A Pedagogy of Care for Our Online Neighbors

I recently gave a talk on pedagogies of care in the online classroom that I would like to share with all of you. With everything our students and fellow educators have gone through the past year, I think we need to dig down to the heart of education and rethink how we build community together.

Living the Community of Care Model Online.


Think about the last time you watched Mr. Rogers. Maybe you can hear the trolley delightfully chiming along the tracks, or picture those sweaters and blue inside shoes, or even hum along with “Won’t You Be my Neighbor,” the waiting song, or “You are My Friend.”

Imagine Fred Rogers looking directly at you, that kind sparkle in his eyes, as he’s about to share something very special with you. How do you feel?

Are you thinking about how he’s in a sound stage and being recorded? Are you thinking about how you see him through a screen, mediated by technology?

There’s a lot of skepticism out there about the online and technology-enhanced classroom, and for good reason. We’re worried that it will make learning solitary and individualistic, leaving students and instructors feeling disconnected (an interesting technological metaphor for it!) and alienated. We miss the feeling of flow at the seminar table where real discussion is happening.

But so long as there are recordings of Mr. Rogers looking straight into the camera as though he knew my specific 4-year-old would be watching years after his death and says with simplicity, gravity, and kindness, “you are special,” then I can’t be convinced that technology irredeemably obstructs community-building.

Fred Rogers was the master of teaching with technology. What can be more asynchronous than a pedagogical context that outlives you? And I propose that the very heart of his successful use of technology as a pedagogical tool was because he prioritized care, creating a community of care with all of his television neighbors.

So what is this neighborhood pedagogy? And how do we make use of it?

Let’s start with thinking about what it means to care in a pedagogical context. We say we care about our students, but what does that mean? Is it just a warm, fleeting feeling? Yeah I care about my students, so long as they show up, do the reading, and respect my credentialed authority! That doesn’t sound right. Maybe it’s an action. I choose to care for my students. That’s sounding better, but what kind of action is it?

Today I’m going to give three frameworks that aim at answering that question: what am I doing when I care in a pedagogical context?

  1. Joan Tronto’s Phases of Care
  2. bell hooks’s Rituals of Regard
  3. Nel Noddings’s Educational Caritas

The first will be care as a habit or perhaps we can even say care as a virtue. The political scientist and ethicist, Joan Tronto (1993, 127, 136-137), refers to this understanding of care as a “habit of mind” and proposes that “as a practice” care “involves more than simply good intentions” and “requires a deep and thoughtful knowledge of the situation” and the needs of all actors. She further defines care as “everything that we do to maintain, continue, and repair our ‘world’ so that we can live in it as well as possible” (as cited in Schaffer 2021, 34).

But how do we care when we can’t see our students or inhabit the same space. In this vein, the philosopher, Maurice Hamington (2004, 3), proposes that we can only understand care if its “embodied dimension is recognized.” With the recent remote pivot we may be asking with Adams and Rose (2014, 14) “to what extent is caring . . . dependent upon co-presence and a visual connection with the other? Can we experience feelings of care . . . for someone we have never seen, someone who is ‘out there in cyberspace?’” Maybe feelings will be dulled. I’m not sure—that will depend on each of us and how we respond emotionally to virtual connections. But when we hold to the understanding of care as an action or a practice rooted in habit or virtue, we have a path forward for forming communities of care online. My fellow Victorianist, Talia Schaffer (2021, 35) has recently redefined the concept of care in a way that I think can be helpful for reasoning through the kind of posthumanist framework we experience in a technologically-mediated encounter like Zoom: “care is ‘meeting another’s need.’”

Care is ‘meeting another’s need’

Talia Schaffer, Communities of Care

Elements and Phases of Care

So how do we work to meet the needs of others online? Joan Tronto developed a typology of the phases of care with corresponding ethical elements that can help us make a plan of care for our online classrooms:

Infographic based on Tronto’s care model from Boldt and Krause (2017), CC BY 4.0, with the addition of the fifth phase of care.

First, we need to practice attentiveness and recognize the need of the other. In her recent analysis of creating a community of care during the remote pivot, Jennifer Feldman (2020) notes we need to know our students and listen to them before we can enact care. How do we do that in a practical way? Survey’s, free writing prompts, muddiest point. Take time to ask your students about themselves, how they feel about the class, and any questions or concerns they have. These can be anonymous or tied to their names.

