Comment on “The caring relation in teaching”

By Jeanne Warren

Date Posted: December 18 2013

Jeanne Warren was born and brought up in the United States of America. She has a B.A. from Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana. She taught French in America and Australia and then worked as a computer programmer in Australia, England and Sweden. She has for a long time been a member of the Society of Friends (Quakers). She now lives in Oxfordshire. She is the author of ‘Becoming Real’ which is a short introduction to the thought of John Macmurray. It was published by the Ebor Press in 1989 and reprinted in 2000.

This article is based on a short presentation Jeanne gave for the John Macmurray Fellowship Conference which was held on October 5th, 2013 at the Friend’s Meeting House, Oxford. The theme of the conference was ‘Learning To Be Human – John Macmurray on Education’


Comment on “the caring relation in teaching” by Nel Noddings, an article in the Oxford Review Of Education Vol. 38 Issue, 6 December 2012


 For the John Macmurray Fellowship Conference in Oxford on 5 October, 2013


Part One

John Macmurray wrote that ‘teaching is one of the foremost of personal relations’ [1] and Nel Noddings, Professor of Education Emerita at Stanford University, spells out what this can mean in practice, in her article for the Oxford Review of Education entitled “The caring relation in teaching”. Nel Noddings has long been concerned with ‘care ethics’, which is, she writes, ‘a recognised approach to moral philosophy, based largely on the experience of women’. It began in the 1980’s and has since spread more widely, including, I am sure, to men! I will summarise some of what she says in her article, before talking around it more broadly.

Humans begin life in relation, and they develop as individuals in relation. As both John Macmurray and Martin Buber have said, the foundation of the personal life is neither the individual nor the collective but the relation. Caring is an integral part of it. Teaching is one kind of relation. How does caring apply to it? The teacher-pupil relation is not an equal one, but both parties contribute to the caring relation.

Central to the carer’s, in this case the teacher’s practice is attentiveness. The teacher gives her pupils receptive attention. In this way the teacher picks up on her pupils’ expressed needs. These may differ from what the school assumes the pupils’ needs to be. If this is so, the teacher must reflect on what she has learned about these particular pupils’ needs before responding, if the relation is to be a truly caring one.

And what is the pupil’s role in maintaining the caring relation? Simply, he shows somehow that the caring has been received. He doesn’t have to express gratitude. It is important for teachers to remember how important their pupils’ response is to them. In fact, without it, there is no caring relation.

The difference between expressed and assumed needs must be emphasised. A teacher can work very hard to address assumed needs, and this is often admired. However, her actions may leave the actual needs of these particular pupils unaddressed, and so her efforts may misfire.

Every educational encounter is also an opportunity to further the moral education of the pupils, by encouraging the development in them of the empathy (or sympathy) which the teacher herself uses to engage with them. The kind of attentive listening that a teacher needs to do is at the heart of the process. Both the pupils’ thoughts and their feelings can be elicited and heard. But caring cannot be reduced to empathy. Not only does the teacher need to listen carefully to what her pupils tell her, she also needs to pause and reflect, to consider all the varying demands of the situation and the other pupils. Teachers also need a broad education so that they can relate to other disciplines and other stages of their pupils’ development.

This way of teaching needs a cooperative rather than a competitive climate. Yet this is too often not the way school systems are organised. There is far too much emphasis on competitive results. This needs to change.

Sometimes teachers ask how they can establish a climate of care ‘on top of all the other demands’. Nel Noddings’ reply is that it is not ‘on top of’ other things but underneath them! When a climate of care is established, everything else goes so much better. For this reason, good teachers must be allowed to use their professional and moral judgment in responding to the needs of their students. Time spent on building a relation of care and trust is never wasted.

For the student, this approach not only helps them to learn but helps them to decide what they need to learn. John Dewey said, “To find out what one is fitted to do and to secure an opportunity to do it is the key to happiness” [2]. Instead, the competitive system of examinations says to the student, ‘Study what we tell you, get to university, and all will be well.’ But as Nel Noddings says, “It is counter-productive to continue with modes of evaluation that rank all students from top to bottom on tasks forced on them, on which they have no choice and no opportunity to exercise their individual capabilities” [3].

There are moral implications too. Teachers hope that the school will establish a moral climate which will carry over into public life. When the pressure is on both pupils and teachers (sometimes in the form of funding) to get good academic results, rather than to gain knowledge, cheating is an increasing problem. (In Macmurray’s terms, not referred to in the article, schools are in danger of pursuing instrumental rather than intrinsic values.)

Caring teachers can counter this by their emphasis on listening as a way of connecting with pupils’ genuine thoughts and feelings. It is also an effective learning tool, since only through listening can we develop our own ideas most effectively, in dialogue with others, and avoid a stubborn dogmatism.

Moreover, listening is the basic attitude that characterises relations of care and trust, the personal relation of teaching extolled by Macmurray. The aim of education is not only to teach students the knowledge and skills they need. As Nel Noddings concludes, “It is the hope of all caring teachers that their students will enter the adult world prepared to care” [4].


Part Two

In this section I flesh out John Macmurray’s concept of ‘love’ or ‘friendship when applied to the teaching situation.

