Research Summary

Critical caring for people and place

Authentic Teacher Care Encourages Reflective Environmental Engagement Among Minoritized Youth

The Journal of Environmental Education

Education literature has long established that authentic care from adult mentors is crucial for youth—particularly minoritized youth—to develop positive relationships with each other, their school, and their wider community. This study affirms those connections and applies them to the environmental sphere by exploring how the authentic care shown by an environmental science teacher encouraged his students to expand their care for the ecological renewal of their local neighborhood.

In this critical case study, the researchers collected indepth qualitative data about a particular teacher, his students, and their joint academic and extracurricular activities. The researchers conducted a combination of four interviews with the teacher, six group interviews with a total of 18 students, and more than 30 classroom and extracurricular environmental activity observations. The diverse demographics of the school (63% free/ reduced lunch eligible; 55% white, 23% black/African American, 18% Hispanic/Latino, and small populations of American Indian, Alaska Native, Asian, and multiracial students) and the history of environmental and economic degradation of the city as a result of deindustrialization also provide important contexts for the study. To guide their work, the researchers used Nel Nodding’s (1992) influential framework of an ethic of caring, which takes 8 the stance that compassion and authentic care need to be central parts of educational decision-making, rather than secondary considerations.

This study makes a key connection with Nodding’s ethic of caring framework in distinguishing between aesthetic and authentic care when examining the behavior and beliefs of the environmental teacher. Aesthetic care refers to the support and approval given to students for following school policies, such as attending class and completing assignments. In contrast, authentic care involves working to understand students and their families or, as the students in the group interviews shared, “really caring about [us] as people and not just as learners.” Previous literature suggests that, once students feel authentic care, they are more likely to respond to aesthetic care; students must first, however, unambiguously perceive this relationship of unconditional care. The students in this study represented the teacher as caring about them regardless of adherence to school policies, and as always being willing to engage with them when they were present, independent of prior behaviors or truancies.

Importantly, the teacher also intentionally extended his authentic care to relationships between the students and their environment, purposefully connecting ecological lessons with a politicized ethic of care for the students and their homes. The teacher often led discussions that examined relationships between the economic, social, and health aspects of environmental impacts in the students’ local communities, such as discussing asthma rates related to a nearby air pollution source. In purposefully expanding authentic care to the students and their environments, the teacher consistently emphasized teaching for the environment and related social issues as a part of learning about the environment. A noteworthy consequence for the students, then, was that they frequently discussed the community’s improving well-being in positive, hopeful ways, in contrast to the “failing community” narrative that pervaded other local perceptions. These emphases on renewal, care-driven collective action, and within-community environmental justice were particularly important ways in which the teacher’s authentic care was successfully passed on to the students and increased their ability to recognize the potential they have to shape their local spaces.

The Bottom Line

Just as caring adults can help connect youth more strongly with academic trajectories, those same adults can demonstrate authentic care for students, their families, and their communities with cascading beneficial effects for environmental connections as well. Practitioners and educators can facilitate students’ orientation toward taking action within their communities by purposefully presenting how much they care that their students are impacted by, and in turn can impact, their local environment. Building authentic relationships between marginalized youth and their ecological community is a persistent goal for environmental and educational equity; practitioners and educators can create unambiguous, authentic caring relationships to act as a focal point for strengthening these student-environment connections by demonstrating authentic care for students, their families, and their communities.