In 2016, as part of my PhD research, I visited an area secondary school in Waikato, where I met Ihaia*, a Year 12 Māori student. In a few words, he explained the importance of caring relationships, bonding and belonging in education. Many teachers and policymakers think that granting access, affording technologies, or seeking relevance in the global economy are the most important aspects in secondary education, but my research showed that relationships are what students care about. Ihaia explained it this way:
“When the teachers put the effort into knowing the person, they are really putting the effort into learning the maths or the subject they are learning any way, ‘cause they get to understand the capabilities for their learning”
For this student, the teacher who strived to put effort into understanding him as a whole person, would, as a consequence, also be attending to his academic needs because they are an integral part of the person. It is like saying that the teacher who takes care of the whole, is implicitly taking care of the parts, but it cannot be true the other way around.
Ihaia’s story resonates with that of many young students around the world who aim to succeed in a managerial type of education – one that is centered on teachers administering or delivering curriculum/content – but fail and leave school early before completion. Leaving school early results in many of these young people falling into a cycle of poverty and exclusion. Moreover, most of the students who fail in a managerial type of schooling belong to ethnic minorities (see here, here and here). In his testimony, Ihaia pins down the key to reversing this trend: caring for the person as a culturally situated individual. One teacher interviewed in another culturally-diverse secondary school expanded the idea that caring student-teacher relationships could improve attendance and assist academic learning. He argued that in some contexts, “turning up to school is a victory”, meaning that when a student commits to attending school despite an adverse context, a strong motivation for them to attend is how they feel acknowledged by a teacher who genuinely cares. The Principal of the school where Ihaia attended affirmed:
“Unless we deal with the human we are not going to deal with the academic”
A range of educationalists and international organisations argue that secondary education is confronting a worldwide “crisis of legitimacy” where there is a constant trend of student estrangement, disengagement, and abandonment.
In 2014, the OECD warned that leaving secondary school early before completion might be related to the deepening social and economic inequality both between countries and within the population of the same country. While opportunities to access secondary education have expanded, and the level of skills continues to rise, young students who abandon secondary education before completion are at serious risk of social and economic exclusion. In Aotearoa New Zealand, early school leaving and students’ disengagement in secondary education is a significant challenge. Moreover, according to the MoE, Māori students had the lowest rate of retention compared with other ethnicities. Similarly, in Latin America early school leaving and student disengagement in secondary education remain problematic, disproportionately affecting the poorest young people – those who live in rural areas or belong to a minority ethnic group.
Unveiling the sustainability factors of cultural and pedagogical change
My PhD research refutes the idea that a sufficient remedy of the secondary education crisis of legitimacy is prioritising the needs of the job market. Although economic relevance in secondary education is important, feelings of belonging and motivation among students are crucial to student attendance and learning. Those feelings are nurtured in the context of caring and restorative educational relationships. In my study, I termed those relationship-based pedagogical approaches, “pedagogies of care and reconciliation” (see Fig. 1). Building caring relationships takes time because they are based on getting to know the person as a culturally situated individual. Therefore, my study explored the factors that promote and sustain the pedagogies of care and reconciliation.
My PhD research involved three secondary schools (two in Aotearoa New Zealand and one in Perú), which are committed to placing caring relationships at the core of school culture and pedagogy. The research, drawing from a qualitative multiple-case study, sought to understand how secondary schools promote and sustain pedagogies of care and reconciliation where teachers and students learn to care for self, for others and the planet, and to restore relationships in conflict.
Data sets were collected on four pedagogical domains: dialogue, practice, modelling, and confirmation via individual interviews, focus groups, classroom observations, and informal conversations. Participants in the research project included students (N=12), teachers (N=12), parents (N=12) and school principals (N = 3). The schools were known for their restorative practices, and also, they shared a common concern with regards to educational inequities. Diversities of context, location, ethnicity, and gender provided the opportunity to identify cross-case synergies.
The enabling factors of sustainability in school cultural change
The findings of my study revealed that the factors that promote and sustain pedagogies of care and reconciliation are multifaceted and interrelated. Moreover, most of them were not unique to each school but instead were common across all three sites. In a process similar to ‘distillation’ I extracted the specific school-themes, and then, asserted six enabling factors as the key findings of my study:
- Exercising caring leadership;
- Engaging with/problematising the context;
- Constructing a shared culturally situated meaning of pedagogies of care and reconciliation;
- Prioritising caring student-teacher relationships;
- Embedding the caring and restorative ideals at all levels of the school; and
- Acknowledging existential concerns connected with cultural and pedagogical change.
Ultimately, the study offered a detailed account of what pedagogies of care and reconciliation mean in practice in secondary schools. Also, it provided new understandings of the factors that promote and sustain school cultural change.
At a practical level, my research not only reiterates that an ethic of care is an achievable ideal to humanize secondary education, but also provides principles to guide practice. Some of the ways in which teachers engaged in building and repairing relationships within an ethic of care are:
- Provide every student a warm reception and acceptance;
- Create an environment of trust where every student feel acknowledged;
- Approach students to understand situations and listen, as opposed to being judgmental;
- Allow for conversations with students aimed at getting to know one another and establishing a deeper human connection; and
- Relationship-building entails sustained interaction over time as much as engaging time in conversation in order to learn about students’ contexts, needs and expectations.
In the present context of a global pandemic, it is increasingly recognized that a tremendous challenge is to maintain students’ bonding with the educational process as “the relationships the teachers have built with their students over the year or semester are a key to help them navigate this difficult time…” (see here and here). Therefore, the principles to guide practice that my thesis proposed could be put in dialogue with potential impact in this current context.
Dr. Maria Carolina Nieto Angel gained her Ph.D from the University of Canterbury in 2018. She is an educational consultant and researcher in education working for universities in Colombia and New Zealand, governments, and non-profits. Her research interests focus on Indigenous knowledge and learning, holistic approaches to education, including cultures of care. She is currently examining how schools promote and sustain caring environments, and promoting restorative justice in school settings.