Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

07.28.21A TLAC 3.0 Excerpt: Warm/Strict


To make up for the delay in the publication of TLAC 3.0, I’m trying to post excerpts that readers will find useful. Here’s part of the discussion of the technique Warm/Strict:

In Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, Zaretta Hammond describes the critical importance of teachers who are what she calls “warm demanders”: those who combine personal warmth with high expectations and “active demandingness,” which, she writes, “isn’t defined as just a no-nonsense firmness with regard to behavior but an insistence on excellence and academic effort.”

Warm Strict Archives - Teach Like a Champion
The magic lies in the correlation, in being the person who can say I believe in you and I care about you and therefore I will not accept anything but your best.

But warm demanders can be rare because so many people perceive high expectations, firmness, and relentlessness about academic content and firm discipline to be something you do, not because you love young people, but because, somehow, you don’t. You are one or the other: caring or demanding. They are opposites. But of course this is an illusion. The magic lies in the correlation, in fact, in being the person who can be both at the same time, who can say I believe in you and I care about you and therefore I will not accept anything but your best. You must rewrite the paragraph, complete the homework, apologize to a peer you have wronged—because you are worthy of as much.

To do that is to push a student to be their very best.

You can get a glimpse of how those two apparently contradictory ideas live in harmony in watching a video we also saw in Chapter 11: Trona Cenac: Register Shifts. The video is shot on one of the first days of school and Trona is in the hallway, setting norms and expectations before students come into class. You can sense right away how glad she is to see her students and how glad they are to see her. She’s warm, gracious, and caring—full of smiles and reassurance.

But she’s also really clear about what’s expected of them and what they need to do to be successful. They need to come in, take a seat, and get started on their work with urgency. There’s work to be done. It’s not optional. Within this single interaction she tells students she cares about them and expects a lot from them—essentially at the same time.

A teacher like Trona includes the come in, take a seat, get started right away part because she cares deeply about her students. Being willing to do so is part of what adults who care for and about young people do. Certainly it would be easier for her not to shift into the we have work to do, please sharpen up mode, but to merely be adoring and adored. Her students might like her even more, at least for a while, if she did. It would be easier to let them saunter in and get settled on their own time, start class only when they seemed ready, teach for 45 instead of 52 minutes per day, and show movies sometimes just because a movie is a nice break. It would be easier to give almost everyone an A on every paper or better yet not grade papers at all, the better to never have anyone resent you or argue a grade.

Hammond has a name for this type of teacher: the sentimentalist. The sentimentalist is willing to reduce standards for students—either to be more liked by them or, as Hammond writes, “out of pity or because of poverty or oppression.” The sentimentalist “allows students to engage in behavior that is not in their best interest.” The sentimentalist means well but loves to be loved; needs to be needed too much, or chooses the short-term benefits to herself of satisfying personal relationships over the ways strong relationships can foster long-term success for students. Sentimentalism is an occupational hazard. It’s better to name it so that we can all check ourselves as we move through the journey of teaching. Am I too often doing what is easy because I want students to like me? Or am I pushing them—and myself—in a loving way that expects the best of all of us?

For me the technique of learning to be able to be both warm and strict at exactly the same time and finding the optimal balance of those things based on how it affects student learning is called Warm/Strict. It’s learning to be caring, funny, warm, concerned, and nurturing—but also strict, by the book, relentless, and sometimes uncompromising with students. It means establishing the importance of deadlines and expectations and procedures and, yes, rules.

But Warm/Strict does not mean being unreasonable or inhumane. It does not mean never making an exception; rather, it means making such decisions not based on popularity, but based on long-term commitment to your students’ growth.

“In society we don’t get very far if we are rude, if we talk back, if we talk over others, if we don’t listen,” writes UK Headteacher and author Jo Facer. “In schools we need to escape the idea that teaching children how to behave is teaching them ‘obedience,’ a word that for many has connotations of oppression and fear.” Children who treat others poorly are not going to “magically transform themselves,” Facer goes on to point out. They rely on adults, ideally in partnership in and outside the classroom, to steer them towards behaviors that not only allow schools to function well but, more importantly, prepare them to be successful and valued members of society and community down the road.

