Photo: Andrew Reed/EdSource
Theresa Griffin, a sixth grade teacher, helps students solve real-life math problems on how to graph integers on a number line.

The pandemic has caused significant grief, loss and denial of peer and familial interactions, particularly for our most marginalized communities — students of color, low-income students, immigrant students, English learners and students with special needs.

As we enter yet another phase of the pandemic — the return to in-person learning darkened by the shadow of new Covid variants — it is vital that we prioritize care and compassion for our students, families and educators.

We need to focus not just on instructional strategies but also on relationships. We should focus on empathy, flexibility, respect and human connection. We should listen to students’ voices and to their silences. We should recognize the historical influences informing the conditions facing students, their families and their communities. At the same time, we should be recognizing the strengths, skills and resilience that students bring from their families, communities and histories. All of these lenses should inform our work as educators in the field.

With this in mind, I’m encouraging educators to consider the power of “cariño” in the classroom. Cariño is care, love and understanding; it’s a genuine concern for students’ well-being; it’s about exercising empathy and compassion and high expectations.  Cariño means we:

Humanize the classroom by making time to connect

It is vital that we set time aside to connect and check in with students. We can do this by sharing affirmations with students such as, “you matter,” “I’m happy you are here,” and “I’m proud of you.” As we teach, let’s remember that students have been staring at a screen for the past 18 months so let’s strive to keep the learning experience reciprocal and interactive. Students (and educators) are excited to be back in the classroom, so capitalize on this moment by showing your students you are human; it’s OK to laugh at yourself and with your students. As we adjust to the in-person classroom, let’s remember that there will be challenges and setbacks, but remind yourself that we need to keep moving and keep moving forward.

Centralize art and the students’ culture into our everyday work

Cariño is conveyed when we incorporate students’ culture, language, family and community into the classroom. Consider playing music that inspires students. You can also incorporate art into everyday assignments and exercises. For instance, instead of requiring a written response to a question, encourage students to draw or paint a picture. These sources of strength are what define our students, and we should allow the classroom space to be a platform for validation and inspiration.

Know that you, and what you do, matter to your students

Educators are both the deliverers and embodiment of cariño.  Whether we realize it or not, students want to be recognized and affirmed by educators. Our students are ready for you every single day. They are yearning for encouragement. When we bring our energy, enthusiasm and creativity to the classroom, we are exercising the power of cariño.

Exercise flexibility

Flexibility is particularly important during these times when students and families are facing unimaginable challenges. We can practice cariño by offering second, third and fourth chances to students. As we consider grading and related matters, let’s not use this moment to subtract points from students; the pandemic has done that already with the absence of in-person schooling and peer interactions. When you provide flexibility, you model the power of compassion.

Recognize this high-stakes moment

The pandemic has been particularly devastating for people who were already struggling prior to the pandemic. Cariño is recognizing that education is still the pathway to mobility and equality for our students. As educators, we should intentionally work for equity one interaction at a time. During these times, we should also strive to instill a sense of hope and possibility that things will get better.

In times of ongoing uncertainty, and as our students, families and communities continue to struggle, let’s imagine how practices of cariño can create a smile, a feeling of belonging and a realization for students that their teachers care about them and their well-being. Let’s amplify our care and empathy for our students and demonstrate our love for education by centering the human condition in our work while also recognizing the larger social forces that impact the lives of our students. It is what our students need. It is what our families need. It is what our educators need. After all, everyone needs cariño right now.


Louie F. Rodriguez is the interim dean, professor and the Bank of America Chair in Educational Leadership, Policy, and Practice in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California Riverside.

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