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Perspectives on caring in the classroom: do they vary according to ethnicity or grade level?


For years, understanding of effective classroom management was rooted in behavioral theories of teaching and learning. The primary emphasis for classroom management in a behavioral model is the use of techniques that bring students' behavior under stimulus control (Brophy, 1999). These behavioral models encourage dependence on rewards and penalties. In contrast, over the last decade, there has been a push to move beyond these behavioral-control approaches and implement approaches that focus on relationships and developing a caring community such as the Just Community (Power, Higgins, & Kohlbert, 1989), the Child Development Project (Battistich, Watson, Solomon, Lewis, & Schaps, 1999) and the Moral Community (De Vries & Zan, 1994). Advocates of these community-based approaches contend that building a caring classroom community and strong interpersonal relationships can make all the difference between a functional and dysfunctional classroom.

This shift toward approaches focusing on caring relationships and community is consistent with the research on students' perceptions of "good teachers." Over the years, research has affirmed that students who perceive their teachers as "good" teachers are more likely to engage in prosocial, responsible behavior, to adhere to classroom rules and norms, and to engage in academic activities (Osterman, 2000; Wentzel, 1997). However, what exactly does it mean to be a "good" teacher?" According to Woolfolk-Hoy and Weinstein (2006), three factors are central to students' perceptions of a "good" teacher: the ability to exercise authority without being overly rigid; the ability to make learning fun; and, most importantly, the ability to establish positive, caring interpersonal relationships.

Studies repeatedly demonstrate the importance students place on a teacher's ability to develop effective interpersonal relationships with their students. For example, Battistich, Solomon, Watson, and Schaps (1997) found positive effects of a caring community on elementary students' attitudes and behaviors which included cooperativeness, helpfulness, concern for others, and altruism. Similarly, Davidson (1999) found that students preferred teachers who communicated interest in their well-being and in return were more attentive and conscientious during class.

In addition, prosocial behavior appears to be fostered in students from such schools and classrooms in which a sense of a caring community has been achieved (Battistich, Solomon, & Watson, 1997). A sense of community stems from student behaviors that are influenced by teaching practices and classroom atmosphere. Teacher practices that stimulate active student participation and teachers who model positive interpersonal behavior are critical to building a sense of community among school students (Battistich, Solomon, Kim, Watson, & Schaps, (1995).

The bottom line is that students want teachers who care about them. However, the difficulty lies in the question, what does it mean to care? Research has shown that students can clearly articulate a definition of caring and identify specific behaviors of caring teachers such as the willingness to help with schoolwork, showing respect, treating students fairly, and helping with personal problems (Cothran & Ennis, 2000; Cothran, Kulinna, & Garrahy, 2003; Osterman, 2000; Wentzel, 1997). However, to complicate matters, some of this research also indicates that white students and high-achieving students identify different aspects of caring than African American students and low-achieving students.

White, mainstreamed and high-achieving students frequently cite aspects of academic caring whereas African American and low-achieving students cite aspects of personal caring. For example, in a study of 100 middle school students, Bosworth (1995) found that, among students of color, the most frequently cited expression of a teacher's care was the teacher's willingness to help with personal problems and to provide guidance. In contrast, for both males and females, for all grade levels, and for white students, the teacher's willingness to provide help with schoolwork was the. most frequently cited sign of a teacher's care. Similarly, Cothran and Ennis (2000) interviewed 51 urban high school students (89% African American and 11% non-African American) and found that students were more likely to engage in academic activities when they felt that their teacher showed an interest in their personal lives.

Since research indicates that there are differences in the way African American and white students interpret caring behaviors in the classroom, it seems logical to speculate that other cultures or races may also identify different behaviors. Unfortunately, most of the research that examines the intersection between perceptions of caring and race focuses on white and African American students. There is little research that examines if these beliefs hold true among other races and cultures. Therefore, the major purpose of this study was to explore this idea and examine if the existing findings hold true for the Latino population. In addition, the study examined whether students' perceptions of caring differed across grade level. The specific research questions were (1) What do students identify as the practices teachers use to create a caring classroom community? (2) Do students from different cultural backgrounds identify different aspects of caring? (3) Do sixth and ninth graders identify different aspects of caring?



This study was conducted in one large, ethnically diverse, urban, central New Jersey public school district consisting of three elementary schools, one middle school (grades 6-8), and one high school (grades 9-12). The district is classified as an Abbott district, which means they meet specific criteria, including (1) having low socioeconomic status according to the New Jersey Department of Education, (2) having evidence of substantive failure of thorough and efficient education, (3) having a large percentage of disadvantaged students who need "an education beyond the norm," and (4) having an existence of an "excessive tax for municipal services" in the locality of the district.


