Head & Heart Ch. 12: Creating a Caring Community at School

Michael S. Katz, PhD, professor of philosophy and education at San Jose State, has written extensively on childhood development and ethics in education. He received his doctorate from Stanford University. Prof. Katz spoke at a breakfast for Living Wisdom School parents and teachers.

image030I would like to thank Helen for inviting me to speak with you about my impressions of Living Wisdom School and its relationship to the area I am most interested in as a philosopher of education, namely the ethical development of children. That is to say, the development of their ethical sensibilities and their social and moral character, and their capacity as persons to treat others well and to live satisfying, fulfilling lives as social persons.

This is what I have been thinking and writing about since 1983, when I taught my first course in the ethics of education at the University of Nebraska.

I come here also as a former teacher and a friend of Living Wisdom School, a truly remarkable school that deserves all of our support, and our full appreciation for what it has become: a caring community that embraces the visionary ideal that students can grow creatively, spiritually, emotionally, and intellectually by being allowed to exercise their minds fully and develop their personalities freely in a family-type environment, one that prizes their individuality, nurtures their spirituality, and honors their common humanity as persons.

My son broke a rule

I’ll start with a personal anecdote. I’m a parent, married for 35 years with two beautiful grown children and a gorgeous 14-month-old grandchild, Gabriella.

In my second academic position, I found myself in Omaha, Nebraska, where my five-year-old son, Alan, was about to enter kindergarten.

We had placed Alan in a Montessori school when he was three, and it went fine until he was four and brought cookies to school on his birthday. He apparently broke a school rule about not “sitting on the line,” and his punishment was that he was not allowed to have any of his own cookies when they were distributed.

This seemed very harsh indeed, a clear case where rules were elevated to a higher place than persons and their feelings.

My son was emotionally and spiritually crushed by this simple misjudgment, and it called into question for us the practical wisdom of the school’s leaders and teachers.

Parents depend mightily on the wisdom of teachers and their sensitivity to respond appropriately to our children in all their complexity.

This is not to say that we adults aren’t entitled to make mistakes in judgment. We all do, even the wisest of us, but our relationships with our children’s teachers must be based on a thoroughgoing level of trust that they will act regularly and systematically with the best interests of our children at heart.

Our trust in their wisdom, their caring attitudes, and their ability to know what our children need in order to grow and flourish must be built slowly over time. It can also be easily destroyed by a single case of poor judgment, or a single case of remarkable insensitivity.

This is what happened with our son at his Montessori school. When he turned four, we did not put him back in the school but placed him in a preschool at the Jewish community center. We then had the painful experience of watching him in the classroom through a one-way mirror and noticing that he had no friends, interacted with virtually none of the other children during playtime, and looked rather sad and forlorn.

We made good efforts to overcome his social isolation by inviting kids over to the house. And, little by little, our son seemed to relax and make friends at school.

Kindergarten boot camp

Then it was time to go to kindergarten. There were few alternatives to the public schools, but we wanted to consider all of the options.

My precocious little son had already developed his own strong point of view. At one point, he summarily told us, “I want to go to the Millard Public Schools. I am five, and I think I know what is best for my own education.”

Be careful about cultivating the intellects of your little children! Here was our little five-year-old existentialist son telling us to keep our noses out of his educational affairs because he could make his own rational decisions.

The problem was that he had no idea what kind of kindergarten he would find himself part of in the Millard Public Schools.

He had a kindergarten teacher who ran her class like a sergeant in a U.S. Marine boot camp. She suffered no disobedience, and she showed little warmth toward my son. At one point, when he coughed, she reminded him that there “were better ways to get the attention of an adult than coughing.”

Before receiving his first report card, he told me that his kindergarten teacher had not once spoken to him as a person outside the formal class setting, and that she had showed no interest in him or what he paid attention to.

The teacher and I talked on the phone, and I indicated that Alan seemed to have little interest in school. She listened, told me that he did not participate much, and we hung up.

Three weeks later, we got Alan’s first report card. It consisted of four pages of items, and there wasn’t a single thing on the report card that was positive – just a lot of “satisfactory” checks and a few “unsatisfactories.” No indication of who he was as an individual with a rich private world and an active imagination of his own, someone who loved to be read to and was very warm and affectionate with his parents.

