Ensuring that the school have good routines for students’ safety, for development of a good psycho-social environment and following up on students whose basic needs are not catered for are important aspects of well-being. This section goes beyond issues of routines, regulation and jurisdiction and asks what an ethic of care might mean for educators, how educators may work to strengthen the commitment to care, and what the caveats are in current policies and practices.

Questions for reflection on Care:  

  • According to Noddings, an ethic of care entails a commitment to serve the needs of students. How do you know what their needs are? What does your school do to bring forth the students’ expressed needs?
  • Noddings (2012, p. 779) writes: “Too much is made to depend on high test scores, admission to a prestigious college, and eventually a high-paying job. Indeed, we come close to encouraging the ‘doublethink’ that Orwell later described in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949): on the one hand students believe that education encourages virtue, good citizenship, and a full personal life; on the other, they believe that the purpose of education is economic well-being and, because that is all-important, they are justified in distorting the first set of aims. Held in balance, these aims need not be contradictory, but when one dominates all others, we are in the land of doublethink.”

Are we in the land of doublethink?

  • Maslow’s (1943) “Hierarchy of needs” (see e.g. is an element in his theory of human motivation. However, it may also be used as a tool for reflection on issues of care. How far would you stretch the school’s responsibilities to meet needs on the 5 levels?  How does your school work to ensure that students’ needs are catered for?
  • Since an ethic of care emerges from critical feminist approaches, some argue that this focus is an effect of feminisation in education. Some would even argue that an ethic of care blurs the boundaries between professional and private, between what is considered the task of schools and what are the responsibilities of families and communities.
  • Bergman (2004) describes four ways in which education can contribute to the moral life of students:
    1. Modelling: demonstrating our caring relationships to students through what we do
    2. Dialogue: engaging with students in a common search for understanding, empathy and appreciation
    3. Practice: establish caring relationships in which students work with adults
    4. Confirmation: appreciation of the student’ ethical self
  • An excerpt of a letter written by a Holocaust survivor to educators, published in “Teacher and Child” by Dr. Haim Ginott, child psychologist and author:

“I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no person should witness: gas chambers built by learned engineers. Children poisoned by educated physicians. Infants killed by trained nurses. Women and babies shot by high school and college graduates. So, I am suspicious of education.

My request is:

Help your children become human. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths or educated Eichmanns. Reading, writing, and arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more human.”

What are your thoughts, feelings and concerns on reading this excerpt?

What are your thoughts, feelings and concerns on reading this letter?



An ethic of care implies the acknowledgment that another’s destiny is in your hands. The original care relationship occurs between the new-born child and its caretaker, where the infant is recipient of complete attention – what are its needs and how can they be fulfilled? Schools are institutions designed to meet the needs of children: help them develop what is assumed to be the knowledge and skills they need to lead good and fulfilling lives. However, Nel Noddings (2005) argues that we must make a distinction between inferred needs and expressed needs. Inferred needs are what we (as adults, as teachers, or as school leaders), believe is in the best interest of the other. Expressed needs come from the individual expressing it, in words or in behaviour. In many ways, the inferred needs of students guide our educational practices: a common curriculum, set standards, categorising students, etc. Caring teachers work hard to balance these needs with what they experience as the “real” needs of students. However, the “real” needs may still be inferred, since the interests and talents of the students may be at odds with mandated expectations. At its core, an ethic of care implies attention to and an interest in understanding what the cared for is experiencing: “emptying ourselves of attention to our own situation, at least for the moment, to take in the existential condition of the other” (Bergman, 2004, p. 151).  But even when we understand the needs of students we may not be able to respond to those needs. In these cases, it is important that we show respect for the student’s expressed needs, and find responses that will maintain a caring relationship.

Building caring relationships is not an easy task, and it does not fit easily with the institutional and emotional demands on teachers. While “care” is generally believed to be a major aspect of good teaching (Isenbarger & Zembylas, 2006) there is less agreement about what it means, and even less about what it looks like. Schools need to make sure that the establishment of caring relationships is not a burden placed on the shoulders of individual teachers, but an issue to be addressed within the professional community. 

Relevance for leadership

The academic demands on teachers and students are considerable. Policies tend to put student achievement up front, equating good education with good test scores. There should be no doubt that an ethic of care includes caring for students’ learning, and that teachers in many cases know what is in the best interest of the students – for example learning the prescribed curriculum. However, to the caring teacher, it is also important to be able to “put aside the assumed need to learn a specific aspect of subject matters and address the need of the student for emotional support, moral direction, or shared human interest” (Noddings, 2012, p. 772). Educational leaders can contribute to creating a climate for caring – a climate where the true purpose of education is acknowledged: To help students learn what is deemed necessary (the inferred needs), but so is their own views on what they need to learn and the opportunity to explore their own areas of interest. In a climate of care, cooperation is valued over competition, and a wider range of talents and competences are valued.  


Bergman, R. (2004). Caring for the ethical ideal: Nel Noddings on moral education. Journal of Moral Education, 33(2), 149-162.

Gilligan, C. (1982) In A Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

 Isenbarger, L., & Zembylas, M. (2006). The emotional labour of caring in teaching. Teaching and teacher education, 22(1), 120-134.

Noddings, N. (2003). Happiness and education. Cambridge University Press.

Noddings, N. (2006). Educational leaders as caring teachers. School leadership and management, 26(4), 339-345.

Noddings, N. (2015). The Challenge to Care in Schools, 2nd Editon: Teachers College Press.

O’Brien, M. (2011). Professional responsibility and an ethic of care. Teachers’ care as moral praxis. In C. Sugrue & T.D. Solbrekke, Professional responsibility. New horizons of praxis (pp. 42-56). Abington: Routledge.

Sergiovanni, T. (2007). Leadership as stewardship. In T. Sergiovanni, Rethinking leadership (pp. 49-60). Thousand Oaks, Cal.: Corwin Press.

Van Dierendonck, D. (2011). Servant leadership: A review and synthesis. Journal of management, 37(4), 1228-1261.


Development of effective pastoral care:

Convention on the rights of the child