This week on the Truth for Teachers podcast: There’s a lot of research out there about what it means to be a warm demander but what I’m hoping to add to the conversation with this episode is a personal touch: What exactly does being a warm demander look like?
“The warm demander” approach isn’t something that’s brand new. In fact, the term was coined by Judith Kleinfeld back in 1975. It’s an equity approach, grounded in showing students that you care and refuse to give up on their achievement. Being a warm demander is about mutual respect, and making it clear from your tone and body language that student effort is non-negotiable and you believe in students’ ability to succeed. A warm demander builds trust and relationships by listening to kids and affirming them. Yet, a teacher who takes the warm demander stance also pushes kids and doesn’t allow them to settle for less than they’re capable of.
There’s a lot of research out there about what it means to be a warm demander, and how that approach helps kids (particularly kids of color) be successful in the classroom. But what I’m hoping to add to the conversation with this episode is a personal touch: What exactly does being a warm demander look like? What, specifically, do we mean by being “warm” and what’s a healthy model of being “demanding”?
I want to focus mostly on the demeanor of a teacher who is a “warm demander,” because I feel like that’s the most nebulous part. Everyone knows to have high expectations for kids, develop relationships, teach them to persevere even when things are hard, and so on. But personally, I think the key to making those strategies work is in your demeanor: how you communicate those expectations and care for your students through tone, facial expressions, and body language. I haven’t seen very much written or shared online about that part, so I thought it might be helpful to talk about what worked for me and a few of the educators I learned from.
I’m going to give a disclaimer right up front that I am not implying that you as the teacher bear full responsibility for getting kids to stay engaged and do their work. There are many reasons that students fail to meet expectations and many of those reasons have nothing to do with the teacher’s rapport or personality or teaching style. There is no implication here that if you execute this strategy perfectly, all your kids’ disengagement and behavioral and learning issues will disappear.
But I’ll tell you why I like this approach. The warm demander stance is focused on something you can control — your own behavior — rather than on manipulating or cajoling or rewarding or punishing students for THEIR choices. Trying to control other people leads to frustration. Focusing on you is where the real power’s at because you can choose how you show up in your classroom each day. There’s something very empowering about setting boundaries and limits to what you will accept, and then choosing to respond in a firm yet warm way when those limits are pushed.
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Let’s talk a little bit about what’s meant by being “warm.” This is something that will look different for each person depending on your personality type. I was a warm demander in the classroom, even though I didn’t know what it was called at the time. I just knew that I could say what I needed firmly AND with a smile on my face. Don’t get me wrong, I could also be ice cold — there were many moments when I snapped and glared because the kids had pushed me too far and I lost my patience. I’m a human, not a robot, after all. But my default demeanor was that of a warm demander.
Here’s how I developed that style. I had a professor in undergrad that always smiled when she taught us. She’d teach with a relatively straight face, but anytime she asked a question, she’d smile, and then maintain that smile while waiting for a response and listening to the student answer. So she’d say something like, “Piaget was a child development expert. Who can summarize his work for us?” and she’d start smiling during the question, then stand there, sort of beaming at us. The look on her face communicated, “I can’t wait to hear these answers, someone’s about to say something really good.”
A question sounds different when the person asking is smiling. Your willingness to be vulnerable as a student and participate increases when the person is smiling. It was a simple yet profoundly effective way to demonstrate warmth and confidence in us. I really liked the way it felt as a student, so I tried it in my practicums. I found that I also really liked the way it felt as a teacher — it changed my energy and perspective when I spent much of the day smiling at my students, and it became a learned behavior. Anytime I’m teaching now — even when teaching adults — I automatically smile a lot. I get excited and energized by the responses of the people I’m teaching, and I smile more broadly, or my eyes get big and my eyebrows raise as I nod.
The other nice thing about smiling is that it makes the wait time when you ask a question less awkward. You’re not just standing there staring the kids down and sort of daring someone to answer. When I ask a question and don’t get an immediate response, I’ll often just sit on the tall stool that’s usually behind me when I’m teaching, and settle in. I’ll keep smiling and looking around the room. This communicates: “I know you have something to say and it’s worth waiting for. I’m not going to answer my own question or give you a hint, I’m just going to let you think because I have confidence in you and I know that you’ll be able to answer this. Think about it, and I’ll be ready whenever you are.”
Now smiling may not really fit your personality type, and that’s just one way to communicate warmth. I’m certainly not telling you to smile more if that’s not something you want to do or that feels good to you.
