An Ethic of Care in Education

Julie Mooney envisions a classroom where care for both our students and ourselves creates a space where the unexpected can arise and our authentic selves can be revealed. She suggests that mindfulness meditation is a useful tool in fostering our openness to others and our world.



Salzberg notes the classic definition of compassion in Pali, the language of the Buddha, is that it is “the trembling or quivering of the heart.” Implicit in this concept of compassion is not just a feeling or awareness but movement and action. (Miller, Educating for Wisdom and Compassion, 2006: 61) 

In A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward An Undivided Life, Parker J. Palmer describes his experience living at Pendle Hill, a Quaker community near Philadelphia. There he found a learning community, one that valued gentleness, respect, and reverence for the self and the world (2004). The members of this community were “reaching in toward their own wholeness, reaching out toward the world’s needs, and trying to live their lives at the intersection of the two” (25). We are each already a whole person, but we can lose sight of our wholeness. This wholeness does not suggest perfection. It speaks to an understanding of our own true worth and purpose in life. Wholeness does not mean each of us is capable of everything. Rather, it implies that each of us is complete as we are. In other words, each of us has within us the resources to realize our full potential.

In our imperfection, we don’t always achieve that potential. Some of us stray far from our best selves, onto paths that do not suit us, or do not put to good use the talents we have to offer. The struggle to find our hidden wholeness, if we have lost our footing, is an especially important learning experience for a college-level educator, whose students are on the precipice of choosing their paths in life. Sharing our own learning about the journey to our own wholeness can be a powerful way to guide them in finding theirs.

Educating the whole person is at the heart of our work as educators. Dawson College’s Strategic Plan 2010-2015 states that, “students should be educated as full individuals within the entire spectrum of human potential” (13). This holistic approach to education attends not only to the students, but acknowledges the teachers and staff as learners too. Our Strategic Plan goes on to identify as a means for achieving academic excellence, “[helping] our faculty and staff to grow and to develop to their highest potential” (21). In order to fulfill our mandate to educate the whole person, we must care for our students and, importantly, we must care for ourselves as whole persons too.

If educating the whole person is at the heart of our work as educators, then an ethic of care is what roots this work. Nel Noddings would refer to the ethic of care as the backbone. Whatever metaphor we choose, caring for ourselves, our students, the ideas we teach and the world in which we live is central to educational success.

Teach students that caring in every domain implies competence. When we care, we accept the responsibility to work continuously on our competence so that the recipient of our care — person, animal, object, or idea — is enhanced. There is nothing mushy about caring. It is the strong, resilient backbone of human life (Noddings, “A Morally Defensible Mission for Schools in the 21st Century”, Phi Delta Kappan 76: 368).

We are conditioned to focus on what we are supposed to do, the content we are required to teach, the meeting agenda to which we must adhere, the annual objectives for which we much account. These all have their importance, but there must also be room for what arises spontaneously, the unexpected. The practice of an ethic of care asks us to open ourselves to the unforeseen, and to leave time and space for it. In that open time and space, our needs and the needs of our students may emerge and, in those moments, we are called upon to encounter ourselves and our students with great care.

In her presentation as part of the Educating the Heart Speaker Series hosted by the Dalai Lama Centre for Peace and Education, clinical psychologist Shefali Tsabary emphasized the importance of adults letting go of our expectations for children and youth in order to “tune in” to their expectations and hopes for their own lives (Tsabary, 2013). Much of Tsabary’s research is focused on the parent-child relationship, but it can equally be applied to the relationship between educators and learners. In her book, The Conscious Parent: Transforming Ourselves, Empowering Our Children, she challenges adults to distinguish between the egoic self and the true self, or what Palmer would call the hidden wholeness. She explains that the egoic self is formed through childhood and based largely on what other people think of us. “It’s the person we have come to believe we are and think of ourselves as” (2010: 7).  She elaborates to say,

Although this idea of who we are is narrow and limited, our core self – our fundamental being, or essence – is limitless. Existing in complete freedom, it has no expectations of others, no fear, and no feelings of guilt. […] This state actually empowers us to connect with others in a truly meaningful way because it’s an authentic state. Once we have detached from our expectations of how another person “should” behave and we encounter them as they really are, the acceptance we inevitably demonstrate toward them naturally induces connection. This is because authenticity automatically resonates with authenticity” (9).

Connecting in this way may feel risky if all we know are the boundaries of professional conduct and hierarchical rapport. How can we develop the capacity to take such risks? What state of heart and mind must we assume in order to take such a leap in the role of educator? And, when are we supposed to find the time for such authentic connection? I do not suggest that answers to these questions come easily, nor that I have found full proof answers. But I think that it’s not so much a question of finding time in our calendars and I know that we have within us the courage to take the risk.

