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March 1, 2019
Vol. 76
No. 6

Becoming a Warm Demander

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Adopting an equity-centered coaching model for school leaders.

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EquityInstructional Strategies
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I still remember the look on her face: an African American mother watching her son, once again, being underserved. She was quiet, but her face spoke volumes as she looked straight at me—a young white teacher—with an expression of sheer disappointment. I was giving up on her son.
"I'm just not positioned to serve Jason well," I insisted to myself. "I have tried and failed to build a relationship with this 14-year-old, and we just don't connect. It's better for him to have a second chance with my colleague Greg, a young African American man who teaches the same course. Maybe they will form a better connection."
Greg was at the table, as was my principal (also a white woman), Jason's mom, and Jason himself. I don't think any of us really believed that Jason needed a different teacher. I was more experienced than Greg, who was a brand-new teacher, and therefore had a stronger pedagogical skill set at the time. But somehow I had convinced myself that moving Jason was the best solution.
In truth, what Jason needed was for me to believe in him and persist in finding a way to serve him. He needed me to see that his distracting classroom behavior was an attempt at masking his struggle to read at grade level. He needed me to teach him how to read the complex texts we were studying with proficiency. He needed me to become a warm demander.

An Old Concept Reborn

That moment from nearly 20 years ago still pains me, and I share it with vulnerability and awareness that when it comes to educational equity, we are all part of the problem—and we can all be part of the solution. Becoming warm demanders is a critical approach we can take for increasing equity in our schools. With roots in Native Alaskan communities (Kleinfeld, 1975), this concept can be applied to both teacher-student and leader-teacher interactions.
In the words of author Lisa Delpit, warm demanders are teachers who "expect a great deal of their students, convince them of their own brilliance, and help them to reach their potential in a disciplined and structured environment" (2013). By extension, warm demanders are instructional leaders (coaches, principals, assistant principals) who expect a great deal of their colleagues, convince them of their own capacity to improve, and support them with a range of resources and coaching moves.
When I helped found the June Jordan School for Equity (JJSE) in San Francisco in 2003, I hoped to develop an instructional model with equity at its core. As a school leader, however, I struggled to find the language to convey an approach that would couple high support with high expectations for students and teachers alike. My colleagues Matt Alexander and Jessica Huang, fellow cofounder and the current principal of JJSE, respectively, have since built on the warm demander concept to create an equity-centered instructional framework rooted in four guiding principles. Although their principles were crafted with students in mind, I've translated them here for adults.
  1. Believe in the impossible. This principle helps us interrupt the implicit biases and single stories we may carry about colleagues. Do you really believe that every teacher in your building can improve? Brain science, and specifically the concept of neuroplasticity, teaches us that every human being has the ability to grow and change. When you believe this, you convey it. When you don't, it shows.
  2. Build trust. Warm demanders understand that all growth and learning is rooted in relational capital, the "resource that leaders accrue when they take time to listen to and convey authentic care and curiosity toward others. … If relationships function as currency in schools, relational capital is like a big savings account of trust and goodwill" (Safir, 2017, p. 107). Particularly when it comes to working toward equity, trust is the foundation of any warm demander interaction.
  3. Teach self-discipline. With trust in place, a leader who is a warm demander can communicate high expectations to his or her colleagues: "I respect you, and therefore I am not going to lower my bar for you." The combination of belief and trust creates a platform from which to help your colleagues develop self-discipline, or the will and skill to apply a laser-sharp focus to instructional improvement.
  4. Embrace failure. Warm demanders model a growth mindset toward colleagues and encourage a culture of experimentation. They end coaching conversations with questions like, "What are you going to try out?" or "What are your next steps?" Warm demanders don't expect their colleagues to improve overnight. But they do expect them to take risks, make mistakes, and reflect on what they learn—always through an equity lens. They hold space for teachers to reflect and celebrate growth and failure alike, and they make it safe to fail (Alexander, 2016).
These principles are powerful, but what do they look like in action? What are the listening and coaching moves of a warm demander? Let's examine them from a school leadership perspective, using my story with Jason as a case study.