The difficulty Macmurray has when talking about positive personal relations is that the word ‘love’ is so easily misunderstood. Even when replaced by ‘caring’ (as Macmurray himself suggests at one point in Persons in Relation [5]), there is still much scope for misunderstanding.

I recently came across a 1992 article [6], an interview with Marshall Rosenberg, who was Director of educational services for the Center for Nonviolent Communication. I was rather surprised to read that Marshall Rosenberg had found that, when pressed, people came up with a definition of love along the lines of, “I want you to guess what I want before I even know what it is, and then I want you always to do it.” Marshall Rosenberg suggests instead that love be thought of as openly revealing ourselves, but making no demands on the other person to supply what we say we want. The only requirement is that the other person hears and understands what we say. The other half of love is when the other person does the same. Rosenberg points out the damaging effects of the traditional definition of love as self-denial, as doing for the other while ignoring our own needs. In its place he puts listening and speaking openly with each other.

Macmurray was aware of how frightening such openness can be. He maintains that the opposite of love, or caring, is fear, or anxiety. Love is, in Macmurray’s terms, the positive which includes fear as its constitutive negative. In the young child’s development of its relationship with its primary carer, usually its mother, there is a rhythm of withdrawal and return. The mother has to act sometimes in ways which seem to the child to be a withdrawal of care. The child needs to become independent, and sometimes the mother senses that she must allow or encourage the child to do something for himself rather than doing it for him. The child may easily interpret this as a withdrawal of love and become anxious, but if well-managed, the situation is resolved and the child realises that love has not been withdrawn after all. However, the situation may not go well, and then the mother and child become engaged in a battle of wills. Over time, the child develops a habit of resisting the mother, either by outward conformity together with inward withdrawal, or by outward defiance which escalates as the child gets older. Macmurray even calls this process ‘the critical centre of all education’ [7].

In our society one or other of these patterns seems to be quite common, and surely the effects carry over into our educational institutions, populated as they are by products of our society. Macmurray points out that these negative dispositions, though persistent, are not unalterable. Thinking of teacher training for a moment, are such issues addressed there? I doubt it, but I do not know. I did train as a teacher when I was in college in America a long time ago, and they certainly weren’t then. Probably it would be difficult to do so, but is it too difficult? Perhaps it is, but at least we could aspire to an easier goal, to recognise the achievement of teachers who have the gift to overcome fear-driven habits in their pupils. That requires only a recognition of what is going on, rather than the ability to change it. Even this is lacking at present, as schools and teachers are judged on other criteria and resources allocated accordingly. Promising programs may be closed down on grounds of cost before they can be properly evaluated.

On quite another tack, I would like to refer to Macmurray’s distinction between the organic and the personal. Education is an activity of persons, it is not an organic process. To Macmurray, writing when he did, one of the biggest threats to our proper understanding and management of our lives was that we were in thrall to ‘the organic philosophy’, the idea that we are simply products of and participants in processes – of evolution or economics or social history. In his day, both Communist theory and its opposite, the liberal belief in continuous progress, were dominant examples of this in the West. Three generations later we still have a public discourse which believes in processes; at present ‘the market’ is the favourite. But this way of thinking, says Macmurray, overlooks human freedom. He states quite emphatically, “The nexus of relations which unites us in a human society is not organic but personal. Human behaviour cannot be understood, but only caricatured, if it is represented as an adaptation to environment; and there is no such process as social evolution but, instead, a history which reveals a precarious development and possibilities both of progress and of retrogression” [8].

The distinction between the organic and the personal runs throughout Macmurray’s work and I cannot do it justice here. Surely a sense of ‘what it is to be a person’ informs every teacher’s practice, at some level. It matters, therefore, what society’s conception of a person is. Making education serve only the economy, for example, is an implicit acceptance of the organic model of persons. We are of value only to the extent that we are useful economically. As Macmurray would point out, the economic processes are essential, but they are there to serve personal ends, not the other way round. Personal ends are those which enable the community of free persons-in-relation to live fulfilled lives. For this end, persons who can care are invaluable.

The head of a local school, Magdalen College School, who is also chairman of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, said in a speech this week that the story of the last 50 years in education is ‘the intrusion of the state and the disappearance of love’ [9]. That is a succinct way of stating the sad fact that the opposite of Nel Noddings ‘caring relation in teaching’ has been the direction of travel in British education for quite some time. Happily, there are always those who notice and object.


1. Reference given in the article as Macmurray, J. (1964) ‘Teachers and pupils’, The Educational Forum, 29(1), p.17.

2. Reference given in the article as Dewey, J. (1916) Democracy and education (New York, Macmillan), p. 308.

3. Noddings article p. 779.

4. Noddings article p.780.

5. Macmurray, J. (1961) Persons in Relation (London, Faber and Faber), p. 73.

6. From an interview in the April 1992 edition of The Monthly Aspectarian: Chicago’s New Age Magazine. See the website of the international Center for Nonviolent Communication at

7. Macmurray, J. op. cit., p.104.

8. Macmurray, J. op. cit., p. 46.

9. Speech by Tim Hands reported by Richard Adams, Education editor, in The Guardian of 1 October 2013, p.6.


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