‘Warm demanders’ idea welds student connections to expectations
North Marion High School teacher Jason Olson uses his phone to help senior Julian Ortega tune a vihuela. Olson teaches an elective mariachi class in Spanish that helps students feel more connected to their school. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
High school teacher Rachael Wilcox said that last year teachers were extremely gentle with students. They knew the kids had been through a lot, and teachers were thrilled to have them back in classrooms.
Like a lot of districts, though, North Marion saw more behavioral challenges and a drop in academic performance last year.
“It blew up in our faces,” Wilcox said. “Kids need rules and boundaries.”
Superintendent Ginger Redlinger said caring was the right attitude to take last year, when students were suffering trauma and readjusting to classrooms, because students they feared they would lose stayed in school. But this year the district is refining its approach using a concept called “warm demanders.”
The goal is to build authentic relationships with students while still holding them accountable. It’s not a new idea, but the district is creating common language and intentional strategies as part of a strategic plan goal of being more culturally responsive.
Decades of research shows teacher expectations and perceptions of students positively and negatively affect academic achievement, according to a report from the Education Commission of the States.
Giving students grace last year may have lowered their expectations of themselves, said Bill Rhoades, North Marion chief of staff and facilitator for implementing the district’s strategic plan.
“Caring for kids also means giving them the chance to be the best they can be,” he said.
Educator Judith Kleinfeld coined the term “warm demanders” in 1975 to describe teachers who were most effective at reaching Alaska Native children. In North Marion, Redlinger defines “warm demanders” as people who don’t let someone off the hook or lower expectations just because they care about that person.
The district is using Zaretta Hammond’s book “Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain” for guidance on developing its vision. Redlinger said the district is explicitly connecting social and emotional learning with high expectations for the students.
In addition to the usual student academic metrics, teachers’ goals this year have emphasized ways to make connections with students, such as attending sports and outside events or creating classrooms that are more inviting for all students. Some teachers are setting goals to spend more time talking with students who don’t usually get attention.
“It’s something that comes from the heart,” Redlinger said. “You have to be driven to educate children knowing that they need you to be their champion, keep your expectations high for them and care about them.”
According to Redlinger, this is what students want. During the community engagement process required by the 2019 Student Success Act, student surveys said counseling and mental health resources were the top need followed by higher expectations and more opportunities, she said.
Senior Adrie Lader agreed she wants to be pushed.
“The teachers who have built a connection with me, I have done better in their classes,” she said.
Yadira Romero Navarro, a senior at North Marion High School and president of the student council, was part of a strategic planning committee last year that included staff and community members. She said students need a balance of connection and encouragement, with teachers’ tailoring demands to students’ individual needs.
Romero Navarro said increasing teacher diversity was a big part of the discussions so that students would have more teachers who had shared similar experiences.
The district, which sits between Portland and Salem, has seen a dramatic increase in its Latino population in recent years. Slightly more than half the district’s students are Latino, while 96% of its teachers are white.
Redlinger said the district’s strategic goals explicitly name diversifying the workforce. Efforts include making a more culturally sustaining environment that will attract teachers and creating a bilingual teacher pathway program to try to grow its own teachers. All teachers are learning how to be better advocates and allies for students from underserved populations.
Jason Olson, an English language development instructor, said his Spanish fluency helps him connect with students who might be more comfortable speaking in their home language. Olson said the warm demanders discussions help teachers work together to mesh their strengths and weaknesses.
Olson feels he is pretty good at “warm,” while he struggles more with the “demander” role. But he can offer a reward, such as a mariachi lesson with him, for a student who is meeting another teacher’s classroom expectations.
Redlinger said school board members have embraced the work and the warm demanders approach applies to them as well.
“If the board does their work from a caring place, it creates warm demanders throughout the system,” she said.
The board worked with administrators to develop the warm demanders idea in North Marion, school board Chair Glenn Holum said. He said the board wants its schools to instill in students a belief in their own exceptionalism.
“When a student feels connected, you can ask them to do things they may not do on their own,” he said.
Wilcox, who teaches freshman physical science, said she tries not to say to students: Don’t do that. Instead, she frames issues around meeting classroom expectations and making choices that come with consequences.
This year, she knew one of her incoming students had behavioral challenges in eighth grade. Early in the year, she got to know him as a person and asked him about his passion for sports. When his behavior became disruptive or his classwork faltered, she talked to him about how it would affect his ability to play sports and to be the person he wanted to be.
He is doing well in the class, and when he gets off track, she asks him what is going on so they can talk about the real issues. Wilcox said encouraging students to meet their expectations for themselves leaves them feeling less defensive and more able to respond and to accept punishments.
Wilcox, who is in her 15th year teaching, said teachers’ own anxieties about their teaching, especially in the early years, can cause them to overreact when students misbehave. Knowing the students and themselves helps teachers handle tough situations with more understanding, she said.
“Kids learn and grow through making mistakes,” she said. “They need a safe environment to make mistakes and not feel like their teacher hates them.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA