Brittany Rumph is a lead Kindergarten teacher at Rochester Prep West Elementary School in Rochester, NY, and we love her work. There are about a thousand reasons why, but two of them are especially important to building positive classroom culture. We call them Warm/Strict (Technique #60 in Teach Like a Champion) and Firm, Calm, Finesse (Technique #54 in Teach Like a Champion),
Warm/Strict is the idea that those two characteristics (being warm and being strict) are not opposites. We tend to think of them that way–that the more you are of one, the less you are of the other–but in fact they are independent variables. Sure, you can be one or the other, but you can also be neither warm nor strict. You could have a disorderly classroom and shout angrily at kids as a result. And we’ve all seen how hard it is for the kids who come to us from homes where they get neither strictness nor warmth. Of course you could, on the other hand, be both. You could have high expectations, be attentive to details, push students to give their very best all the time and also do so with caring, warmth and affection. Hopefully this resonates with parents. My wife and I certainly try to be both strict with my kids–if you are under 18 and your last name is Lemov, I have all your passwords and you can rest assured that I will monitor your interactions on social media, for example, even if your friends’ parents don’t–and also at the top end of the loving/adoring/hugging/listening scale. In fact we strive to be those things at exactly the moment we set expectations. (Whether we always succeed or not is probably another story). The message is: “Because I love you I want to talk about the text your friend sent you and why it concerns me and how you might respond. I always want you to feel like you know how to handle a situation like that” etc.
Firm, Calm, Finesse is the idea that we want to manage behavior and culture with steady calmness. That means, among other things, emphasizing purpose over power and communicating “yes there are rules but they are there to help you.” When we make a correction, the message isn’t “do it because I said so” but “do it because it is beneficial to you and your growth.”
Firm, Calm, Finesse also means maintaining emotional constancy. When we get mad or frustrated or short with kids we insert a series of additional variables into our interactions–is she mad at me? why? is that fair? does she get mad at everyone for this?–that distract students from thinking about what they need to do to succeed. Finally it means “catching it early” and resetting behavior while it is still very small and can be addressed with a very small fix so that it does not become larger and require some larger and more emotionally fraught response from teachers. Prevention beats cure, every time.
I hope reading about these ideas resonates with you, but if you don’t want to read about them you can just watch this tiny little video of Brittany instead. In ten seconds flat she demonstrates all of these ideas.
As the video opens she’s circulating. Her students are writing sentences in responses to a story they’ve read. And of course as kindergarteners they are just beginning to learn about writing so Brittany has been very attentive in this lesson–to expectations, socializing students to seek to write very high quality sentences–and to culture–to helping them love and celebrate writing. So as she circulates she notices two of her scholars not sitting properly. And she corrects them. That’s ‘catch it early.’ What starts as sitting in a way that makes it hard to concentrate on writing can soon become a student not concentrating and then a student distracted and then a student creating distractions. Why risk letting that happen? Catch it early, but fix it warmly. And stress the purpose. When i correct you I do so lovingly and it is about you not about me.
And you can hear and feel all of that in Brittany’s work:
“Move your chair in, ok? So you can do your best writing,” she says, with a gentle voice and a smile. But also while she pushes her student’s chair in. The message is, “Because I care about you it’s not optional.” And it’s punctuated with a smile.