When I was a high school teacher, we had a leader who told us that a successful institution is one where everybody in the community feels known, needed, and cared for. It’s a simple concept that, if taken seriously, has revolutionary potential. Indeed, it’s one of the most powerful ideas I’ve ever encountered in education.
I remember that when I first heard this idea, I didn’t like it. “Sentimental drivel!” I wanted to scream. “Simplistic feel-good blather!” But then I thought back to my experience as an undergraduate.
I spent three years at New York University, studying playwrighting. I left after my junior year for various reasons — personal, financial, programmatic — but fundamentally I left NYU because though I felt somewhat known within my own department, I did not feel the least bit needed nor the least bit cared for. (“Cared for” in the sense of people really caring that I’m there, caring about my welfare, caring about my work.) When I told people I was leaving, nobody tried to stop me — except for one teacher, the last one I told, and the only one I’d ever had much contact with outside the classroom. She seemed devastated and was angry that the university hadn’t made any sort of effort to keep me. But it was too late.
I transferred to the University of New Hampshire for my senior year. It was a hard year. My parents had recently divorced, I had decided I didn’t want to be a professional playwright, and I felt like a failure for leaving NYU. Though I didn’t miss the cost of living in New York, I missed the liveliness of the city, missed feeling like I lived in the center of the world.
I was only at UNH for one year as an undergraduate (plus a summer course and a trip to Mexico to finish my foreign-language credit), but during that year I worked as a TA for one of my teachers (in an environmental science course that I took just because it was a requirement, and which deeply influenced my life then and now), I took a seminar that directly led to my Ph.D. dissertation over a decade later, I met another teacher who would quickly become one of my best friends and most consistent mentors, and I’ve contributed to a scholarship fund in memory of another of my teachers that year because he taught me how to read 17th and 18th century literature, a gift I continue to cherish. All of that — and more! — in a single academic year.
Known. Needed. Cared for.
In my current role, people often ask me the secret of our success with retention, because not only do about two thirds of our students say that our program is what kept them from dropping out of college, but we also have (I’ve been told) the highest retention rate in the university. At a small school in a state with high education costs and doom-and-gloom demographics, that’s a big deal. What’s our secret? people ask.
I’m new in the job and can not claim any credit for any of it; I see what’s happening, and I try to analyze how I can best support and continue it. It’s no surprise to me that this program keeps students in school and gets them graduated. We could talk about our systems and ideas for hours, but if you really want to know them, it’s all in the four words: Known, needed, cared for.
Here’s one example of what I’m thinking about, a relatively little thing that allows us to convey our ethos to the students — even with over 100 majors and only two faculty (one, me, on a one-year contract; the other on sabbatical at the moment) and one program support assistant. The example is this: The drop-in nature of our office.
We put our office hours on our syllabi — not our “office hours” when we, the faculty, will be sitting in our office waiting for someone (anyone!) to come by, but the actual hours that our program office is open. (I do have my own official office hours on my syllabi, but also add “or by appointment or chance”.) Our program assistant is fully trained as an advisor, and our student workers are trained in basic program-level advising. Everyone can also help with all the major assignments for our courses. We have deliberately created an office that is not only capable of doing the necessary administrative tasks, but which is capable of providing various levels of support to students who walk in.
Again and again, we tell students: If the office is open, drop in and get your questions answered. We’ll help with assignments, with answering general questions, with specific questions about our own program; we’ll help them sign up for classes and brainstorm what classes to take; we’ll direct them to the people who can help with things we can’t. We’re open 8.30am-5pm most days during the school year and, thanks to student workers, till 9pm one day and 10pm another. No need for an appointment unless you need to make sure to see somebody specific when you arrive (or you can’t wait five or ten minutes if everyone is busy).
A commitment to being available to students who drop in isn’t just about convenience for them, it’s also about communicating a vision.
