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Creating A Culture Of Caring

Published: January 15, 2016

A culture of caring in the classroom isn’t an issue—at the preschool and elementary school levels.

“Students and teachers at those levels are the best at creating a caring classroom environment, a community of learning where they care about one another,” said Betina Hsieh, an assistant professor in CSULB’s College of Education. “They care about their classroom space because they are there all day.”

That all changes, according to Hsieh, when students get to the secondary level and begin moving between classrooms throughout the day. That caring culture seems to wane. By the time students get to the post-secondary level, they quite often don’t even know the name of the person sitting next to them in class.

Hsieh is working to change that.

“When I begin working with adults, they think, ‘what’s all this touchy-feely stuff, why do we need to do this?’” she said, “but I’m not only teaching them to be just a math teacher, for example, but I’m also teaching them to teach people. I think the ethic of caring is so important to the work of teaching that I can’t imagine being divorced from the way that I teach.”

It’s extremely important for individuals to feel they are known, cared about and understood, according to Hsieh.

“I don’t think we have that conversation very often at the post-secondary level. It’s almost as if we forget our own humanity as we get so focused on content,” she said. “When you are able to relate to one another, then you are able to do the work.

“I try to model that for my students,” she added, “so we create a classroom of caring and community, of interaction and working together, so they have that model. With that, when they can go out and teach they can create their own classrooms in that way.”

Hsieh, who spent 10 years in middle and high school classrooms, has taught English, math and history. She has also taught AVID, a college prep program geared toward students who show potential, but may need some help in order to get into college. She has also worked with new teachers, so she feels her position in teacher education at CSULB is an extension of her commitment to education.

“Right now I work with pre-service teachers to prepare them to enter the classroom,” she said, clearly acknowledging the mentoring aspect of her position. “I love the classroom. That’s why I am in teachers ed. I love teaching teachers and I love teaching students. In many ways, I am a mentor.”

CSULB’s single subject credential program is university-wide with three classes that students from every subject area take in the College of Education. Quite often in the program students will just stay within their cohort specific group. For Hsieh, that’s a real no-no.

“If they sit in their own little group then they really miss out on that collaborative opportunity and what we are about,” she said. “If you don’t create this classroom of caring, a classroom where they know one another, then they are not getting the most out of it.”

Betina Hsieh (second from left) uses different methods to bring students together.
Betina Hsieh (second from left) uses different methods to bring students together.

Isolation like that can have an even more far-reaching effect. Hsieh feels that, if that’s how she teaches at CSULB, then when the students get into their own classrooms to teach, they can get siloed into departments there as well. That would likely mean collaborative opportunities among colleagues are limited or, even worse, missed altogether.

“Creating a community of caring is all about helping us learn from one another and creating that professional space through creating a personal space. It’s important to know who people are and where they are coming from,” she said. “I think when we build community, it helps people feel known and I think that’s really important as children and as adults.

“I don’t ask my students to care for one another outside of the classroom necessarily,” she said, “but when we’re in the classroom I want them to know who’s sitting next to them, I want them to feel comfortable interacting with the different people in the classroom and I want them all to feel they are supported. I hope that caring does extend into the world in some way once they leave the room as well.”

Hsieh noted that the best teachers find a professional community and they work together to continually reflect upon and improve their practice and that’s what she wants for her students.

“It’s all about collaboration,” she said. “I talk with my students about the ethic of caring because relationships are so important in the classroom, between teacher and student, of course, but also among students themselves.”

Hsieh sees what she does as a form of mentoring, noting that there’s a baseline level of caring, something teachers are obligated to do, she admits, but there are some who go beyond the curriculum and actually care about students as individuals.

“These are the teachers that my students often cite as the ones who inspired them to go into teaching,” noted Hsieh. “That’s what really sticks with my students and inspires them, so I draw from that. I feel I’m an active mentor to many students, but I’m also a passive mentor and a role model to others.”