Other ways to communicate warmth can be with playful jokes, inside jokes, and other forms of humor. I know teachers with a rather serious personality who occasionally crack a sarcastic comment or poke fun at themselves and it does so much to communicate to kids that the teacher enjoys being there and finds some fun in the job.
So when you think about what warmth looks like for you, consider what the opposite is. What does cold look like? Have you ever had someone tell you to do something or try to teach you something in a cold way? Maybe there was a customer service rep or a server at a restaurant who was extremely cold while supposedly helping you.
What did that coldness look like? They probably either avoided eye contact or stared you down with a stone face and made you uncomfortable while they waited for you to make a decision or act on what they said. Their tone of voice was probably dispassionate, or maybe condescending, which conveyed they didn’t think you were capable of doing what needed to be done. They may have sighed, appeared impatient, or seemed disinterested in helping you.
That’s coldness. Everyone dislikes being treated coldly. So watch out for those habits in your teaching, and look for ways to authentically be more warm with students. This could be through smiling, using humor, or being a little silly or crazy. A warm person lets their real personality shine through and tries to make an actual connection with another person instead of going through the motions with no real feeling or connection.
Think about how you treat the people you really like — that’s what warmness looks like for you. And then practice incorporating more of those behaviors into your teaching until they feel like second nature.
This is easier when you develop unconditional positive regard. That’s a term coined by psychologist Carl Rogers. It has to do with accepting and supporting a person regardless of what that person says or does. Unconditional positive regard doesn’t mean you like or accept inappropriate behavior from others. It means you accept and support the person regardless. You do not require them to change in order for you to acknowledge their positive characteristics or have a positive relationship with them.
Unconditional positive regard is a great thing to look up if you’re not familiar with it, and I encourage you to start by developing that attitude toward yourself. When you can let go of judgments and labels about who you are, it’s easier to extend that same grace to others. Practice accepting yourself just as you are, without beating yourself up about your shortcomings and mistakes. Change the way you treat yourself and that will naturally impact the way you treat others.
So that’s the warmth part. Let’s talk about the demander part, which I think can be a little trickier to nail down.
The demander part for me manifested in not letting kids off the hook. There were times when I could tell I needed to let something go, of course, but in general, if a student said, “I don’t know” or struggled to answer a question, I didn’t let up.
I’d keep smiling, nod encouragingly, and ask follow up questions. Sometimes I’d ask a smaller, easier question and use that as a springboard. So if the student couldn’t answer 14×5, let’s say, I’d ask, “What’s the first step in the problem?” and if the student couldn’t answer that, I’d say, “If you multiply the digits in the one’s place — 4×5 — what do you get?” and if the student was able to say 20, my eyes would light up and I’d nod vigorously. “Yes! That’s it. Would you like to tell me the next step, or do you want to call on someone else to help you?” The student could then use this scaffolding to help them solve or ask a friend for help — either way, she or he still has decision-making power and doesn’t look bad.
This is one example of being a demander. My students knew that they couldn’t just say “I don’t know” and have me move on to someone else. I was going to stick with them until they experienced some degree of success, and I would likely come back to them later in the lesson and ask a similar question, this time requiring them to stick with the answer until they got it right.
Providing the support students need to be successful is a major component of being a warm demander: you’re not just believing kids CAN be successful or telling them failure is not an option. You’re noticing what they need to meet the standards and coming alongside them to offer resources and different approaches to the learning which will help.
When it came to behavior, being a warm demander for me meant issuing reminders and initial corrections with a smile or at least a friendly tone. Then when a student pushed the limits too far, the smile disappeared and I got very serious. Immediately after issuing the firm correction, I’d go right back to being warm with the rest of the class.
This was a strategy I learned from the director of the Head Start program in my first public school teaching job. Her name was Afiya Graham. She taught a model lesson during my first month of teaching and was reading a book to my students while they sat on the rug. One of the kids started calling out during the read aloud. She made eye contact with the corners of her mouth turned up to communicate, “Mmm, I’m really not feeling that behavior,” and shook her head to let him know that wasn’t okay. Then she looked back at the book. When he didn’t stop, she whipped her head over in his direction and stopped reading mid-sentence. He froze, realizing she’d stopped reading the story and was clearly not happy. The moment he was silent, she turned back to the book and kept reading in her warm, happy way.
This process repeated all throughout the lesson, but it worked. She gave a gentle or playful verbal or nonverbal reminder the first time expectations were not met and followed up swiftly with a serious look or reprimand for repeated misbehavior.