Sixty sixth-grade students (24 African American, 23 Latino, 13 Caucasian), and 95 ninth-grade students (22 African American, 46 Latino, 27 Caucasian) participated. While all sixth- and ninth-grade students were asked to participate, 95 of the 281 ninth-grade students (34% response rate), and 60 of the 321 sixth-grade students (18.7% response rate) returned signed parental informed consent forms for a total sample of 155 students. Although research supports the view that caring relationships are important at all grade levels, this population was selected because teacher-student relationships are of the utmost importance at crucial points such as the transition from elementary to middle school and middle to high school (Wentzel, 1998).

Data Collection

All participants responded to a qualitative questionnaire that was created by the researchers and consisted of two open-ended questions about their teachers' classroom practices including:
 Think about your favorite teacher who shows that he or she is a
 caring teacher. What does that teacher do to show you that he/she
 cares about you?

 Does that teacher care about students? What does he/she do to show
 that he/she cares about students? Explain why you think that
 teacher cares about all students in the classroom.

The researchers attended all 6th and 9th grade physical education classes, which are mandatory for all students, to provide an overview of the study and distribute personal consent forms. To increase the likelihood of participation, students were also informed that five raffle awards ($10 gift certificates to Barnes and Noble) would be drawn from among the returned parental consent forms. Reminders were made every day during the morning announcements for a two-week period. Two weeks later, the researcher returned and administered the questionnaire to all eligible students.

Data Analysis

To examine students' perceptions of caring, a recursive analysis investigated underlying themes in the data (Nastasi, 1998). Responses to the open-ended questions are descriptively coded separately across ethnic groups and grade levels by two independent researchers. During the initial stages of data analysis, six codes emerged. Once the two researchers reached consensus, the data were given to a third researcher for reliability purposes. The three coders agreed on the final set of codes, which included the top five codes from the initial stage (see Table 1) with inter-coder reliability established at > .90.

After the coding manual was finalized, all responses were coded again, and frequencies were calculated to represent the number of participants who mentioned each category (see Tables 2-4).

Next, data were analyzed across grade level (see Table 5) and ethnic group (see Table 6). Finally, the categories were rank ordered, based on the percentage of participants who mentioned that category, across grade level and ethnic groups, and since the rank order implies the salience of each category, the rank ordered lists were then compared for similarities and differences.


Comparisons Across Grades

One purpose of this study was to compare grade-level differences in students' perceptions of how teachers demonstrate that they care about students. Rank-order comparisons, from the most frequent to the least frequent response, revealed very little change from 6th to 9th grade (see Table 5). Across grade levels, aspects of both academic support and the teacher's personality were the most frequent student responses. For 6th graders, the teacher's personality was more prominently mentioned, whereas in 9th grade, the teacher's personality was the second most frequent response, and academic support became the most frequently cited category. Another similarity across grade levels was the identification of teachers taking a personal interest in students, which was the third most frequent response in both grades.

Similarities also emerged for the final two categories: use of rewards and equity. Use of rewards was the fourth most frequent response among sixth graders (equity was ranked fifth), whereas in 9th grade, equity was ranked fourth, and the use of rewards was ranked fifth.

It would appear that the true differences do not lie in rank order of the responses but rather how the response percentages are distributed within each grade. The percentage of students reporting academic support greatly increased from 6th to 9th grade and was the most frequent response in the 9th grade, significantly more than any other response. This is in contrast to the teacher's personality, which decreased greatly from 6th to 9th grade.

Frequent 6th grade responses illustrating the importance of various aspects of a teacher's personality were "... they laugh at your jokes and have a good sense of humor... I think my teacher cares about all of us because she is always nice to us and she is fun" and "... she is a caring teacher because she doesn't yell all the time ..." This is contrasted with typical 9th grade responses, which focused on academic support: "He takes his time and makes sure we know what we are doing before moving on to the next topic" or "... she takes time out of her schedule to allow me to stay after school." However, although the teacher's personality remained a frequent response in the 9th grade, it was often coupled with academic support. For example "My teacher makes things clear when she teaches them. She is not hard on us and treats us like regular people" and "She makes sure I get the subject and knows what I get and didn't get. Also, she isn't too strict ... she is laid back."

The only other category to increase from 6th to 9th grade was teachers' equitable treatment of students, but this increase was not as large as the increase in academic support. Some responses illustrating the importance of equitable treatment at the sixth-grade level were "... this teacher does care about all students because she doesn't give warnings and detention to a few, she gives it to everyone when they misbehave" and "The teacher cares about everyone because she treats them equally." There were similar and more frequent responses in ninth grade such as "He shows the same amount of respect and never treats anyone different" or "The teacher treats all the students the same way no matter what."

