As a teacher, I know how important it is to create clear expectations for my students and hold them to high standards. This also applies to me as I seek to build relationships with my students. The high standards I hold myself to in building teacher-student relationships come from my guiding philosophy: unconditional positive regard. This approach helps ground my equity-centered and trauma-informed work.
The term unconditional positive regard was coined by psychologist Carl R. Rogers, who developed an approach called client-centered psychotherapy. Here’s how Rogers described unconditional positive regard:
It means that there are no conditions of acceptance, no feeling of “I like you only if you are thus and so.” . . . It means a caring for the client, but not in a possessive way or in such a way as simply to satisfy the therapist’s own needs. It means a caring for the client as a separate person, with permission to have his own feelings, his own experiences. One client describes the therapist as “fostering my possession of my own experience . . . that [this] is my experience and that I am actually having it: thinking what I think, feeling what I feel, wanting what I want, fearing what I fear: no ‘ifs,’ ‘buts,’ or ‘not reallys.’ ” (1957, p. 4)
Unconditional positive regard isn’t limited to a therapeutic approach: Alfie Kohn (2005) built on Rogers’s work with the concept “unconditional teaching” to apply unconditional positive regard to the classroom. Kohn argued that schools promote a kind of conditional acceptance when they elevate achievement and obedience rather than building community and relationships. Unconditional teachers accept students for who they are, not what they do.
Unconditional positive regard is a stance I take in relationship to my students. The message of unconditional positive regard is, “I care about you. You have value. You don’t have to do anything to prove it to me, and nothing’s going to change my mind.” I sometimes try to imagine myself radiating unconditional positive regard like a glow around me when I walk into a classroom. But I also actually say those words to my students in ways that fit our relationship. I make sure to tell them I care about them, regardless of what they accomplish or achieve in our academic work together. This care infuses all of my teaching choices, from personal interactions to learning design. Importantly, unconditional positive regard stands in opposition to savior mentality and deficit thinking.
Building Unconditional Relationships
A philosophy is important, but only as much as we put that philosophy into action. Unconditional positive regard is an equity approach when we actively put it into practice in our everyday interactions with students.
Sometimes unconditional positive regard is just as simple as how we greet our students when they are late to class: how I greet them can communicate either my unconditional care or my lack of regard. If I don’t have unconditional positive regard, I might say, “You’re late, sit down,” and roll my eyes, or I might sarcastically say, “Nice of you to show up.” These responses tell students that I care about them only as long as they follow my expectations—they are an inconvenience. Even if I don’t mean to communicate this, small moments add up. If students comes to my class and I roll my eyes, if they go into the hallway and are told to take off their hat, if they sit down at lunch and are warned to speak more quietly, then the cumulative message of school is that orderliness is the most important thing.
Instead, I can greet my student with “Hey! It’s great to see you today. Settle in a minute and then I’ll catch you up.” When we work from unconditional positive regard, the message is that I value you for who you are, not what you do or how you do it. This doesn’t mean that I won’t address attendance issues later, but my priority when my students arrive isn’t to scold them about compliance. My priority is to greet them in a way that says they matter and that their presence is more important than how fast they got here.
In general, slowing down most conversations with students to simply ask, “How’s it going?” changes the tone of my whole day. When visiting schools as part of my consulting work, it’s always surprising to me how infrequently I see teachers stopping to just check in with students throughout the day, or even saying students’ names. Creating an environment of care means going back to the basics and not skipping the human connection of just asking one another how we’re doing. This may seem like an obvious point to make, but the basis of unconditional positive regard is the phrase “I care about you.” To care about someone else means that we see the sum of all of their strengths and challenges and choose to care for them.
Our schools need to be places where we care for our students, not just care about them. Education philosopher Nel Noddings calls this an “ethic of care,” in which learning how to be cared for and learning how to care for others are central tasks of education. Caring for students means being in relationship with them, whereas caring about students allows us to keep our distance. If we commit to an ethic of care, building relationships and caring for our students aren’t strategies in the name of increasing academic achievement but the actual goal itself.
One of the foundations of caring is seeing and truly getting to know our students. Too often our approaches to relationship building in school can feel transactional. I remember that, as a new teacher, my strategy for relationship building was to give students a long survey to complete, telling me about their interests, learning styles, and favorite colors. These types of “getting to know you” surveys are only surface level and don’t do much to create a caring relationship. Now I try to get to know students the same way I would get to know a new friend: spending time together, asking questions about their lives and what they feel passionate about, and talking about what matters to us both. Real relationship building isn’t flashy and can’t be condensed to “fifteen tricks and tips.” Sometimes building relationships means sitting together in silence and simply getting used to being around one another. Often, relationship building happens in the small moments, not during the canned activities: I get to know my students through quick check-ins before class, through reading their papers and witnessing how their minds work, through noticing the ways they communicate with their peers. Relationship building is slow and deliberate and can’t be rushed.
Alex Shevrin Venet is the author "Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education." She is an educator, professional development facilitator and writer. She teaches in-service teachers at Antioch University and Castleton University, and undergraduate students at the Community College of Vermont. She is a former teacher/leader at an alternative therapeutic school.