Either way, you have to show your willingness to take action and respond to them. This is Tronto’s second phase—taking responsibility for the care of the other. Where at first you are listening to the other, now you are identifying the need and choosing how to meet that need. If you have a survey, take action on it. Meet the needs that you can in a transparent way, such as through FAQs or assessment modification, or creating discussion standards collaboratively so everyone can feel safe, which then enables them to be brave.

Once identifying the need and selecting the response, we need to follow through on offering care in the third phase. Tronto emphasizes that intentionality is not sufficient, but rather we must be competent to meet the need expressed by students. In the context of pedagogy, this should be heartening because if you identify a need that is beyond our competency as educators, then the caring action to take is to direct the student to competent caregivers. Schaffer’s definition focuses on this phase as a continuous action. Like persons, the act of care is not finalizable, and none of us will have the last word when it comes to the care needs of our students.

Finally, since this is a dialogical model, the act of the caregiver does not complete the encounter. The care-receiver has agency as a human person and will react to the caregiver’s action in the fourth phase. How do we have access to that in the online classroom? This is again a time for you to listen. That could mean another survey, but it could also mean a freewriting reflection where students take stock of their experience in the class.

The fourth phase of care assumes mutuality in the care process, which is further expanded with the addition of a fifth phase that explicitly turns the care act to communal and democratic concerns. To effectively put that into practice, we need to remember that the roles of caregivers and care-receivers are not exclusive—they’re really porous. We move between vulnerability and support within a community. As Talia Schaffer (2021, 15) proposes in her recent work on care in Victorian fiction, “A care community flourishes on the premise of fluid care among everyone in the group.” You cannot be the sole caregiver in the classroom, virtual or otherwise, for a community to form. We should always have an eye to how we can facilitate a culture of care not only through our own model but how we frame the nature of online discussion and assignments. A recent work on syllabus writing poses the question this way:

Can students learn to see their work—for you, for and with their peers—as acts of generosity, as the opportunity to give gift and a way to build a community?

(Germano and Nicholls 2020, 38).

That’s the goal, isn’t it. But how do we support and facilitate that kind of transformation? The answer may be in a surprising place: our pedagogical rituals and liturgies.

Rituals of Regard

Communities of care are sustained by rituals of regard

bell hooks

Musing on the impact of eating together around a table, bell hooks (2009) proposes that “Communities of care are sustained by rituals of regard.” When we eat together around the table, a tool uniquely designed to promote community, we engage in mutual acts of care. Some may cook, others may set the table, still others may clear the table, and everyone engages in sharing and conversation. I’m sure we can all think of rituals that we use in the face-to-face classroom. There’s the way we greet students, the way we carefully memorize their names, and the way we facilitate class sessions. In the online classroom, there’s the way we first greet students with the welcome letter and the language we use in the syllabus and the way we intervene in discussions. We could all turn back to our welcome letters and policies and ask ourselves when are we engaging in rituals of power rather than rituals of regard.

In one sense, though, these could be acts or habits of regard, much like Tronto speaks of care as a habit of the mind. What would make something a ritual of regard? Why even use the word ritual? To answer this, we’ll have to take the word ritual seriously. Here’s what we can glean from the literature on ritual and liturgy:

  1. Rituals of regard are not solitary affairs. They are done in community. Often they are public. We see the same dynamic in the etymology of the word liturgy arising from λειτουργία (leitourgia), or “public service” (liturgy, n). If I engage in a ritual of regard with student X, student Y sees it and this can help bring both into community. If I engage in a ritual of power with student X, student Y sees that too.
  2. Rituals and liturgies “create a space in which constructive thinking occurs” and provide “a performative, dialogic, and social form for reasoning” (Kepnes 2007, 5, 138). An important feature in both liturgical thought and feminist theories of care is an expansive understanding of reasoning. Rituals of regard can lead to insights not only about your students and yourself, but about your field.
  3. Rituals situate us in sacred time, which is not linear or circular, but helical. When a past event is ritually commemorated, we’re returning with a difference. This is not to suggest that you need to engage in contemplative pedagogy to enact rituals of regard. Rather it is to encourage you when your classes aren’t perfect. We are never going to form a perfect community of care, but we can always be striving for it, returning to attentiveness and trying to meet the needs of others.
  4. Rituals and liturgies have a close relationship with tools and technology. Turning to the thought of P. Travis Kroeker, hooks notes the “importance of creating a ‘community of care’ so that our relationships with one another can be ‘governed by conviviality rather than suspicion, by praise rather than blame,’” and proposes that in such a community we “are turned toward one another” (Hooks 2009). The technology of the table is a great symbol of that because it turns us toward one another unlike these chairs most of you are in.

