural relevance of curriculum, the voice of the young people, and the active engagement of students in the learning process.


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By Valerie Strauss  | October 19, 2010; 4:00 PM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, School turnarounds/reform, Student Life  | Tags:  curriculum, harlem schools, learning process, parent involvement, school reform, teachers development, youthbuild  
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Look at the flyer that the top WTU candidates are distributing for their election. Yes, it is aimed at teacher/union voters. But not even a wisp of concern or care for the children.

Ms. Stoneman runs an above-avg. charter, by most accounts. The kids know the teachers care about them. Sad to say, many accounts of what DCPS teachers care about omits any reference to caring.

Undoubtedly some teachers do care, and care a lot. But for many others it is just a job, not a calling. The kids sense this immediately. This what happens when the thinking at the classroom level is teacher-centric in many cases.

Posted by: axolotl | October 19, 2010 8:11 PM | Report abuse

I also agree that caring makes a huge difference. If the kids think you don't like them or that you don't think they can do well, they pick up on that right away, as all human beings do.

This is just so important, especially in schools with high mobility rates. It is really hard to be new in a school. Schools should have something set up for the new kids.

Earlier in my career, caring was seen as positive by administrators. Later, the students could tell who cared, but it was not considered important by administrators. At my last school we were told to "care about student learning" because that had an impact on student success. "Caring about the student" as a person, was nice, but not effective as far as learning went.

I always disagreed with that distinction, feeling that only caring about someone's learning and not caring about the person was sort of like using them.

Caring is important and that is why a school should have a positive, supportive atmosphere. Unfortunately, the pressure is on to get test scores up and caring is secondary or not essential in some buildings.

I agree with you, axoltl, that the classroom shouldn't be teacher-centric. I sort of despair that classrooms will ever be child-centric again, given the pressure for testing, but we will see. It sounds like you have had a bad experience with DCPS, I hope you are starting to see improvements. Hang in there.

Posted by: celestun100 | October 19, 2010 8:52 PM | Report abuse

This was really good to hear. Caring does count. And I like what Youthbuild does also.

Posted by: jlp19 | October 19, 2010 9:09 PM | Report abuse

A. It doesn't surprise me that once again Valerie Strauss fills her column with someone else's writing.

B. Caring is at the center of the whole debate. Caring about children and families is why reformers have pushed so hard in the first place. They can't sit back and say, "well, we'll just wait for the government to fix our social ills. I guess we can wait a couple of more generations before teaching kids."

The difference is that the other "bolder" side wants the government to be superman. Reformers are teachers, for the most part, who walk in to houses everyday and work with families one-on-one.

Posted by: delray | October 20, 2010 9:59 AM | Report abuse

Thanks Ms. Stoneman for voicing a most critical yet intangible element to a successful teacher: commitment and care. If you care, you commit. Indeed, students sense this better than any administrator could dream, and even if they get an 'F' in your class as adults they recognize that you tried.

Posted by: pdexiii | October 20, 2010 11:31 PM | Report abuse

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