Show Strength

It's not enough to believe in your colleagues' ability to do better by kids. You have to proactively set the instructional tone and direction, and then be willing to interrupt inequitable mindsets and practices when they surface. This requires us to cultivate what I call an orientation to vision—a leadership stance in which we define, coach toward, and message a vivid picture of success (Safir, 2017). As a leader, what are your instructional values? What is your image of an equity-centered classroom or school? Overcommunicate your vision—in meetings, on agendas, on the school walls, on classroom observation tools—so that when a breach happens, you are ready to show strength.
Showing strength means holding the line on your vision and not capitulating to deficit language, single stories, or narrow views of student behavior. In my story with Jason, I misread his behavior in class as him "not liking me" as a teacher. Looking back, I can see how misguided my thinking was. Jason was a 9th grader reading at probably a 2nd or 3rd grade level. He was carrying around a backpack full of shame about his learning gaps and finding all sorts of ways to distract me and his peers. I needed a warm-demander leader to bring me back to our school values and to offer a different narrative about what was happening.
Rather than signing off on the class transition, here is how I imagine my principal could have shown strength:
Me: I don't feel like I am a good fit for Jason. He acts out in my class all the time, and I think he might do better with Greg. Could we move him?
Principal: Shane, moving Jason to another class is a last-ditch option. Frankly, it would make him feel rejected and reinforce his experience of marginalization as a young black man. You are an excellent teacher and I know you can find a way to serve Jason. I am here to help you figure it out.

Listen and Affirm

By shifting the narrative I was holding, my principal would have opened up space for a coaching conversation. First, however, she needed to stand with me in my struggle and shame around not being able to connect with this student. My colleagues at JJSE call this part of the warm demander framework "listen and affirm," similar to the concept of deep listening (Safir, 2017). In my coaching, I see many leaders choose to leapfrog this step, perhaps because they fear the emotionality that may emerge. But leading for equity is inherently emotional work, and we must cultivate our capacity to sit with and hold space for people's feelings. Otherwise, we risk shutting them down.
When we practice deep listening, we tune into the message beneath the words, paying close attention to the speaker's nonverbal signals and affirming his or her capacity to grow and change. What does the teacher's facial expression and body language reveal? As you assess these cues, form a mental picture of his or her experience and model the stance of mature empathy by showing care and compassion (Safir, 2017).
Here are a few powerful ways to do this:
  • Mirror the teacher's nonverbal signals to activate mirror neurons, a unique type of brain cell that fires when we observe an action or emotion.
  • Practice active listening by paraphrasing and summarizing what the speaker has said ("What I hear you saying is …").
  • Use affirmative language to reinforce that you believe in this colleague ("I really appreciate how you …" or "I know this is difficult, and I commend you for …").
Here is how I envision my principal could have listened to and affirmed me. Imagine that I looked deflated as I approached her (for example, on the verge of tears or hunched over).
Principal: (Taking a breath and accessing her own emotions so she can mirror mine, and putting a hand on my shoulder.) I can see that this is hard for you. What is coming up for you around your ability to serve Jason?
Me: I feel like a failure! I have had four successful years of teaching and now I can't figure out how to help this one student. I don't know why I can't build a better relationship with him.
Principal: What I hear you saying is that you have felt successful as a teacher for the past few years, and this dynamic with Jason has left you feeling like a failure and questioning why you can't build a connection. Did I hear that right?
Me: Yes. (My shoulders relax and arms uncross. I sit down and lean forward with my elbows on my knees. My principal sits directly across from me, no desk between us, and leans forward to mirror me.)
Principal: Well, Shane, I believe in you as a teacher, and I can see how challenging this moment is for you. I also believe in Jason and our responsibility to serve him, and I am committed to helping you build a stronger relationship with him.

