George Lucas Educational Foundation
Education Equity

Who Is Your Warm Demander Role Model?

Channel the pop culture figure who best embodies your resolve and respect, whether it's Coach Carter or Yoda, when encouraging a student to be his or her best.
Photo credit: ©Gable Denims/500px
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In the 2005 film Coach Carter, Samuel L. Jackson plays a character based on Ken Carter, the Richmond High School basketball coach who became famous during the 1999 season for locking his players out of the gym when their academic performance slipped.

In a classic scene called "We Have Failed," Carter tells his team about the lockout: "Gentlemen, you have failed -- I'm sorry, we have failed." He acknowledges that some players have kept their grades up, "but know that we are a team, and until we all meet the terms of this contract, the gym will remain locked." The players erupt in disbelief ("What do you mean, locked?!?"), but Carter stands firm, appeals to their sense of team unity, and provides support by introducing three teachers who will help tutor students to improve their academics.

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What Is a Warm Demander?

Coach Carter is one of my favorite popular cultural role models for a warm demander teacher. University of San Francisco professor Darrick Smith explains that warm demanders set "clear boundaries between adult and child and clear expectations of excellence for the child, while also serving as an important source of motivation and encouragement."

In our previous post, I described the warm demander approach in more detail. Being a warm demander requires both confidence and humility, which can be challenging for a new educator faced with stressful situations and unpredictable interactions each day. I have found that one of the best ways to help new teachers find their own warm demander style is encouraging them to identify a role model in film or television.

Warm Demander Role Models

When asked to choose a warm demander role model, more than one teacher that I know has mentioned Yoda, the small green Jedi master from Star Wars. I love the scene where Luke Skywalker says he will try to raise his ship from a swamp using Jedi powers, and Yoda tells him, "Do. Or do not. There is no try." Just last week, a high school senior came into my office saying she wasn't sure that she could finish her final papers and might not graduate. I channeled Yoda's belief in Luke, reminded this student of her strong skills, and said, "The only thing that will stop you from finishing is if you stop believing in yourself." She finished the papers and will be crossing the stage soon.

It may be easier to relate to a warm demander role model who shares your gender, race, or cultural background. I am a white man of Italian descent. When I'm having a tough disciplinary conversation with a student who is agitated, I think about the famous scene from The Godfather Part 2 called "You're Nothing to Me Now." Michael Corleone, played by Al Pacino, confronts his brother Fredo, played by John Cazale, about Fredo's betrayal of the family. Fredo screams and yells and pleads, but Michael remains calm throughout, even when he chooses to disown his brother. When I feel myself getting triggered by a challenging student interaction, I try to mimic Michael Corleone's even-handed tone and body language, albeit with a touch more warmth than the mafia boss.

Be Flexible!

Differences in race, gender, and class can also create communication barriers, particularly in stressful interactions. If a student misinterprets my message, I take responsibility for changing my approach to become a more effective warm demander. Recently I suspended a high school senior for an incident in which I believed she had abused her authority as a student leader. She had facilitated a peer mediation with a ninth-grade student whom she subsequently ended up threatening over a related issue. She felt that the consequence was too harsh and left my office frustrated. Later that day, we talked again, and I knew I had to adjust my approach. This time, I listened more carefully, explained how much I believed in her, and told her that my expectations were a sign of respect for her leadership. She was still not happy to be suspended, but she understood why I had set a high bar for her and thanked me before she left campus.

Jessica Huang, my fellow co-director at June Jordan School for Equity in San Francisco, has found a warm demander role model who demonstrates this type of nuanced approach in Taraji P. Henson's portrayal of the character Cookie on the Fox show Empire. In a scene called "Take Me To The River" from Season 1, Episode 6, Cookie tells the singer Elle, played by Courtney Love, that her performance of a song is terrible. Elle gets defensive and angry. When faced with this resistance, Cookie does not back down, but she softens her tone, shows vulnerability, and reminds Elle that she believes in her. "It's do or die for me, too," says Cookie, "so let’s do this together." Elle agrees to take Cookie's lead, rips off her hair extensions and fake eyelashes in a dramatic gesture, and aspires to meet a new standard of excellence.

Summoning Your Warm Demander

When facing a tough conversation with a whole class or an individual student, you can think about the tone, body language, and approach of one of your warm demander role models. By invoking the persona of that character, you'll be able to create clear boundaries and demand high performance with warmth and encouragement.

Who is your pop culture warm demander role model? Please respond in the comments section below!