When I first tried this approach, I honestly felt like I had multiple personalities, switching from lighthearted to serious and back again in the course of just a couple of seconds. But the kids responded really well. After all, it wasn’t fun for them if I had to get serious or mean with one child and then carried that attitude over into my interactions with them. They wanted their happy, fun-loving teacher and they deserved to have her. And, I deserved to be my best self — I didn’t want to carry that grudge or annoyance with me.
So this very quickly became part of my teaching style, and I still do this to the current day, even if I’m teaching model lessons in a middle or high school. I am warm and pleasant and smiling with them, but the moment they try to push the boundaries, I have a cold-as-ice look that tells students I am not playing with them, and a cold-as-ice voice that communicates the same. I’ll address that and then instantly turn back to the rest of the class with warmth and enthusiasm. I’ve found this approach to be incredibly disarming for teenagers and therefore, it’s been very effective for me. It shows a sense of unflappability — that I will not let a handful of kids ruin my lesson, throw me off track, or cause me to get impatient with the whole class. I’m directing the coldness to where it’s warranted and am sufficiently in charge of my emotions to switch back to my natural warm state.
These are just a couple examples of the “demander” portion of the “warm demander” approach. As I mentioned right up front, no method is fool-proof and guaranteed to work with every student.
It takes experimentation to find an approach that works for you and is authentic to your personality, and one that is also appropriate for your students. Being culturally responsive is a critical part of being a warm demander, because our beliefs about what constitutes both warmth and demanding behaviors are based on our own personal and cultural norms.
What is considered playful to you might be considered disrespectful to your students. And vice versa: you might consider something disrespectful that they find playful. What you see as being appropriately demanding might be perceived by kids as aggressive. Or what you see as being warm, like making sustained eye contact, might be perceived by kids as uncomfortable.
Being aware of this and monitoring your students’ reactions is key. Get curious about their responses to you, rather than being judgmental. You don’t have to label your attempts (or their reactions) as right or wrong, or good or bad. Just notice what’s effective, and what doesn’t get a great response. Probe into those reactions a bit more: What made this one instance work? What made this other one blow up in your face?
Let your kids know when you mess up, take things too far, or behave in ways that you aren’t comfortable with. This sets the precedent in your classroom that people apologize when they mess up or mistreat others. They reflect on their behavior and continually try to do better because they care about those around them. That’s being a warm demander.
There’s obviously so much more I could say about this topic, but the information about being a warm demander is available online if you want to learn more. What I want to return to is the part that I said in the beginning, about why I think this is such a great goal to strive for as a teacher.
Being a warm demander allows you to focus more on who you are — how you show up in the classroom — rather than getting caught up in students’ frustrating behaviors or failure to meet learning goals. This is about thinking about who you are as a person in the classroom: the way you show up, your personality, attitude, and enthusiasm.
If you pity your students or don’t believe in them, trying to be a warm demander will come across as fake. If you think you’re a bad teacher and have no confidence in your own abilities, it won’t work either.
But when you establish the right mindset — the right beliefs about yourself and your students — becoming more of a warm demander will come naturally. You’ll notice that it feels more effortless. And in the moments when you find yourself being cold, angry, impatient, or aggravated, you’ll know how to self-correct and get back on track.
The only person you can change is yourself. You can’t change your students, and you don’t need to. When you get frustrated, refocus on the person you want to be each day for your students and expend your energy on being that person — that awesome teacher and supportive adult — rather than on trying to get the kids to be that awesome student.
You’re not blaming yourself or putting all the responsibility on your own shoulders. Being a warm demander in an empowering stance, where you realize the tremendous influence your very demeanor can have on children, and how small shifts in your tone and facial expression can make a huge difference in your interactions. Being a warm demander helps you show up in the classroom as the best version of yourself. You can do this. And remember: it’s not going to be easy, it’s going to be worth it.
Alexander, A. (2016). The warm demander: An equity approach. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/blog/warm-demander-equity-approach-matt-alexander
Bondy, E., & Ross, D. (2008). The teacher as warm demander [PDF file]. Retrieved from http://www.sjsu.edu/faculty/marachi/mle/Warm%20Demander%20Article.pdf
McKeown, K. (2018). Why teachers need to be “warm demanders” toward themselves. Retrieved from https://www.teachingbalance.com/blog/why-teachers-need-to-be-warm-demanders
Neesen, K. (2017). Students, especially African-Americans, thrive with warm, demanding teachers. Retrieved from https://news.virginia.edu/content/students-especially-african-americans-thrive-warm-demanding-teachers
Safir, S. (2019). Becoming a warm demander. Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/mar19/vol76/num06/Becoming-a-Warm-Demander.aspx