Active Caring (and Epilogue): the essential ingredient

This is a post in the ongoing Emergent Math mini-series: Routines, Lessons, Problems, and Projects.

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As we stand on the balcony and gaze out at our own version of the MCU (Math Class Universe) that consists of Routines, Lessons, Problems, and Projects, we must be sure we’re not missing the crucial ingredient that stitches it all together: caring. More specifically, active caring.

Many, if not most teachers demonstrate passive caring. Such teachers show a general, blanket kindness to their students. They’re open to students’ questions. They typically like their students and certainly don’t show unkindness. Often, the student-teacher relationship hinges on the student’s academic aptitude or natural charisma. A teacher might have a decent relationship with all his students, but truly special relationships only with students who excel in their classroom or have otherwise magnetic personalities.

A teacher who is actively caring cares for each student as an individual and views each student as a mathematician. He reaches out to students individually, not broadly. Consider the difference between “if anyone needs help come and see me” versus going to each student to see if they need help. Think of the difference between welcoming the class all at once versus greeting students individually, by name, at the door. These individualized acts of kindness and care are as essential as the task at hand – the routine, the lesson, the problem, or project. Well thought out curricula and tasks are nice, but active caring will ensure that they land for each student in your classroom. Active caring often involves a disruption of social or academic norms: students who typically don’t engage in math receive the same level of care as students who do.

To be sure, active caring is a challenge for a teacher who may see upwards of 100 students a day (or more). It’s difficult to get around to each student in such a compressed amount of time. Don’t beat yourself up if you’re unable to. But make an achievable goal: perhaps every two days you’ll have a personal conversation or check-in with each student. It’ll require a level of intentionality that might seem forced at first. You may have to print out a class roster and check off your interactions with each student as they come. But in the end it’s worth it. An excerpt from a, uh, certain book:

Briana is a 10th grader, talking about her middle school math experience. “I was invisible to the teacher,” she begins. “I always got my work done. I never got in trouble. I would raise my hand to ask a question but my teacher would never call on me. It got to the point where I would ask my friend to ask a question for me so I could get something answered.” Briana is soft-spoken, but clearly motivated. It’s tragic and understandable how she would feel “invisible” to her teachers. In the hustle and bustle of a noisy middle school classroom, soft-spoken students get short shrift.

Recently an administrator I know took part in a “shadowing a student” challenge, in which the administrator identified a student and followed her around for an entire day. From the moment she got off at the city bus stop in front of the school until the moment she got back on it at the end of the day, the administrator followed the student around to each class, every passing period, even lunch. Debriefing the experience, the administrator was stunned by how little teacher-interaction the student received. Other than a greeting here or there, the student received few words from her instructors.

Shy students, or students who don’t have as much academic status, or who are still learning the English language can easily become invisible in a school day, for weeks at a time. Make sure this doesn’t happen. Try some of these strategies:

  • Document your interactions with students to ensure you’re having conversations with everyone.
  • Host “community circles” in your class.
  • Greet every student by name at your door.
  • Demonstrate vulnerability by sharing details from your personal life.

How do you demonstrate active caring for your students? Let us know in the comments.



Let’s review.

Your daily classroom has a lot of moving parts. I’ve attempted to categorize those parts into Routines, Lessons, Problems, and Projects, acknowledging that these are imprecise buckets and you might go between them several times throughout a day. Holding these all together is an atmosphere of active care for each student.

As you think about the upcoming school year, which of these are you curious about? Which do you want to get better at? Do you want to try a project this year? Would you care to create an assessment structure of using “Portfolio Problems” for students’ portfolios of understanding? What’s the right ratio of routines, lessons, problems, and projects?

In addition, what will you do in the first couple weeks of school to demonstrate active caring? How will you touch each student and make sure they’re welcome at the table of our oft-uncaring discipline?

I hope you enjoyed this mini-series. As much as anything it was a think-aloud for myself to wrap my head around all the different ways of being for a math class. I may update the posts going forward as new resources come across my radar. As always, feel free to share insights and ideas.

Also in this mini-series:

Active Caring

I’m in awe of my son’s 3rd grade team.

Last year, when he was in 3rd grade, he had two teachers, a counselor, a GT specialist, a principal, and three specials teachers that cared for him. Not in a passive way, like a “my door is always open” kind of way. But in an active, give-him-hugs, come-to-multiple-parent-teacher conferences, “let’s figure this out” kind of way. One kid, eight adults just pouring love onto him. And he’s a kid that needs outward expressions of love.

As he enters fourth grade, he’ll have a lot of the same adults in his life next year as he did this past year, thankfully. I’m confident in fifth grade he’ll get that same level of care as well. Consider this blog post a partial paen to elementary schools that get that it truly does take a village.


A while back I critiqued myself for not writing about Social and Emotional Safety as I do Tasks and Facilitation. If I’ve evened out the ratios of those three elements, it’s only because I’ve written less on the blog in aggregate in the past year.

Nevertheless, I have been writing. And much of that has been about caring.

You see, we secondary teachers think we’re caring. I told kids they are welcome to hang out and talk after school. I left an open invitation for kids to come before school to get work done. I invited all students to participate. I said “good morning” at the beginning of the day. Shoot, I even greeted every kid with a handshake at the beginning of every class period. And, with a few students, I truly did have that special relationship such that I made an impact on their lives.

I showed passive caring. I opened the door and beckoned kids to come through.

Elementary teachers – at least the ones my son has – they show active caring. They open the door, beckon kids to come through, and when they don’t they’ll leave their room, grab them by the arm and bring them in. They don’t just invite kids to participate, they demand  it and make it a norm in their classroom. They don’t just say “good morning” at the beginning of the day, they hug my son, ask him how his dance class was, give him a specific word of encouragement, and then give him another hug.


I worry about the level of care it’s realistically possible to show a kid as he or she progresses through middle and high school. While it Takes a Village, kids graduate into an assembly line. They get 50 minutes with a Social Studies teacher, then they move down the assembly line to obtain their Science Parts. How many days in a row can a kid go without being shown care? I’ve talked to students who feel “invisible.” I’ve shadowed students that don’t get called on for an entire day.

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I write about this in my book that will eventually be written, if I’d ever stop using the damn passive voice (see: this sentence). I was talking with a 10th Grade teacher who suggested, “maybe you should just call that chapter ‘Give a Crap.'” I laughed. And she’s right! While I don’t think I can get away with that title for a section (let alone a chapter), that’s probably the biggest differentiator between effective classrooms and ineffective ones.

Becca may have put it best:

I know it’s incredibly challenging for secondary teachers, who have limited time and expansive content to get through and, like, hundreds of students. But I’ve seen secondary teachers do it. And it’s absolutely a beautiful scene to behold, if only because it’s relatively rare in the hustle-and-bustle of the secondary learning ecosystem. I encourage you to show active caring, rather than just passive caring this year. Because that third grader who needs a word of genuine encouragement, still might need one in 10th grade.