We asked for a parent-teacher conference, and unsurprisingly, the school organized the conference the same way the western settlers organized their camps. They circled their wagons in full defense against an attack by the Native Americans whose land they were stealing.

The principal was there, along with the school psychologist, the teacher, and us.

When I informed them that my son had indicated that his teacher had shown no personal interest in him and had had no conversations with him outside of class, this was categorically denied.

“I show an interest in all of my children,” the teacher flatly stated. (No examples, of course.)

When I indicated that he seemed to have no interest in school, I was told that he would “do better if he showed interest.”

The dialogue was absolutely useless. No strategies were suggested for improving my son’s attitude. We were made to look like we were the bad guys for questioning how the school experience was affecting our son. And all of the blame was laid at his feet.

When I informed my son that his teacher had said that he would do better if he would show more interest in his classroom activities, he looked at me incredulously and said, “What am I supposed to do, Dad – pretend that I’m interested when I am not?”

Words of wisdom from a five-year-old! But that is what alienated, high-achieving kids learn to do in public schools – pretend to be interested, when they are not.

Establishing a private school

Toward the end of the academic year, I was invited to help start a private Jewish day school. I threw myself into the project, not because I was particularly interested in my son’s Jewish identity – we had not even joined a synagogue in Omaha and were one of the few families who had not done so.

But I was completely committed to not having first grade be a repeat of kindergarten for my son. I wanted him to love school, to love learning, and to be excited about going to school.

So we established our private Jewish day school, and the first thing we did was to steal one of the most creative, wonderful teachers in Omaha, a woman named Lucille Saunders who had over forty years of teaching experience in five or six states, and who was an ex-nun who believed in the freedom and creativity of the British primary schools. She had taught at a Catholic School where they paid her about $12,500 a year, and we increased her salary by something like $1,500 and gave her complete autonomy in setting up her kindergarten and first grade.

We opened with twelve or thirteen kids, and there were five kids in my son’s first-grade class.

Now, I must say one thing. Had I not experienced firsthand my son’s painful kindergarten experience, there is no way I would ever have done such a rash thing in 1980.

Forming a private school with almost no funding is a prescription for migraine headaches. For starters, every parent who is involved wants to run the school, and no one knows the first thing about developing and building a quality school.

The lines of authority between the teachers, administrator (if you are lucky enough to have one), and parents are blurred beyond belief. In short, it’s a total mess.

So, when one finds a school like Living Wisdom School that has flourished for some time, I must say that it is a remarkable achievement. First of all, because building an effective private school from the ground up is an incredible achievement – as I well know.

I suspect that during the first three years of the Jewish Day School of Omaha, I put in an extra 20-25 hours a week. It was like holding down another full-time job, and psychologically it was filled with frustrations.

We had to get rid of our first two administrators, one of whom thankfully left and took another job, and the second of whom we had to fire. And that is just awful: to bring someone in to run your private school and then have to fire them because they cannot do the job well – it was painful stuff.

Living Wisdom School

Let me say some things about Living Wisdom School that most of you already know.

What I will say is not earthshaking. But I hope that some of it will hit home and awaken your sense of appreciation and gratitude for the great gift that you have been given with this school, with its remarkable culture, its talented, dedicated, creative teachers, and its splendid leadership.

First of all, a school is not composed merely of classes, teachers, and academic instruction, no matter how critical those are.

It is primarily a normative culture where the value commitments infuse the air that your children breathe, a culture that your students interact with every day, in ways that affect the cultivation of their habits, attitudes, and values.

A culture can be unified or fragmented, but one thing that a culture embodies, as you all know, is a way of life. The school culture is defined by its core beliefs and values, it is embodied in its most sacred rituals, it is lived by its members, and it is passed on by its adherents.

So, what makes the culture of the Living Wisdom School so special?

We can take the yearly play as an embodiment of the culture. What does the play tell us about the school? First of all, it speaks volumes about what the school represents symbolically. It represents a commitment to the creation of “a caring community.”

What is a caring community?

Let’s break this notion down into its two components: community and caring.

What is a community? For John Dewey, one of my favorite philosophers, a community is a group of people who are united by a set of core values and goals.

The community of Living Wisdom School is unified by its goals: the goal of fostering the creative spirit and creative impulses of each and every child, and the goal of helping each child learn how to get along and cooperate with his/her fellow classmates, and not just those in the same class, but also those older and younger in the school.

