Many of us can remember an instructor who encouraged our best performance: the teacher we didn’t want to disappoint, who supported us to reach our potential. Using a term coined by Judith Kleinfeld, Lisa Delpit wrote that “warm demanders” are teachers who “expect a great deal of their students, convince them of their own brilliance, and help them reach their potential in a disciplined and structured environment.”
It is a common misunderstanding that demandingness is the same as strictness. However, demandingness is deeply connected to personal concern for, and belief in, students’ success. Warm demanders believe every student can grow to be the best version of themselves. They see the students in their classroom as future presidents, doctors, business owners, mathematicians.
In particular, when the teacher and student are from different racial or cultural backgrounds, the warm demander teacher understands the cultural nuances of teacher-student relationships and is able to adjust pedagogical and relational approaches to create an environment where students are comfortable and relaxed enough to learn at their very best.
According to an equity-centered approach to teaching, the warm demander teacher must be grounded in four philosophical concepts. These concepts sit within an environment where both the teacher’s and student’s identity and culture are at the center of the relationship. The four components are as follows.
4 Practices of Warm Demander Educators
1. Build trust. Building trust is an important part of the warm demander approach. This means the teacher is a dependable person who does what they say they will.
Follow-through and consistency are important, as students observe and expect a dependable and trustworthy adult. Stated simply, warm demanders take seriously the complex task of consistently creating and maintaining safe learning environments for all. This means insisting that safety and accountability are available for all students, regardless of background or identity.
2. Teach self-discipline. Young people have agency and make choices whether to engage in learning, withdraw, or reach their potential. The job of the warm demander is to create the frame for a young person to choose, using age-appropriate strategies.
What’s most important is creating and maintaining a value-based classroom setting where students are involved in generating and explaining values and norms, and the teacher consistently connects values and norms to classroom activities and experiences. This takes immense self-discipline and requires the internalization of the school and classroom culture.
When teachers do so, students observe the connection between their decisions and everyday realities in their learning environment, realizing that their decisions result in positive or negative experiences that directly impact success and well-being.
3. Believe in students. Warm demanders believe that every student can grow to be the best version of themselves. They never give up on students, and they challenge deficit thinking around student achievement, as well as terms like “learning loss,” “not academic material,” and “low-achieving.” They thereby take an abundance mindset about the potential of young people’s capacity to learn.
4. Embrace failure. Being OK with failing is a central part of the learning process. Embracing failure means that warm demanders insist on high expectations for behavior and learning in the context of collaboration, community, and critical engagement, so that the classroom is a safe space to try new things, discuss difficult topics, and make mistakes. It also means that educators are learners and students are teachers, engaging in praxis that supports a community of knowledge holders ready to make sense of the world together.
Addressing Issues in the Classroom
Embodying the four philosophies challenges educators to remember the power of relationships, trust, and belief in the educational experience. When classroom climate and relationships are strong, mistakes or failures can be handled using this three-step framework.
1. Show strength. Decide why the conversation is important to have from an abundance mindset. What do you believe the student is capable of, and why do you think they are not meeting this expectation? Instead of letting the student take a pass, show strength by upholding the stated values of the classroom. When appropriate, use humor and/or seriousness while remaining calm and straightforward.
2. Listen and affirm. Every infraction or misstep is an opportunity to re-center and realign with classroom values. Give room for clarification and explanation. Use sentence stems like “What did you mean by…?,” “Did you mean to be disrespectful when you…?,” and “Did I hear you right when you said…?”
Use active listening and empathy, repeating back the students’ words and leaning into their emotion, honoring their experience and humanity. Affirm students’ strengths and capacity to grow. Affirming doesn’t always connote agreement; one can be affirming without conveying approval of misbehavior or disrespect.
3. Challenge and offer a choice. Once a person feels affirmed, they’re open to being challenged. Two strategies to challenge others are flipping the script and widening the lens. Flipping the script means to support the person in taking a different perspective. Widening the lens helps someone see an incident or situation in the larger context of systemic oppression or ideology. This allows them to see that their actions are part of their socialization and resist the shame/blame while centering action.
It’s difficult to own a mistake or bad decision when not offered a chance to make amends. Soon after challenging a young person to rethink their actions, offer a chance for repair, no matter how small.
The warm demander approach to teaching is less about controlling and demanding outcomes and more about being with young people as whole human beings with desires, agency, and critical thinking. It’s an approach that challenges us, as educators, to build trust, access our own moral integrity, and assume responsibility and authority for the raising of young people to be critical thinkers and agents in their own lives.