The frequency of students who reported that teachers who take a personal interest in the student demonstrate caring, decreased from 6th to 9th grade. At the sixth-grade level, frequent responses were similar to this quote: "My favorite teacher shows that she cares about me because she always checks on me and makes sure I am OK even in my personal life." However, these responses were not as common at the ninth grade level.

The use of rewards also dropped significantly from 6th to 9th grade. At the sixth-grade level, this seemed to be quite an important sign of teacher caring with many responses such as.... "The teacher shows how she cares by ... giving us rewards when we are good," and "if we are good she would give us candy" and "She'd give us treats and let us go outside." Interestingly, this category was almost nonexistent at the ninth-grade level.

Comparisons Across Ethnic Groups

Another purpose of this study was to determine if students' perceptions of caring vary across ethnic groups. When examining the rank ordering across ethnic groups, we detected very few differences in students' perceptions of caring teacher behavior. All groups most frequently identified aspects of academic support and the teacher's personality as indicators that teachers care about students (see Table 6).

Many responses illustrated the importance of academic support. For example, one student stated, "Mrs. G. was a really caring teacher ... when you get bad grades, she makes us stay and complete our work and get good grades. This teacher cares, because when students are needing help, she goes up to them and helps them" (male Latino sixth grader). Another student responded, "The teacher shows that she cares about me, because she will put the material that needs to be learned into a way that we will understand it, and she has time to listen to our problems and tries her best to help solve them." (female, sixth grader, Caucasian).

Similarly, many students commented on the importance of different facets of a teacher's personality as a sign of caring. This was illustrated in the following statements: "To show that they care about me, they laugh at your jokes and have a good sense of humor" (sixth-grade female, Caucasian).

"... He jokes around with kids. He never suspends kids, and he's a nice guy. He even helps other teachers. He is kind to all students. He saves them from being in trouble. He's a sweet guy" (sixth-grade female, African American).

"... She was the best, because she was fun, made me laugh, she gave us food and her class was easy" (ninth grade male, Latino).

Although the rank order of categories across ethic groups suggests many similarities, further examination of the percentages of participants who mentioned each category provides a different picture. For example, similar numbers of Caucasian students mentioned aspects of academic support (n = 21) and the teacher's personality (n = 22) as caring behaviors. However, for Latino students, academic support (n = 50) was mentioned nearly twice as many times as the teacher's personality (n = 26). Furthermore, 40% of Caucasians also noted that a teacher taking a personal interest in a student demonstrates caring behavior, whereas only 17% of Latinos mentioned this factor. Finally, African American students were the least likely to mention that teachers demonstrate that they care by exhibiting equitable treatment of students.

More specific comparisons illustrated in Tables 2-4 suggest that ethnic differences are more pronounced in ninth grade and that students of color experience more dramatic changes in their perceptions Of caring. For example, 87% of Latino, over 90% of African American ninth graders cited aspects of academic support as indicators that teachers care; this substantially contrasts with ninth-grade Caucasian students' perspectives (55.6%). Moreover, when looking at changes from sixth to ninth grade, Caucasian students' salient perceptions of behaviors that indicate caring changed little in the areas of academic support, the teacher's personality, and the teachers taking a personal interest in the student. Among Latino students, one the other hand, academic support increased and the teacher's personality decreased substantially as salient categories. In addition, African American students showed the sharpest decline across grade levels in their perceptions that teachers taking a personal interest in students demonstrated caring behavior.

Finally, Tables 2-4 also demonstrate that ninth-grade Latino students were less likely to mention aspects of equity, whereas sixth-grade Latino students noted issues of equity far more likely than did African American and Caucasian students.


The results of this study indicate some similarities to past research (Cothran & Ennis, 2000; Cothran et al., 2003; Wentzel, 1997) in which students identified the following caring teacher behaviors: willingness to help with homework, showing respect, treating students fairly, and helping students with personal problems. These behaviors mirror the categories we found in the present study: academic support, teacher's personality, equity, and taking a personal interest in students.

Although the results of our study parallel some of the findings from past research on students' perceptions of caring teacher behavior as noted above, when we compared across ethnic groups and grade levels, some of our data contrast with prior research.

Grade Level

When student responses were rank ordered, there was no striking change in the rank ordering of any response from 6th to 9th grade.

Therefore, the most important variables to the students in 6th grade remained the most important in 9th grade, and the least important variables to the students in 6th grade remained the least important in 9th grade.