Connecting with our students is about opening a space in our hearts and minds, an openness to change, change of the personal transformation variety. It invites us to assume an orientation, an attitude towards ourselves and our roles, and a commitment to continually practicing this opening of ourselves as often as we can. I say ‘continually practicing’ because, in Western society as we know it, it may not be possible to achieve mastery of this approach. In any case, I’m not convinced mastery is the goal. Even in ideal conditions for implementing an ethic of care, its actual implementation looks different with each incidence of need for it. We won’t know what is required of us until we arrive at an instance and open ourselves to offer what is needed. This is the work of trying to match our true self with our students’ true needs.

One way that I have been practicing this orientation of openness is through mindfulness meditation. There are many ways to practice mindfulness and meditation. They range from simply focusing on the breath, to repeating a mantra, to repeating meaningful phrases, and can be practiced while walking, sitting, standing, or lying down on one’s back. A meditation can last one minute or one hour, or more or less.

Martin Boronson’s video “One Moment Meditation” encourages applying mindfulness to daily life. He discourages practicing this technique for longer than one minute, saying that once you get good at it, “don’t be macho about it,” because the goal is to develop the ability to achieve a mindful state in just a moment, whenever we need it. While this video has a promotional element for courses he offers for a fee, I find it, nevertheless, a useful introduction to the concept of mindfulness meditation.

John Kabat-Zinn, founder of theCenter for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts, and his colleagues developed a training program known as Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR). A few years ago I took a MBSR course offered by Patricia Dobkin, in the Programs for Whole Person Care at McGill University. She offered training in a variety of meditation and mindfulness techniques. Among them was the loving-kindness meditation, which I find helpful when I need to come back to my centre or when I am concerned about a person, a situation, or an up-coming event.

As with many meditation techniques, this one starts by bringing awareness to the breath. Then the meditator focuses on unconditional love and care inward, towards the self. As one repeats this meditation silently to oneself, it can be directed outwards, towards a particular person, a group of people, a situation or event, etc (Dobkin, 2010). The focus and scope of the meditation is up to the individual meditator. The following text is what one repeats to oneself in this loving-kindness mediation. Insert a name on the blank space, as appropriate:

May _______ be safe and protected, and free from inner and outer harm.

May _______ experience ease and well being.

May _______ be happy and contented.

May _______ be healthy, healed and whole to whatever extent possible (Dobkin, 2010).


Many variations on the loving-kindness meditations can be found through an Internet search. Some are much simpler in that they repeat just one sentence over and over again. At their essence, loving-kindness meditations are intended to extend wishes of wellness towards oneself or another and to still the mind with an orientation of care.

In the educational pursuit of an ethic of care, mindfulness practices can help us to:

  • Be less reactive, when something or someone upsets us;
  • Manage stress, which is inevitable in a context of short timelines for grading papers, and achieving goals within a semester or an academic year;
  • Tune in to our authentic selves, when we don’t feel at ease or on track, and even when we do;
  • Open space for silence for its own sake or for the sake of a pause, so that what most needs to be said can be voiced;
  • Develop patience and compassion;
  • Develop a greater capacity for understanding others;
  • Interrupt our habitual behaviours, allowing us to decide whether or not we wish to continue a pattern;
  • Enter beginner’s mind, which reminds us what it is like to not be the expert in the room. When we find that we are not especially good at quieting the mind (which is the case for most people who take up meditation), we can better relate to our students in situations when they lack competence.

Becoming aware of the fact that your ego isn’t who you really are, and of how it operates to trick you into believing it is, requires observing those moments when a little space opens up and you catch yourself thinking, experiencing emotions, or behaving in ways that aren’t entirely true to yourself. As you begin to notice these moments, you’ll find yourself spontaneously distancing yourself from your ego (Tsabary, 2010).


When we can open this space for ourselves, through a mindfulness practice or another technique, and learn to act from our authentic whole self, our inner wholeness, we will be more apt to open the same kind of space for our students. We will spontaneously care for them and want them to experience the joy that we know at the intersection where our inner wholeness meets a deep need out in the world.


Julie Mooney

Strategic Development Lead, Dawson Peace Centre Initiative


Read more on how educators are using meditation to expand empathy and compassion for others, as well as ourselves, by clicking here.

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One Response to An Ethic of Care in Education

  1. Cynthia C May 10, 2016 at 12:30 pm #

    Very interesting how the members in the Quaker community emphasize that our full potential comes from within each individual which is their own wholeness. Educators definitely play a major role in helping their students find their wholeness. I think that it is the ethic of care that takes the teacher from giving lectures to fostering their students’ wholeness and guiding them on a path to their future.

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