Challenge and Offer a Choice

When a person feels seen and heard, something magical happens. Often, they can breathe deeply once again. They might cry, sigh, or shift their posture in a way that signals increased openness. Look for that signal; it is your opportunity to engage in strategic listening (Safir, 2017), a style of equity-centered coaching that draws on reflective questions and a bias toward experimental action.
Alexander and Huang call this part of the warm demander framework "challenge and offer a choice," and it is connected to the idea of an orientation to vision. The challenge here is to call somebody in and up to their fullest potential, not to call them out. This is the moment to anchor your coaching conversation in school values, instructional vision, or even the teacher's own values.
Another way to "challenge" your colleague is to ask probing questions that invite her to reframe her thinking about the situation—what I call reflective inquiry. A few of my favorites are:
  • If you step back for a moment, what is a different way of seeing this student's behavior?
  • What might be getting in the way of … (building a strong relationship with Jason, for instance)?
  • What makes this particular situation feel confusing or different?
  • Knowing that we are all prone to implicit bias, what unconscious biases or single stories might you hold about this student?
  • When have you successfully addressed a similar challenge, and what can we learn from that?
Finally, a warm demander always moves the conversation to action—what I call taking bias toward action. Remember the principle of embracing failure? This is the place to plant that seed. Offer the teacher small action steps to try, or better yet, ask: "What is a next step you could try?" or "What is another form of data we could gather to help us understand this problem from new angles?" Reassure your colleague that it is indeed safe to try and even safe to fail. Identify a time to meet again to reflect together.
Here is how I imagine my principal could have challenged me and offered a choice:
Principal: What do you think is getting in the way of a trusting relationship between you and Jason?
Me: I think he just doesn't like me.
Principal: Have you tracked your interactions with him to observe the ratio of your positive to negative feedback? Sometimes, our unconscious biases lead us to reinforce a deficit lens on our students. This is especially important to pay attention to as a white teacher teaching boys of color.
Me: No, I hadn't thought of that.
Principal: Well, I'd be happy to come in and do an observation for you with that inquiry in mind. What other interpretations can we come up with for his distracting behavior? What is your assessment of his literacy skills, for example, as the class tackles tough texts?
Me: Well, the first time he read out loud in class, it was very halting and slow. He seemed to be struggling with decoding longer words and with fluency.
Principal: Aha! Have you done a fluency check with him? Do we have a plan in place to accelerate his reading?
Me: No, and honestly, I'm a high school teacher. I don't know how to teach reading.
Principal: I hear you but, if that is what's at stake here for Jason, we have a moral obligation to figure it out. What could be our next steps?
Me: Well, I do think it would be helpful for you to observe the class that he's in and share feedback. I also agree that we need to assess his reading level, but that will require support.
Principal: No problem. I'll ask Johanna (the instructional coach) to show you how to do a running record. One more thing: Have you had an authentic, face-to-face conversation with Jason's mom? Try listening to an expert in this situation: Ask what she thinks you could do to strengthen the relationship.
Even writing this imaginary script gives me a profound sense of relief. How amazing would it be if all leaders held teachers to the expectation to serve, see, and connect with every child? What if we did this with care, humanity, and the belief that teachers can do better?

From the Micro to the Macro

In signing off on moving Jason from my class, my principal consented to two problematic narratives: First, that Jason couldn't find success in my classroom; and second, that I couldn't learn how to serve him. As I hope this article has modeled, there is another way. We can become warm demanders for equity by leading teachers and students toward a clear vision and values, believing in what may seem impossible, taking time to build trust, and cultivating a culture of risk taking. This approach requires courage, deep listening, and an expanding set of coaching moves.
Much of our work toward educational equity focuses on the problems we need to solve: institutional racism, sexism, exclusion, bias. While we must develop a robust analysis of our equity challenges, the warm demander framework offers us a path forward rooted in hope and possibility. Imagine a school full of warm demanders, where teachers and leaders confront and address deficit thinking and mindsets in themselves, their students, and their colleagues.
In her book Emergent Strategy, adrienne maree brown writes:
The micro reflects the macro and vice versa—Fibonacci patterns show up from space to cauliflower. The tiniest most mundane act reflects the biggest creations we can imagine. (p. 51)
As we invest in warm demander interactions, we create a new way of being and learning together. We envision the seemingly impossible—a place where every student and every teacher is held to high expectations in a loving and supportive manner—and then we begin to enact it. And suddenly, the tiniest conversation will be reflected in the image of the school we want to create.
Author's Note: All student and teacher names are pseudonyms.

Alexander, M. (April 2016). The warm demander: An equity approach. [blog]. Edutopia. Retrieved from: www.edutopia.org/blog/warm-demander-equity-approach-matt-alexander

Brown, a. m. (2017). Emergent strategy. Chico, CA: AK Press.

Delpit, L. (2013). Multiplication is for white people: Raising expectations for other people's children. New York: The New Press.

Kleinfeld, J. (1975). Effective teachers of Eskimo and Indian students. The School Review, 83(2), 301–344.

Safir, S. (2017). The listening leader: Creating the conditions for equitable school transformation. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

End Notes

1 This framework weaves together JJSE's three warm demander elements—show strength, listen and affirm, and challenge and offer a choice—with the coaching stances outlined in my own book, The Listening Leader: Creating the Conditions for Equitable School Transformation (Jossey-Bass, 2017).

2 "Data" here refers to qualitative or "street-level" data. Examples of data you could gather include: observing the class that has the student the teacher is struggling with; doing an empathy interview with the student; or scheduling a home visit with the student's family.

Shane Safir is an educator, leadership coach, and facilitator who has worked in public education for over 20 years. She is the founding principal of June Jordan School for Equity, author of The Listening Leader: Creating the Conditions for Equitable School Transformation (Jossey-Bass, 2017), and coauthor of Street Data: A Next-Generation Model for Equity, Pedagogy, and School Transformation (Corwin, 2021).

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