How inspiring it is to see a play where all of the children in the school are contributing at their fullest level of skill: reciting poems, enacting dialogue, playing multiple roles, singing, dancing, reciting, and acting – and doing so in creative unison to dramatize the life of an inspiring spiritual figure whose words and deeds embody the highest ideals of the human spirit.

My wife and I have been to only the last two plays, but there is an expression in Yiddish that summarizes how we felt as we watched the plays – and, remember, we don’t have any children in the school. We don’t even know any of the children in the school.

The word that summarizes how we felt is “we qvelled when we watched this play.” To qvell is to be swollen with pride, to be filled up with joyful pride, filled up to the point of bursting with pleasure.

That is how we felt when my daughter was married, and the evening ceremony went like clockwork and she looked radiant in her wedding gown.

That is how we felt when we watched the kindergartners and first graders, second graders, third graders, all the way to the eighth graders, performing their parts.

There was a sense of wonderment and awe. How could these kids do this? Well, the answer is simple: they were directed, inspired, helped, guided, encouraged, and led by wonderful teachers, parents, and friends. They were allowed to do it, supported in doing it. And the result was a celebration of their creativity, and an embodiment of what a caring community can achieve when it commits itself totally.

So, a certain kind of community is a place that unifies two complementary features into one whole: a commitment to the welfare of the group, and a simultaneous commitment to the individuality of each person. Neither the group’s well-being nor the individual’s uniqueness is sacrificed to the other. And this requires a very special kind of wisdom on the part of the school’s leadership and all of the teachers. And all of you have seen this wisdom being practiced here virtually every day.


Now let me turn to the concept of caring.

A community is really the social expression of “caring.” But “caring” can also be conceived by understanding the idea of a “caring encounter” and a “caring relationship.”

The educational psychologist and philosopher Nel Noddings defines a “caring encounter” (something your children experience every day in this school) as having several critical dimensions.

The most important dimension is an openness to receive the other person as “a unique individual.”

When we care, we open ourselves up to accept and receive the other in his/her full “otherness,” in his/her full individuality. We accept and receive the other’s thoughts and feelings without critical judgment, because understanding and accepting the other is more important than judging him or her.

To be “cared for” in a caring encounter is to be fully received, fully accepted, and fully appreciated. It is to be validated in one’s essential humanness. It is to be affirmed in one’s basic value as a person with worth and dignity. There is no substitute for this kind of “caring” in the process of becoming a healthy person who can go on to live a flourishing life.

Before I began my efforts to establish a Jewish day school, I did not fully appreciate the role that caring teachers can play in a young person’s life.

I was worried above all about my son’s cognitive development. But it did not take long for me to see the light.

A child who is not cared for by his teacher is a child who suffers great pain, a child whose spirit can begin to shrivel, a child whose vulnerability is threatened.

One can make the analogy of a flower’s need for sunlight. A child who is not cared for is like a flower that does not receive enough sunlight, and withers as a consequence.

A child who is properly cared for is like a flower coming into bloom. So, be grateful that your children are having daily “caring encounters” in the Living Wisdom School. They are like flowers coming into bloom. Be thankful for that!

Caring relationships

Now, a caring relationship is something more than a “caring encounter,” or even a set of caring encounters.

It is exactly what it sounds like: a reciprocal relationship between the one caring and the one cared for.

I can only speak of the Living Wisdom School teachers I know best, but I’m sure that what I say applies to the others. I would experience not one iota of doubt in turning my children over to them for the several years that they are bringing up your children.

Photo: Mariah helps a fellow middle-school student understand a lesson at Living Wisdom School.
Photo: Mariah helps a fellow middle-school student understand a lesson at Living Wisdom School.

Why? Because every one of the children will be in a “caring relationship” with them. At the core of a caring relationship is one thing: a complete, unqualified dedication to the well‑being of the one being cared for. I repeat: a complete, unqualified dedication to the well‑being of the one being cared for.

How could one ask for more? But one gets even more with these remarkable persons. One gets the incredible compassion and wisdom that each of them brings to the task of nurturing your children’s growth.

One could conceivably be dedicated to the well‑being of the other and still lack good judgment. Or one could lack inner psychological security, and so try to meet one’s needs through one’s students.

