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Learning at its Best

Educating Towards a Culture of Care

Please excuse the “proud as a peacock” tone of the following post, but I must admit to feeling some pride.  This has been quite an emotional week for me. First, I attended my daughter’s 8th grade promotion marking her transition into high school and then, the very next day my son’s high school graduation. At these two events I’ve had the chance to reconnect with many alumni from Salmonberry School, the elementary school I helped found 14 years ago, where both my kids attended, and at which I still work. Some of these alumni are young men and women I haven’t spent much time with in recent years. I also got to interact with many other adolescents at these events and these conversations have allowed me to see the incredible diversity of ways in which kids develop and the range of personalities and styles of adolescents. These opportunities have also challenged me to search for the common thread that connects the Salmonberry kids –  that’s how I’ll forever think of them, those students who spent at least three or four years of their childhood at The Berry. And I think, maaay-be I’ve got it!

It isn’t achievement, exactly, though these kids have achieved incredible heights, four valedictorians in two years at two different high schools? It isn’t artistry, though these are unbelievably creative and talented kids and artists.  I think what makes our alums and our current Salmonberry students stand out, is quite simply that they care.

I use the word care with a very specific meaning. This is different than passion, hot and fiery. It is not just caring about, like I care about my favorite football team. It is noticing the inherent value in the other, and making it or them your personal responsibility. It is more than sympathy – noticing someone’s pain, more than empathy, feeling another’s pain as if it were your own, though these are important – it adds the layer of the imperative to act, to put oneself on the line when it matters, the commitment to protect and nurture what is important. So there is a huge distinction between caring about and caring for. The students that have graduated from our school have all gone in vastly different directions and their paths, I’m sure will continue to diverge. But what binds them, as far as I can see is the capacity as well as the commitment to care – for their work, their family and friends, distant others, and the world through which they journey.

I remember when I was charged by my Board with finding some short articles that summarized Salmonberry’s pedagogy, I turned to a chapter from Nel Noddings, The Challenge to Care in Schools “Really?” asked my Board Chair, “this is the one piece that speaks to our methods, our curriculum, our understanding of child development?” Yes it is. Noddings wrote for example, “Our aim (in education) should be to encourage the growth of competent, caring, loving and lovable people.”  For those who haven’t read her work on the pedagogy and theory of care, I urge you to do so.

Why does Salmonberry value Arts? It is the aesthetic realm that is the antithesis of, and antidote to the anaesthetic of the industrial machine of school. Art, including music, dance and theater preserves kids’ myriad languages of creative expression; it facilitates a waking up of their feelings and emotions, and it allows them to practice and demonstrate care. Why do we have small classes? Intimacy offers the antidote to the boredom and disengagement inherent in 30 kid-classes. We are a community. We need one another. We are both carer and cared for.  There is reciprocity in each relationship.  Why do we use an integrated thematic approach to the curriculum?  It is the antidote to the disconnection and detachment that grows necessarily from the fragmented and modernist worldview.  A paradigm that has mandated that educators chop the world up into disciplines, subjects and 42 minute classes punctuated by ringing bells.  Everything we do at Salmonberry grows from the seed of, and the need to connect and care.


Three “Martins,” whom I consider to be some of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century have all spoken of care.  Martin Heidegger, a German Philosopher described Care as the very being of human life. “We are immersed in care,” he said. “It is the ultimate reality of life.” Martin Buber termed the seed of care, the caring relation as an I-Thou relationship. We mutually recognize the value, worth and sacredness of one another. And Martin Luther King Jr famously said “Our lives begin to end when we become silent about things that matter.”

And how can we instill an ethic of care within children? At Salmonberry School we do not tell our students to care; we show them how to care by creating mutually caring relationships with them. As Carol Gilligan said, caring is a way of being in relation, not a set of specific behaviors.  More on this on a future post, perhaps.

Ask me if I care.

Ask me if I care.

While we wring our hands and furrow our brows about American kids’ failure on the stage of global competition and achievement, I believe that we should be more concerned about our kids’ increasing disengagement, boredom, their lack of care, and the emergence of this “What-ever” culture.  We should re-animate the reform discourse with the infusion of care.


About Paul Freedman

I am the founding Director of The Salmonberry School in Eastsound, WA. I have taught elementary school in public and private settings for the past 19 years. I serve as a contributing editor for Encounter: Education for Meaning and Social Justice (Formerly the Holistic Education Review.) I also serve on the faculty of the Self Design Graduate Institute. I hold an MA in EDU from Goddard College.


