Dr. Tom Cavanagh

At the July 2009 academic residency in Minneapolis, Dr. Tom Cavanagh received the faculty poster session award for a poster based on his dissertation, Creating a Continuity of Caring Relationships in Schools. Cavanagh’s research has received positive public feedback—the Colorado government recently announced it would replicate Cavanagh’s study in 10 high schools across the state. Here, Cavanagh answers questions about his research.

Your dissertation advocates for developing a “Culture of Care” in schools and workplaces. What is a Culture of Care and why is it important?
A Culture of Care is a theory that says schools and workplaces should put more importance on relationships than curriculum when determining their institutional purpose. It encourages one-on-one relationships. Normally in a school, the curriculum is at the center of the focus, but if you do not put relationships first, you can still fail to ensure that students meet their potential.

What did your research in New Zealand uncover?
I conducted my research at a school in New Zealand where most of the students were Maori—an indigenous culture—but most of the teachers were from a European background. There is often a cultural divide in the classroom or workplace when teachers or managers are from different backgrounds than their students or workers. This causes misunderstandings, but a Culture of Care can bridge this gap when everyone is understood as an individual.

Can a Culture of Care improve workplaces as well as schools?
Yes. There is a plant where I live that employs a lot of immigrants. At one point, managers were firing multiple employees who left work unannounced following the death of a family member, which was customary in this particular culture. After talking to the employees, the managers understood it had nothing to do with the loyalty of the employees. They came to be far more understanding about the employees’ needs.

What is one way to practice a Culture of Care in the classroom?
It is best to begin right away. Teachers should spend time getting to know their students and letting their students get to know them. One way to do this is to ask the students to prepare a video clip about what is most important to them. The teacher should prepare a similar video clip. This lets the student know someone cares about his or her life outside of the classroom.

Read more about Dr. Tom Cavanagh's research, which recently received a faculty research grant from Walden.

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