In my Ethics of Teaching unit for secondary teachers, I have them read a novel and see a film. The film is The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, with Maggie Smith in the starring role.

Miss Jean Brodie is “dedicated to her students,” but she doesn’t know how to care for them because her own narcissistic needs are too great, and her self-deception is too powerful. She does not want them to flourish as independent, creative spirits but seeks to make them over into little Miss Jean Brodie clones.

This is not what you want for your children. And what you get from these wonderful teachers and from others in the school is the cultivation of creative, caring children, children who are coming to understand, in powerful ways, what all students need to understand to become effective social persons: how to care for and appreciate their classmates, how to cooperate with them, how to work with them to produce something that is larger than themselves (for example, the fabulous school plays), and how to be the best person they can be.

Standardized tests in public schools

I want to conclude with a reminder of how special this school is, in light of what is going on in America’s K-12 schools today.

What is being talked about today in discussions about education?

“How do we improve students’ test scores?”

“How do we punish schools and teachers and administrators whose students do not perform well on these tests?”

In the present climate, if less than ninety-five percent of the kids show up for school, those schools are stigmatized.

Consider the vision of schooling that is embodied in this climate. Schooling is reduced to cognitive achievement. And cognitive achievement is reduced to scoring well on high‑stakes tests.

Now, one does not want to diminish the importance of teaching kids to do well on pressurized tests. But is that all you want for your child’s growth as a young person?

Where is the cultivation of creativity, cultural understanding, and the capacity to care for others and relate productively with them? Where is music, art, drama, and philosophy in these standardized tests and the paranoia surrounding their outcomes?

The public schools are now massively regulated, not by an ideal of developing an educated person but by what even the society at large considers intolerable: producing kids with diplomas who cannot read or do basic math.

This is why we are regulating the public schools to focus on test scores: because we are producing so many students whose diplomas do not represent even minimal achievement in literacy.


Compare two rituals. First, massive numbers of kids in California’s public schools will be assembled next week to take their standardized tests.

Second, Living Wisdom School’s community just dramatized the incredible life of a compassionate Chinese sage, after months of remarkable cooperative effort.

In which environment would a child flourish and develop his or her full human potential to live a joyful, creative life?

The answer, for me, is quite clear. Let’s change the name around a bit and call it the “School of Living Wisdom” – a school that represents a precious, far too-uncelebrated accomplishment by dedicated, wise, caring teachers, inspired leadership, wonderful parental participation, and beautiful children.

I feel honored to speak with you this morning. I feel honored to be connected, however indirectly, to the School of Living Wisdom. And in turn, I marvel at its spirit, I embrace its visionary ideal, and I celebrate its remarkable accomplishments. I urge us all to spread the word on how special a place it really is. Thank you for listening.

Michael S. Katz Biography

Professor Michael S. Katz, Professor of Philosophy and Education at San Jose State University, teaches courses in applied philosophy, including moral issues and the philosophy of education. His present area of research is the ethics of teaching.

Dr. Katz has served on the Executive Council of the San Jose State Senate, recently as chair of the policy committee on Professional Standards. He recently co-authored two articles with Dr. Michael Miller on democracy and academic governance, one of which was published as a chapter in the NEA Almanac. His most recent academic paper presentations have been on the topics of trust and trustworthiness in teacher-student relationships, and a philosophical analysis of the “right to an education.”

Dr. Katz received his B.A. from Amherst College, and an M.A. and Ph.D. (1974) from Stanford University. He is the author of over thirty articles in journals such as Educational Theory, Interchange, The Journal of Learning Disabilities, The Journal of Teacher Education, Planning and Changing, and Philosophy of Education.

He is the co-editor, with Nel Noddings and Kenneth Strike, of a recent book on ethics and education: Justice and Caring: The Search for Common Ground in Education (Teachers College Press, 1999).

Dr. Katz has also taught at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, San Francisco State University, Stanford University, and American University (Washington, D.C.), where he chaired the doctoral program in higher education.

He has served as Secretary/Treasurer of The Philosophy of Education Society of North America and the Executive Board of the Society. He also chairs an ad-hoc task force on the Ethics of Education for the Philosophy of Education Society. He presently serves on the editorial board for educational theory of a journal produced in England, the Journal of Ethics and Education.