5 thoughts on “Educating Towards a Culture of Care

  1. Paul, Congratulations on this beautiful opportunity to reflect on what your community really means, and the influences it has. And congratulations too on the graduations of your kids! I hope you’ll keep going with this essay, to let us know even more: what does “caring” look like at Salmonberry? Feel like? How could an educator grasp onto the ethos of caring there, and try to create it at a school or educational setting of their own?

    With care and appreciation…


    Posted by Kirsten Olson | June 22, 2015, 7:21 am
  2. Kirsten, my sister, you read my mind! Thanks for your encouragement and invitation to share more…I think I will…immediately. Stay tuned! Kirsten, you embody care again and again in the way your comments here always demonstrate genuine listening, understanding and always the gesture to encourage the author to dig a little deeper and offer a little more. You’ve taught me a lot about how to listen over the years. I’ve missed the dialogue here at the Co-op. And I now have regrets about the hiatus I’ve taken for the last couple of years. But I do believe, as summer stretches out before me, and I’m reading some of the beautiful recent posts, my mind is turning, thoughts are coalescing. And now to be in dialogue again with you! OMG! I’m so happy to be back.

    Posted by Paul Freedman | June 22, 2015, 12:00 pm
  3. Paul, we clearly are cut from the same cloth. You write: “…we show them how to care by creating mutually caring relationships with them…” Such an important ethic. It speaks to everything in education, in my opinion. It’s about partnering in apprenticeship—towards how to care, how to learn, how to do, how to influence.

    Before we discuss anything else in education, the relationship has to change. It’s the foundation of everything.

    There are two relationship paradigms I’m championing:

    1) The relationship between teachers and students. For me it’s about flipping the accountability model. Students need to be assisted in accountability to themselves. We are teaching so much through how we structure that relationship. In the current model of student being accountable to teacher, we are teaching that other’s views about what we need are more important than our own, and that learning is about following orders. We learn that influence comes from power imbalance; that our worth is determined by others.

    2) The relationship between learner and what is learned. I ask my students, ‘What’s your give?”
    For a sustainable world, we need to flip the paradigm of who education is for. Is it for me, to get a good job and have a good life? Is it for me so I can be happy and have choice? Is it for me as a parent, to feel good about my child’s future? Or is it so I can be of more service to our world? It has to move from a get to a give, and as you so eloquently show in this post, it has to be modeled in the relationship we have with our students and with our learning communities as a whole.

    I fear that all of the other important questions in education—about skills vs. content, about relevant vs. real, about the role of technology, and so many more—cannot be adequately addressed until these relationships are made right.

    Thank you. So glad to have discovered your writings.

    Posted by Aaron Eden | June 26, 2015, 9:13 pm
    • Aaron, I feel a kinship with you as well. Thanks for reaching out. I completely agree about the primacy of relationships. In her book, The Challenge to Care in Schools, Nel Noddings imagines re-envisioning the whole curriculum, abandoning traditional disciplines: math, Language Arts, etc. and reconceptualizing what is to be learned and how it could be organized as concentric spheres of care. Caring for self; Caring for Intimate Other; Distant Other; Inanimate objects, plants, animals and the biotic community; and finally, and importantly, Caring for Ideas. Interesting to imagine what education could like if it were conceived of in this way. Noddings precursor to this was a book entitled Caring, which looks at the microcosm of the caring relation or encounter, partly building on Carol Gilligan’s work. This has been very influential to my thinking about education.

      Also relevant here may be Riane Eisler’s Tomorrow’s Children, which also involves re-imagining education through the lens of relationship and specifically dominator vs partnership kinds of relationships.

      And finally, of course, your #1 and #2 above together remind me of Parker Palmer’s “Community of Truth” that he writes about in The Courage to Teach. In this model, Palmer describes a community of carers, both teacher and learners all gathered together in a metaphorical circle around a living subject. He contrasts this vision with the traditional one-way linear flow of information from teacher, through textbook, to student.

      In any case, I am with you, and I do believe others are too. I really appreciate your contribution to this conversation as well as the little bit I’ve read of your other writing. If you have time, please give my little icon from the list of catalysts on the right a click and visit some of my previous posts. I’d be delighted to get feedback and thoughts from you on anything.

      Posted by Paul Freedman | June 26, 2015, 10:46 pm


  1. Pingback: One Day of Sharing and Caring | Cooperative Catalyst - June 22, 2015

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