I want to say a bit about the word “strict” specifically. It’s a fraught word for some but I think it is worth using because it reminds us of something important: A teacher sets limits and expectations for and on behalf of a group, a culture. Young people with whom we are strict may not always be happy with those limits in the moment, but they also usually recognize in the long run that being held accountable by someone who cares about you is an important part of learning to make your way in the world. They are especially likely to arrive at this realization when the adult who is strict shows them that they care—deeply.

The world will penalize a person who cannot meet deadlines. The caring teacher is not the one who allows a young person to make a habit of missing them again and again. The caring teacher says you have an immense capacity for excellence but deadlines matter and I want you to get this in on time. The caring teacher may even work with the student for whom this is a struggle, setting benchmarks, texting a reminder the night before. But in the end the teacher may also have to set limits. If the work is late, there should be a penalty. You prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child.

There are caveats, of course. Sustaining strictness in the long run requires caring and warmth; students have to trust your intentions to do what is best for them even if they don’t always like each decision. And ideally they should feel the caring most in the moments you set limits. A reset on expectations is a good time to smile. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from studying teachers as a parent it is that if you said you’d give a consequence, you give the consequence, but you are also quick to tell the person you care about them and can’t wait for things to be back to normal; for example, You’ll have to serve your detention, Michael, but I look forward to seeing you back in class tomorrow. As Jo Facer puts it, “Having strict rules means you love children and want the best for them. Make sure you communicate that with your face and body language.”

Consider this interaction between Hasan Clayton and one of his students, a fifth grader whom I’ll call Kevin, after Hasan noticed Kevin sleeping during a remote lesson (in 2020, that is). After class Hasan asked Kevin to stay on the call after his classmates left.

Hasan: I noticed you were sleeping in class, Kevin.

Kevin: (Long pause. No answer.)

Hasan: Am I correct? Or am I wrong?

Kevin: You’re correct.

Hasan: Why were you sleeping in class?

Kevin: I don’t know. I thought I got a good sleep yesterday, but I still got tired.

Hasan: That’s not good. Do you know how much material you’re missing when you’re sleeping?

Kevin: Yes.

Hasan: Do you know how it makes me feel when you’re sleeping?

Kevin: It makes you feel sad.

Hasan: It makes me feel like you don’t think what we’re doing in class is important.

Kevin: So during independent practice today, what if I redo the lesson.

Hasan: Yes, I would appreciate you doing that, going back and answering all the questions and then turning it in. We have to think about how our actions are affecting ourselves and our community.

Kevin: OK.

Hasan: All right, Kevin, I hope to see you later. If not, I’ll see you tomorrow.

Some notes:

• Throughout the conversation Hasan never raised his voice or sounded angry. He also never sounded sweet or apologetic. I would describe him as composed. This is important. His goal was to cause Kevin to reflect on the cost of sleeping in class, not distract him with thoughts about whether Mr. Clayton was angry at him or induce defensiveness because he was being shouted at. Emotional Constancy was the order of the day.

• Hasan required that Kevin acknowledge the fact that he was sleeping. When Kevin didn’t respond to his initial statement I noticed you were sleeping in class, Hasan didn’t say anything for a full six or seven seconds! He refused to bail Kevin out by chattering through the awkward silence with “It’s OK. Everyone gets tired sometimes.” After the silence, Hasan persisted: “Am I correct or am I wrong?” He tacitly required Kevin to take ownership of his actions by acknowledging them.

• Once Kevin acknowledged his actions, Hasan’s tone lightened ever so slightly and he asked: Why were you sleeping? He was still reserved. There’s no baby talk—you could imagine a teacher using a Why were you so-o-o sleepy? approach here—but his tone reacts subtly to the degree to which Kevin owns the issue.

• When Kevin describes what’s wrong with sleeping in class, Hasan does not excuse the action. He explains the problem and pauses again. His economy of language is noticeable. Adding extraneous verbiage makes the interaction more casual, but Hasan wants formality here.

• Hasan focuses on depersonalizing the interaction and stressing Purpose Over Power rephrasing Kevin’s assertion that he might have made Hasan “sad” to focus on learning—It makes me feel like you don’t think what we’re doing in class is important.

• Kevin suggests a consequence and Hasan agrees to it. A lot of teachers might say, “That’s OK,” but Hasan accepts Kevin’s proposed consequence because the consequence will help Kevin remember and allow Kevin to make a gesture of resolution—this is an important step in resolution and closure. Hasan tells Kevin he appreciates his solution and then, a bit warmer, reminds him that he looks forward to seeing him back in class.


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