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Teaching Strategies

Can Teachers Be Warm Demanders During the Pandemic?

Zaretta Hammond’s warm demander doesn’t look the same this year, but teachers don’t have to give up on the idea.

March 3, 2021
Teacher at home greeting students during online class
Vladimir Vladimirov / iStock

The concept of being a “warm demander” has been held as an ideal approach for educators to adopt, especially as they pursue more equitable practices in education. Balancing warmth and demandingness is a perennial challenge in education, and it’s even more challenging in this pandemic.

Zaretta Hammond, in Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, defines a warm demander as “a teacher who communicates personal warmth toward students while at the same time demands they work toward high standards. The teacher provides concrete guidance and support for meeting the standards, particularly corrective feedback, opportunities for information processing, and culturally relevant meaning making.”

Certainly, this is an ideal to which to aspire. But how, especially now during a pandemic? Educators must ensure that they can meet the warm component before being a demander and need to reconsider what exactly they’re demanding. Being a warm demander will look different in these times, and educators must take a critical and reflective look at what that means for their students. Administrators must take this to heart, too, and lead the way.

Earning the Right to Demand

It’s important to understand that the concept of the warm demander is not a stand-alone idea—it exists within the larger context of moving students from dependent to independent learning and is the third part of a threefold strategy that begins with making a pact with the student and establishing the teacher as an ally.

This is critical. Without the pact and the allyship, I can’t be a warm demander. I’m just a demander. I don’t have the relationship and context to establish the warmth. In Hammond’s words, I haven’t “earned the right to demand.”

For those who pride themselves on having a positive relationship with students, this hurts to hear. But this isn’t an indictment of one’s character or ability to build rapport with students. It’s a reflection of the situation we’re in. Fire, by nature, gives off warmth, but that warmth won’t reach someone who’s far away or if there’s something blocking the warmth from getting to them. That’s what’s happening here.

In many districts, teachers started the year remotely and never even got a chance to meet their students face-to-face. Even in schools where some in-person instruction is happening, teachers may not see their students as regularly as they do in normal times, and the dynamics of any in-person interaction are very different. Indeed, one of the most common frustrations among teachers in this Covid era is the difficulty with connecting with students, getting to know them, and establishing community in the classroom and in the school. We’re missing so much—the banter before class starts, the fist bumps, seeing the students’ body language to know if they’re into it or lost, the smiles, and the eye contact that reinforces a connection. The warmth isn’t there like it usually is, not because we aren’t warm, but because the kids are so far away and are blocked from our warmth.

Knowing What and How to Demand

This has a chilling effect on our ability to live up to the “warm” part of a warm demander. Additionally, our ability to be wise demanders is in question (and again, through no fault of our own). The concept of a warm demander is predicated on understanding the student’s zone of proximal development, or ZPD, Lev Vygotsky’s term that Hammond defines as “the difference between what a learner can do without help and what he can do with help,” which is critical in moving students from dependent to independent learning. Today, we may not be able to ascertain a student’s ZPD. We’re missing so much information about our students as learners. Even if we have data from standardized tests and grades, we don’t know how accurate they are.

Just as important is the lack of anecdotal data from interpersonal interactions. When teachers know their students, they can read their body language and tone of voice, they can feel their vibe, they can see how they interact in groups and how engaged they are. We’re missing much of that in this environment. This makes it much more difficult to determine a student’s ZPD, which in turn makes it difficult to know which demands are realistic and which are outside of the ZPD, calling into question our ability to be accurate demanders.

Does this mean that we should give up on the notion of being warm demanders? Not at all. We just have to accept that being a warm demander will look different now. Because of the disruption to the ways in which we usually transmit warmth and know what demands to make of students, we’ll have to be more deliberate and creative in doing both. Now, more than ever, we need to remember that we are not just teaching our courses and content—we’re teaching our students.

This starts with acknowledging and accepting that it is OK to relax on the demander side until we can do the warm side more effectively and understand our learners better in this new world. It’s imperative that administrators and other leaders model and support this recalibration, not just call for it. They can do this by doing the following:

  • Publicly acknowledging it
  • Adjusting their own warmth and demandingness
  • Assuring teachers that they won’t be punished for lowering standards or not getting as far in their curriculum
  • Leading and empowering discussions to elevate student, teacher, and family voices about what this actually looks like and communicating these adjustments to families
  • Adding more time for professional development on scaffolding and community building
  • Creating more time for teams to contact families and adjust the scope, sequence, and pacing of curriculum, and infuse community building into their classes
  • Making adjustments to the master schedule to create systems for academic interventions and social and emotional programming (such as a resource period or advisory/homeroom)

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