Care . Noun or verb?

Speaking with some prospective parents, I was asked what is your school’s pastoral care like? As I began to describe the systems and structures we have – mentors, counselors, wellbeing centres, personal and social education curriculum, clinics, safeguarding protocols and so on – I could see their eyes glaze over and I realised I had fallen into the trap of making ‘care’ a noun instead of a verb; a thing, rather than something that humans do for each other.

All the systems mentioned are important – but it would be perfectly possible, even within such systems, for a child to feel uncared for; so they cannot be the whole story.   They are not, at the heart of it, the most important thing – which is that the adults really do care and act on that care. It seems so obvious that it is vulnerable to sounding simplistic or trite; and as educational researcher (and alum 💪) Nomisha Kurian has written sociologists have noted that care can become a romanticised ideal and a ‘platitude’ rather than a ‘meaningful professional stance’. Just like ‘wellbeing’, the term ‘care’ is susceptible to being reduced to a fuzzy or feel-good concept, which demands clarity in conceptualisation.

This lovely phrase captures an important aspect of caring….

The idea that ‘care’ needs proper investigation would have seemed counter -intuitive to me a few years ago – don’t we all know what it means? But I have come to see the word being used very differently by different families with different, sometimes cultural, expectations. This is a well-explored theme – sociologist Max Van Manen has argued that the word ‘caring’ is overused by social work, medical, legal, educational, and counseling professionals. So we’ve been very much aware of this over recent years, and explored a good deal of research to identify three areas that we want to work on to support caring in practice.  The first thing is connection – we’re not just giving information to students; we are seeking to have meetings of minds, and personal relationships with them (it’s not an accident that we remain in touch with so many alumni who are now friends). The second is working on students’ competence – because competence (social, emotional, academic, artistic, sporting etc) is a very tangible outcome from that caring. And the third is agency – because supporting students’ growth and move to a flourishing independent adulthood is care made visible.

Implementing these three aspects is no simple matter; and it doesn’t happen in any one place – it emerges from everywhere (it takes a village to raise a child). It happens when adults like children, and children’s company. So as I started to speak to those parents about ‘care’ as a verb, we could see teachers and children smiling and waving as they passed each other, stopping to talk and laughing together. These were visible manifestations of what other researchers have called a constellation of encounters. And I told them about how we seek to have relaxed classes where teachers as well as students are free to make mistakes, so we can all learn together – what other researchers have called a pedagogy of vulnerability. These harder-to-describe measures, as much as the systems, are really what caring is all about.


  • Culshaw S. and Kurian, N. (2021) Love as the lifeblood of being-well: a call for care for teachers in England’s schools, Pastoral Care in Education
  • Goldstein, L. (1998a). More than gentle smiles and warm hugs: Applying the ethic of care to early childhood education. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 12(2), 244–261
  • Goldstein, L. (1998b). Taking caring seriously: The ethic of care in classroom life. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association (San Diego, CA) April 13-2017.
  • McKenna, M., & Brantmeier, E. (2019). Pedagogy of Vulnerability. Information Age.
  • Noddings, N. (2005). The challenge to care in schools: An alternative approach to education (2nd ed.). Teachers College Press.Van Manen, M. (1990). Researching Lived Experience: Human Science for an Action Sensitive Pedagogy. London: Aithouse Press

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