A lot of institutional customs and cultures push against a feeling of openness in a program. We are vigilant in telling students about our system. “Drop in,” we say. Again and again. They don’t believe us at first. They are used to offices being places where they should be scared to enter because they might interrupt somebody’s work. But they are our work. Yes, we’ve got all sorts of stuff to do, but the students have to come first, or else why bother?
We have other systems and resources designed to make our program truly student-centered, and Robin DeRosa has outlined them well in her blog post “Open Pedagogy at the Program Level”, which includes the voices of students.
None of this is magic and none of it is foolproof, but it is based on that simple premise of making everyone, and our students in particular, see that they are known, needed, and cared for.
Can the concept apply to the classroom as well? It needs to.
I’ve just been reading The Spark of Learning by Sarah Rose Cavanagh, and was struck by her description of the findings of Chambliss and Takacs in their book How College Works, which studied students at one college over ten years:
Among the many fascinating specific findings they share in their book How College Works, one solid theme emerged: what makes a successful college isn’t the number of Nobel Prize winners at the front of classrooms or how many new science buildings are built on campus. Rather, it is the people. The best predictors of student satisfaction and success are whether students form close-knit friendships, have a mentor or two on campus with whom they develop a close relationship (it doesn’t need to be a professor), or find a meaningful social group with which to identify. (51)
Cavanagh stresses the importance of social relationships to people’s success, and especially to students’ success in college. That’s why the known, needed, cared for formula works so well: it highlights the feelings that good social relationships produce.
In the classroom, the formula reminds us that we should try to shape our interactions with students in a way that lets them know we care that they are in the room with us. In college teaching especially, it can be easy for the teacher to think of the students as interchangeable widgets. They come, they go. They do the work or they don’t. We grade them and then next term a new batch of widgets arrives. I’ve felt this sometimes myself, especially when busy. (Inevitably, if I’m feeling that way about a class, the class goes badly. Which is not to say a class always goes well if I’m thinking of the students as individual human beings whose presence I value — sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t — but that I know everything will go badly if I don’t think of them as individuals and if I don’t work to value their presence.)
How we set up the work in our courses also contributes to students feeling known, needed, and cared for — or not. At a pedagogical level, to me this comes down to the difference between the production of knowledge and the transferral of knowledge. Paulo Freire puts it clearly in Pedagogy of Freedom, where he writes that “to know how to teach is to create possibilities for the construction and production of knowledge rather than to be engaged simply in a game of transferring knowledge. When I enter a classroom I should be someone who is open to new ideas, open to questions, and open to the curiosities of the students as well as their inhibitions” (49). For the construction and production of knowledge, students can’t be seen as widgets. The game of transferring knowledge is a one-way track where the all-knowing teacher delivers information to the ignorant student. In such classrooms, all ignorant students are effectively equally empty vessels, at least until the first exam. Equally empty vessels are interchangeable, and one of the benefits of thinking about how students can be known, needed, and cared for is that it encourages us toward thinking of our students as human beings capable of constructing and producing knowledge. The task of the teacher is to treat them as such, and to create a learning environment that encourages everyone within that environment to feel themselves to be known, needed, and cared for. There is no simple recipe for this, and it’s likely to be different in each classroom and with each teacher. (I’ve known teachers who can do this even when lecturing — the environmental science teacher I mentioned above was one of them. That was a 300-student lecture course. It was magic.) There is no recipe, but in the absence of a recipe we have intention and reflection.
I intend at all times to be a teacher who creates an environment in which students can feel known, needed, and cared for. We all know, though, that intentions go awry. The best intentions often get compromised — even obliterated — in the crucible of everyday work and life. Nor do intentions guarantee good results. More often than not, I’ve probably failed to create the kind of environment I aimed for.
Thus, reflection. Which is why I’m writing this right now. Reflection isn’t just analysis, though it is that; reflection is also reminding. Reminding myself of what my best goals are. Reminding myself, here in the thick of it, that I have goals beyond just getting through tonight’s class, and that those goals should inform how I approach tonight’s class…