How the responses were distributed within each grade was then compared. The percentage of students reporting academic support greatly increased from 6th to 9th grade and was the most frequent response in 9th grade, significantly more than any other response. The only other variable to increase from 6th to 9th grade was teachers' equitable treatment of students but this increase was not as large as the increase in academic support. However, the increase in both of these variables could be related to one another. For adolescents, school becomes a place to get good grades and succeed in their chosen career path. Therefore, academic support would become the most important aspect of a student's perception of their teachers. However, it would also seem reasonable to believe that teachers who demonstrated favoritism toward certain students, would not be perceived as academically supportive to the entire school population.

Although the teacher's personality decreased from the 6th to 9th grade, it still remained the second most frequent response for ninth graders showing that, while academic support became the most important aspect of teacher caring to students, a teacher's personality still had a strong influence over students' perception of their teachers caring for them. Teachers, who make the learning process more fun, more interesting, and less stressful, could be perceived as more caring. Probably, teachers who are more creative, active, or provide more hands-on activities, could be perceived by the students as more caring since it shows the teacher's energy and effort in helping students learn the material as opposed to a teacher who simply lectures, which could be perceived by students as putting in little effort to help them learn the material.

Teachers taking a personal interest in the students decreased from 6th to 9th grade. By the 9th grade, most students have a well-established peer social support system. They have greater social resources to help them in times of need and may be trying to gain more autonomy from adults in dealing with their problems. The problems of adolescents could also involve sensitive and personal subjects such as sexual behavior and drug and alcohol use. Such behavior may not be topics of discussion that adolescent would readily choose to engage in with teachers or other adults. Also, as children get older, they may begin to view school as a means to an end, rather than a fun atmosphere. Therefore, teachers may be seen by adolescents as the person who helps them academically rather than socially or personally. Hence, another reason why academic support became the most frequent response of the 9th graders.

The use of rewards dropped significantly from 6th to 9th grade. As students get older, the only tangible reward they may be interested in is grades since high grades determine academic promotion, college acceptance, and scholarship and financial aid awards. Such outcomes are not of as much importance to 6th-grade students; therefore, gaining tangible rewards in the 6th grade might be of more importance because it may make class more fun for the students and would be a sign of doing well in .school, academically and socially. This could be another reason why academic support had the highest frequency of responses in the 9th grade.

Ethic Groups

Bosworth's (1995) research states that students of color most frequently cited teachers' willingness to help students with their personal problems as evidence of caring. Our study, however, contradicts these findings, as both Latino and African American groups most frequently mentioned aspects of teachers' academic support as evidence of caring behavior. As a matter of fact, Latino students identified behaviors pertaining to academic support more than four times as often as they mentioned teachers taking a personal interest in students. In addition, 71% of African American students identified academic support issues, whereas only 27% identified teachers taking a personal interest in students as an indicator that they care.

These findings suggest that Latino and African American students perceive the need for academic support as important, whereas a teacher's personality is less important in showing that the teacher cares about students. Taking a personal interest in students does not seem to be a significant factor in promoting a sense of community for Latino or African American students.

In addition, both African American and Latino students were less likely than Caucasian students to note aspects of the teacher's personality and taking a personal interest in students as caring behaviors, and these differences appear to be most striking for the Latino students.

Furthermore, Caucasian students were less likely than the other two groups to mention aspects of academic support, which contradicts conclusions of Bosworth (1995).

Many factors may contribute to these differences. First, the teaching population is predominantly Caucasian and some beliefs may be strongly influenced by this cultural match or mismatch. In addition, Caucasian students have higher rates of academic success than minority students (National Center for Education Statistics, 2006); therefore, perhaps fewer of them perceive the need for academic support as important. In contrast, Latino students, many for whom their native language is not English, may need more academic support from teachers if their families cannot read or write English.

Latino students in our study were less likely than the other groups to identify teachers taking a personal interest in students as evidence of caring behavior. The community in which this study took place has a large number of illegal aliens, and many of the students who participated in this study are English language learners. Therefore, one potential reason for this difference is that perhaps Latino students attempt to maintain distance between themselves and school personnel because they may need to hide information about their family status.

In a past study (Smith-Adcock, Daniels, Lee, Villalba, & Indelicate, 2006), public school administrators recognized the cultural barriers for Hispanic/Latino children and families. They perceived that these barriers were related to trouble negotiating the school culture, language barriers, and isolation from the school environment, and thus recommended an increase in Spanish-speaking personnel to promote more positive relationships between students and school personnel.

