I am a white, heavily tattooed, queer and autistic woman. Over my 20-year teaching career, I have been told that I am too loud, too direct, too opinionated, weird and “crazy,” as well as that people don't like me. Folks advise me to tone it down so my students, colleagues and institution will like me. Over the years, I have tried to do this with cardigans, skirts, dresses and make up. It hasn't worked.
The problem is structural. Education has gendered expectations of what female-presenting teachers/instructors/professors should look and act like. Ignoring these expectations is perilous. But also as a culture, we lack models to promote good pedagogy and policies that center students. Instead, we fall back on a model of maternal care.Pedagogy of Care
A pedagogy of care centers on caring for the student as a person as well as their academic success. This student-centered teaching often ignores how care is gendered. If you don't fit a student's idea of a caring teacher, then there are consequences. Students will do things for teachers/professors because they like them and become motivated to learn or not based on personal feelings. They may not do work because they think a professor hates them. They may come to class sick because they don't want to disappoint a professor or be scared to turn in work late because they are worried about a professor getting mad.
Students' learning should not be dictated by whether they think the professor likes them or not. Yet this is often how the system works.
A pedagogy of care is a finger in the dam of the broken, obsolete system of education, and expects women to carry the burden of care without acknowledgment or compensation. This is not required of men and ignores the institutional failures that require this work in the first place. Students don't come to their women professors' offices for snacks because they want to. They do so because of food insecurity. Students don't talk to their women professors about their anxiety, stress, depression and other challenges because their professor is a qualified counselor. They do so because mental and physical health is often not addressed on campus. We may be the only ones taking the time to listen.Not Fitting the Image
Additionally, my classes do not fit neatly into students' expectations. My all-black wardrobe, sneakers and tattoos don't match what students expect a professor to look like. My students often struggle with my class at first. They think that no deadlines and no penalty for not attending class or for late work is a bait and switch that they will follow until I will change my mind and punish them.
They are not used to not having to present excuses for why they were late, didn't attend or didn't submit work. They are not used to a professor who does not take things personally or have favorites but still provides detailed feedback and spends all of class walking around checking in on work and answering questions. I do this whether they like me or not. And I remind them that I don't care about grades, only what they're learning and their growth.
My “care” does not look like what they think care should be.Students Matter
My students get used to hearing several things from me, and “I don't care” tops that list. It's usually followed by “I mean I do but about you.” I don't care if they're late, miss class or didn't do their work. I don't get mad at or disappointed with them. I don't take it personally.
But they also don't get rewarded for just doing the work either, which is a struggle for students who define themselves as “A” students or favorite students. Turning something in is not enough, I ask them questions about why they made their choices. I, then, wait for answers. Sometimes their answer is “I don't know, I just did.” And I ask, “Do you see the problem with that?” And they do. They may not always have the time to revise, but they get it.
If they walk into class or office and start to explain, I interrupt them. I ask them, “Are you okay?” When they answer, I just say, “That's all I care about.” Because it is. My students do not have to do anything in my class to earn my attention, teaching or time. They matter because they do.
I tell my students that, as adults, I trust them to make their own decisions, and they just need to understand that choices have consequences. They may choose to not come to class or work. There are mechanisms to help them get caught up, but I tell them that I can only create the environment. They have to use it. Most use the policies and structure of class exactly how it is designed. They tell me they appreciate the flexibility to get caught up and take mental health days because they are important. They don't feel guilty for staying home with dying pets or sick family, or if they're sick themselves.
Students know that they won't be judged for anything they do. I will only ask if they're okay and how I can help.
It is a hard truth that many professors will tell you they care about their students, but their policies and approaches reveal the lie. They will tell you that they grant extensions, take late work and/or excuse absences if students talk to them. But these policies center the professor as some sort of benevolent entity that grants things only if you “deserve” it. Our students internalize this.
Faculty will tell you they can't do X, Y or Z because their department or university won't let them. Or if they don't have an attendance policy, students won't come. If they don't have hard deadlines, students won't do the work or will do it all at once. And my question is so what? If the purpose is for students to do the work and learn the content, then any way they do that is correct. Making it about anything else is ego.Care in the Classroom
I have received various reactions to my care in the classroom. Some students tell me I'm not a real teacher and that I don't look or act like one. Other students tell me I don't teach. I only conference, provide models, make them read things and give feedback. These comments demonstrate how gendered care and teaching are. Students sometimes lack the models and language for different approaches that don't coincide with what they expect.
Yet, at the end of semester, most students tell me how much they appreciate the class structure, the flexibility built into the course and the clarity of assignments. They also tell me that this care allows them to focus on what they want to learn rather than arbitrary things. Even students who don't do well say that I helped them.
Care in our classrooms can take on many effective forms than students recognize initially. It is important for us as teachers to be honest with our students about what we value and then make sure that is clear in our policies, readings, assignments and interactions. My students know I am a queer and that I have anxiety. I tell them to show why I value the things that I do.
On the first day of class, I tell students I care about them and their learning and that the work we do is important. I also tell them that I know that they have to prioritize other things. I am there to help, but they don't owe me anything. I build relationships with my students, not by adopting what they imagine care to be but with my version of it. You can also build a culture of care in your class, for you and your students, that serves everyone best, and it doesn't have to meet gendered expectations.
Dr. Karr͘a Shimabukuro spends her time researching the things that horrify us and why and thinking of ways to best serve her students. All else is subject to change without notice.