Kroeker’s use of the word conviviality might pass right by us as something natural to discussions of community-building, but it’s accomplishing important philosophical work that pertains to our use of technology in the classroom. The educational theorist, Ivan Illich (2009), distinguished convivial tools that enable creativity, dialogue, and agency from the tools of industrial productivity that manufacture their own desires. Inspiring the movement toward the personal computer, Illich even argued that we need “new networks, readily available to the public and designed to spread equal opportunity for learning and teaching,” which he imagined would “transform each moment . . . into one of learning, sharing, and caring” (Illich 1971, 110, viii). Our task is to use rituals of regard in our online spaces so that D2L can promote conviviality like the dinner or seminar table. We’ll talk about that more in the breakout session later.

Educational Caritas

Until then, let’s return to our opening example. What’s the purpose of the rituals of regard that Mr. Rogers utilizes for his television neighbor? Why enter in the same way with the same song with the same wardrobe change? What’s the point of always feeding the fish? And on the rare occasion that the fish are forgotten—which my daughter points out every single time—why take the time to talk about it in the next episode?

Like any ritual, the answer may emerge through multiple viewings, but there’s also a point where Fred gives a direct answer, looking straight into the camera over the temporal and geographical distance to my daughter and me:

“One thing’s sure. Way down deep, everybody wants to love. And everybody wants to have people love them.”

(Rogers, Newbury, and Whitmer 1982).

The desire to love and be loved is not a trite aphorism, but the core of pedagogies of care. A call to love has even been part of the early discourse on feminist ethics of care. Nell Noddings, one of the founders of the theory, writes about educational caritas which includes loving encounters in the classroom, love for teaching itself, and love of the subject. We need to love our students more than we love our subjects—and to be clear, I mean a very stodgy scholastic understanding of love as “willing the good of the other.”

There’s a section missing from the English translation of Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed that gets to the heart of the matter. This is an insight that the philosopher of education, Sam Rocha, has recently discovered. In the original Portuguese and in Spanish translations, Freire ends on the subject of love, but this same passage is hidden away in the preface of the English translation. And I’m going to end with this. In the Spanish translation, it reads:

Si nada queda de estas páginas, esperamos que por lo menos algo permanezca: nuestra confianza en el pueblo. Nuestra fe in los hombres y in la creación de un mundo en el que sea menos dificil amar.

Paulo Freire

If nothing of these pages remains, we hope that at least one thing will remain: our trust in the people. Our faith in men and women and the creation of a world in which it will be less difficult to love.


Adams, Catherine, and Ellen Rose. 2014. “‘Will I Ever Connect with the Students’: Online Teaching and the Pedagogy of Care.” Phenomenology & Practice 7 (2): 5-16.

Boldt, Joachim, and Franziska Krause. 2017. Care in Healthcare: Reflections on Theory and Practice. Cham: Springer Open.

Feldman, Jennifer. 2020. “A Pedagogy of Care: PGCE Students’ Experiences of Online Learning During Covid-19.” Critical studies in teaching and learning 8 (2). https://doi.org/10.14426/cristal.v8i2.326.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogía del Oprimido. Bogotá: Editorial Ameria Latina.

Germano, William P., and Kit Nicholls. 2020. Syllabus: The Remarkable, Unremarkable Document that Changes Everything. Princeton University Press.

Hamington, Maurice. 2004. Embodied Care: Jane Addams, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Feminist Ethics. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Hooks, Bell. 2009. Belonging: A Culture of Place. London: Routledge.

Illich, Ivan. 1971. Deschooling Society. New York: Harper and Row.

—. 2009. Tools for Conviviality. London: Marion Boyars.

Kepnes, Steven. 2007. Jewish Liturgical Reasoning. Oxford: Oxford UP.

liturgy, n. In Oxford English Dictionary: Oxford UP.

Rogers, Fred, Sam Newbury, and Margy Whitmer. 1982. Sometimes It’s Very Hard to Wait. In The Best of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

Schaffer, Talia. 2021. Communities of Care The Social Ethics of Victorian Fiction. New York: Princeton University Press.

Tronto, Joan C. 1993. Moral Boundaries: A Political Argument for an Ethic of Care. New York: Routledge.

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