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The Warm Demander: An Equity Approach

Matt Alexander

Matt Alexander is co-founder and co-director of June Jordan School for Equity in San Francisco.
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Teacher crouching down at a desk helping a student with his composition on a computer

Recently, I was talking with a high school student about his frustrations with a first-year teacher. The student said, "I like [the teacher] because he's understanding, but he doesn't require enough discipline. He tells us to stop talking, but he doesn't really do anything to stop it. If I say, 'I forgot my homework,' he extends the deadline, and he keeps extending it, so I don't bother doing it. He needs to be more strict!"

He didn't know it, but this student was asking for his teacher to be more of a warm demander -- a key strategy for creating equity in the classroom. Warm demanders are teachers who, in the words of author Lisa Delpit, "expect a great deal of their students, convince them of their own brilliance, and help them to reach their potential in a disciplined and structured environment." In my two decades of working in public schools, the idea of the warm demander is the most important conceptual framework that I've learned, and it guides my interactions with students on a daily basis.

The staff at June Jordan School for Equity in San Francisco, where I am co-director, developed a four-part framework for how to become a warm demander:

1. Believe in the Impossible

Do you really believe that all children can learn? If you are not sure, read David Shenk's The Genius in All of Us to help you understand that brain science is clear: "Limitations in achievement are not due to inadequate genetic assets, but to our inability, so far, to tap into what we already have." You also need to understand the cultural strengths and role models of your students' communities. For example, can you imagine your Latina students being the next Dolores Huerta, Sandra Cisneros, or Ellen Ochoa? If not, you won't be able to remind your students of their unlimited potential.

2. Build Trust

Warm demanders understand that learning starts with trust. To build trust, you must listen to your students, and learn about who they are and what matters to them. You must be vulnerable, and share your true self -- including smiling and having fun. As Pamela Druckerman recommends in her book Bringing Up Bebe, you should follow the example of French parents and be strict about things that matter, but within those firm boundaries (which Druckerman calls a cadre or frame), trust children with the autonomy to make mistakes and learn from them.

3. Teach Self-Discipline

My student who complained about the repeated extensions on homework deadlines felt disrespected by the teacher's actions because he knew that he ought to have been getting his homework done on time. Warm demanders demand that students demonstrate self-discipline -- not because they seek compliance, but because high standards communicate respect. This does not mean micromanaging students, nor does it mean punishing students who don't meet your expectations. It means teaching discipline and normalizing the hard work and effort that lead to success.

4. Embrace Failure

Warm demanders teach their students to have a growth mindset and understand that real learning comes through failure. Since most of us hate to fail, Jo Boaler suggests three strategies to celebrate mistakes in the classroom:

  • Create the norm that you love and want mistakes.
  • Don't just praise mistakes -- explain why they are important.
  • Give work that encourages mistakes.

It's important to note that for failure to result in learning, it must happen in a safe environment, with guidance from someone like a warm demander teacher.

Through these approaches, warm demanders hold their students to high standards and provide the support that students need to get there, thus creating an equitable classroom.

In our next post, we'll explore a successful strategy for helping new teachers find their own warm demander style by identifying a popular cultural role model in film or television. One of my favorites is Samuel L. Jackson in the 2005 film Coach Carter. Who do you think yours will be?

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The Equitable Classroom
Learn about the thinking behind and practices for an equitable classroom, where all students are recognized as unique individuals and given access to the resources they need to learn and thrive.

Matt Alexander

Matt Alexander is co-founder and co-director of June Jordan School for Equity in San Francisco.
In This Series
Learn about the thinking behind and practices for an equitable classroom, where all students are recognized as unique individuals and given access to the resources they need to learn and thrive.

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Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Kevin, this is awesome! What an amazing kid- and how great that the adults in that school were open to what a 10 year old had to say!

Taylor's picture

I love the 'warm demander' and 'growth mindset' approaches. But on the topic of teaching that growth mindset, can you provide examples of the type of work that would "encourage mistakes"? Thanks!

Katie Schellenberg, JD, MA's picture
Katie Schellenberg, JD, MA
Advocate, Lawyer, Teacher and Founder of Beyond Tutoring

I am not sure about encouraging mistakes, but I think creating work that stretches your students will make mistakes somewhat inevitable, and if you have a classroom climate that allows for that, perhaps then mistakes can be "encouraged".

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

Hi Taylor! I don't know that I "encourage mistakes," but as I writing teacher, I try to show my students (often) that writing is a very messy process with lots of crossing out -- those might not be mistakes, but they are places where we find better ways to write something. So that kind of attitude and modeling for kids can help them see that learning and improving include lots of times when we fix our mistakes and grow from them. Also, for some reason, we seem to be willing to work through mistakes when we are using technology. For instance, when I teach my students to use iMovie to create a visual representation of a concept, our best friend is the "undo" button, and we learn that movie making is full of try/try again/revise/do better. So that helps them learn that mistakes are part of the process and not something to be afraid of.

Rebecca Leamon's picture

I agree with the other wise words offered: I think moving toward tasks that are open to a variety of explanations or different ways of getting to or presenting "the right answer" sets that growth mindset. I'm also a writing teacher, and I try to encourage my students to discuss "taking good risks" with the idea that sometimes we'll just say, "Yeah, okay, didn't work, good lesson, onwards!" As I'm thinking about it, I'm realizing how much anxiety the word "mistake" provokes in us all! There's a blog post in itself!

Caroline Roberts's picture

Does anyone have advice on how to become a warm demander? I'm a first year teacher and I'm having a difficult time finding the right balance. At the beginning of the year I wasn't nearly strict enough, but it can also be difficult not to over-correct and be too harsh. What strategies can I use to help myself find that balance?

Alex Shevrin's picture
Alex Shevrin
Community college teacher, former school leader, Edutopia community facilitator

Caroline, it's awesome that you're giving this a try! Ultimately it takes experience, so what you're doing actually will help you along the way - continue trying things out and see what feels right to you and what works for the kids. I would also really recommend reading some work by Ross Greene, who writes about working with behaviorally challenging kids. His specific strategies really help me keep up a caring but boundaried approach.

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

Hi Caroline! I remember well my first couple years teaching and how incredibly difficult it was to find that sweet spot of being appropriately strict yet also warm. One strategy I discovered is that it is far more effective if I don't show anger -- don't lose my temper, speak in an angry tone, or appear to lash out at students when they misbehave. I learned to slow down, smile more, and speak in even tones, especially when a behavior issue arose. I think kids respond better when the consequences are stated simply as consequences, as opposed to sounding like we have a personal issue with a student. Hope this helps - I know it's hard work!

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