In the Cothran and Ennis (2000) study, urban high school students noted that teachers who treat students fairly demonstrate that they care about students. This factor (equity) also emerged in our study. However, African American students less frequently (8.7%) identified issues of equity than Caucasian (22.5%) and Latino students (18.8%). It is unclear whether these differences are due to the different levels of importance that students place on issues of equity or if African American students do not perceive that teachers treat students equitably. Thus, future research should investigate this further.


Viewing the building of a community as the foundation of a teacher's classroom management plan represents a shift in thinking from traditional behavioral models focused on teacher control to models that promote strong interpersonal relationships. These approaches are consistent with research on student's perceptions of "good teachers," which clearly demonstrate that one of the most important aspects of being a "good teacher" is the ability to develop caring relationships. However, the issue of what it means to care is complicated and one that is further complicated by issues of culture and grade levels as demonstrated in this study. Although this study does not provide definitive answers to what students in different grade levels and ethnic groups view as teacher caring, it does provide insight into the variety of strategies teachers can use to demonstrate care. Therefore, the results of this study can help preservice and inservice teachers understand the important role that teacher caring plays in one's overall classroom management plan and, more importantly, help them gain an awareness of the concrete strategies that they can incorporate into their practice to help their students feel that their teachers care about them.


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Tracey Garrett, Ed. D., Jason Barr, Ph.D. and Terri Rothman, Ph.D., Monmouth University.

Reprint requests sent to Tracey Garrett, Ed. D., Rider University, Memorial Hall 102B, 2083 Lawrenceville Road, Lawrenceville, NJ 08648. Email:
Table 1
Definitions of Codes

Code Definitions

Academic support * Informs students how they are doing or what
 they need to do to succeed or improve
 * Monitors/stays on top of student progress
 * Students learn a great deal
 * Pushes students to do well
 * Wants students to pass/ makes sure students
 * Uses good teaching methods
 * Models caring about school/education

The teacher's * Nice person, friendly, respectful, cool,
personality laid back, patient, easy to talk to
 * Offers compliments
 * Is a friend
 * Sensitive to student's moods
 * Has a fun classroom
 * Doesn't yell

Taking a personal * Asks personal questions about the student
interest in the * Listens to the student's problems and
student offers advice
 * Pays attention to the student
 * Asks about their day or about other classes

Equity * Teacher treats everyone the same
 * Holds high expectations for all students
 and expects all students to pass
 * Gives the same amount of support and
 respect to all students

Use of rewards * Teacher used tangible incentives

Note. The code "Doesn't give too much homework" was dropped
due to the infrequent times it was cited.

Table 2
White Perceptions of Caring

 6th Grade 9th Grade

 (n = 13) (n = 27)

Codes Frequency % Frequency %

Academic Support 6 46.2 15 55.6
The Teacher's 7 53.8 15 55.6
Taking a personal 6 46.2 10 37.0
 interest in the
Equity 1 7.7 8 29.7
Uses Rewards 2 15.4 2 7.4

Table 3
Latino Perceptions of Caring

 6th Grade 9th Grade

 (n = 23) (n = 46)

Codes Frequency % Frequency %

Academic Support 10 43.5 40 87.0
The Teacher's 15 65.2 11 23.9
Taking a personal 5 21.7 7 15.2
 interest in the
Equity 7 30.4 6 13.0
Uses Rewards 5 21.7 2 4.3

Table 4
African-American Perceptions of Caring

 6th Grade 9th Grade

 (n = 24) (n = 22)

Codes Frequency % Frequency %

Academic Support 13 50.0 20 90.9
The Teacher's
 Personality 14 53.8 8 36.4
Taking a personal
 interest in the g 34.6 3 13.6
Equity 0 0.0 4 18.2
Uses Rewards 5 19.2 0 0.0

Table 5
Grade Level Differences in Perceptions of Caring

 6th Grade 9th Grade

 (n = 60) (n = 95)

Codes Frequency % Frequency %

Academic Support 29 48.3 65 68.4
The Teacher's 36 60.0 34 35.8
Taking a personal 20 33.3 20 21.1
 interest in the
Equity 8 13.3 18 18.9
Uses Rewards 12 20.0 4 4.2

Table 6
Ethnic Differences in Perceptions of Caring

 Caucasian Latino African-American

 (n = 40) (n = 69) (n = 46)

Codes Frequency % Frequency % Frequency %

 Support 21 52.5 50 72.5 33 71.2
 Teacher's 22 55.0 26 37.7 22 47.8
Taking a
 interest in 16 40.0 12 17.4 12 26.1
 the student
Equity 9 22.5 13 18.8 4 8.7
Uses 4 10.0 7 10.1 5 10.9
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Author:Garrett, Tracey; Barr, Jason; Rothman, Terri
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2009
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