Can you be a “warm demander” online?

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I learned about the idea of becoming a “warm demander” from Zaretta Hammond, author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain – a book in which I immersed myself, happily, over the holiday period.

The idea of the educator as “warm demander” actually originated in the early 1970s from Judith Kleinfeld, who described a teaching style that most benefited native students in Alaska, and the idea has been refined by others since then. Later researchers defined the idea as a “combination of high expectations for academic performance that teachers place on students and supportive, instrumental relationships between students and teachers” (Antrop-Gonzalez and De Jesus, 2006).

Many of us can probably remember a certain teacher who was warm but demanding – one who wanted you to do your best, who demanded more than a prosaic effort. This teacher was the type of person you did not want to disappoint, and maybe this teacher was one reason you yourself decided to become a teacher.

Combining high expectations and high support

How can those of us who teach online become “warm demanders” of our students? What teaching behaviors will lead to that magic combination of high expectations and high support?

A key behavior is what Geneva Gay calls care. A warm demander exhibits sincere care for students, in large and small ways. Recently in this space, Stacie Williams described the care she shows her online students by reminding them of important deadlines. The good news is that care can be demonstrated in small and subtle ways – it doesn’t always have to be a grand gesture.

Sometimes it’s easier to explain a concept by talking about what it is NOT rather than what it is. Kleinfeld created a matrix with two main behaviors:

  1. How much we demand of students – from “active demandingness” to “passive leniency”; and
  2. How we balance the personal and the professional – from “personal warmth” to “professional distance.”

Combining these two behaviors gives us four quadrants. Do you place yourself in any of them?

  1. The Technocrat demands a lot of students but keeps a professional distance. This teacher works best with independent students, and can be viewed positively by students for having enthusiasm for and expertise in the academic subject – even though the teacher is cold toward students.
  2. The Elitist maintains professional distance from students but also demands little. This instructor gears learning activities toward independent students and lets dependent students flail and fail. This lack of care manifests in low expectations for dependent students, as these students are allowed to disengage from learning.
  3. The Sentimentalist is all about personal warmth but demands little from students. In fact, this type of instructor may even make excuses for students’ lack of academic performance, a tendency which also manifests in low expectations. The instructor may be liked by students but is also viewed as a push-over.
  4. The Warm Demander has an explicit focus on building rapport and trust AND has high expectations of students. This instructor “encourages productive struggle,” as Zaretta Hammond put it.
Earning the right to demand

Probably the most useful concept for me is one that Hammond calls “earning the right to demand.” I’ve heard many instructors, over the years, vent their frustrations about not feeling as though they are able to reach students who are struggling. Now I wonder: Is this the missing ingredient? Will dependent learners fail to respond to teachers unless teachers have somehow earned the right to demand more of them? I recall a mentor saying, shortly after I started my first teaching assignment in the early 1990s, “Students have to know how much you care before they care how much you know.” Maybe he was onto something?

Implications for online teaching

Okay – time to circle back to online teaching. What are the implications for online instructors? At this moment, I can think of three:

  1. Maximize opportunities, when they arise, to show care and personal warmth in the online environment. New online instructors always ask, Will technology allow me to make strong connections with my online students? My answer is always yes, but establishing connections in the online space is different than it is in the face-to-face classroom – and I would say it’s fundamentally harder to do in the online space. There’s an old saying: you get only one chance to make a good first impression, which is doubly true in an online class. We who teach online need to make every email and every discussion posting count – show you are a warm and caring instructor who is invested in the success of your online students.
  2. Discard some of your ideas about independence in the online environment. I’ve been hearing for over 20 years, since I first got involved with online education, that the online environment is really best for independent learners. I still hear it all the time. But if you adopt a “sink or swim” mentality with your online students, are you dooming some portion of your students to failure? Zaretta Hammond talks a lot about so-called dependent learners – students who are more dependent on the instructor because of their life circumstances. These students need more support, and different kinds of support, such as stronger “cognitive scaffolding,” than other students. I’d recommend you start to think more widely about the many types of students who might show up in your online class.
  3. Provide different paths to reach the same destination. This concept has always been really challenging for me, since I was taught that the instructor is responsible for making choices about the best way to learn a subject. While we’d all agree that NO guidance is unacceptable, we might also agree that different ways of learning may produce equally acceptable results. I’m reminded of the mother of ten children who was asked by one of her children, “Which of us do you love most?” She replied, “I love each of you in exactly the way you need to be loved.” A good teacher is like this, in providing the type of support the online student needs to be successful, and in this effort, technology can be really helpful. You can make a video that will appeal to some students, while others might prefer to read text, or work with text and images. And you can provide different kinds of assignments and assessments for students to choose from.

Becoming a warm demander is certainly not easy or quick, but I think it will pay great dividends for your online students and for your own effectiveness as an online instructor.

Further reading

Culturally Responsive Teaching & The Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students. Zaretta Hammond. Corwin, 2015. Available at PCC library.

Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, Research, & Practice. Geneva Gay. Columbia University, Teachers College Press, 2000. Available at PCC library.

Judith Kleinfeld’s many studies of native students in Alaska, where she been working since the 1970s and is still working today, in 2019.

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There are 11 comment for this article. If you see something that doesn't belong, please click the x and report it.

x by bryan 9 months ago

Peter …

One of the best of these on-line blog posts that I remember reading!

I think most of us don’t start being both warm and challenging, but have to work towards that ideal. Part of it is the culture of academia … I remember being surprised that one of my favorite graduate instructors was super nice (invited us over to her house for dinner, for example), but was a super hard grader?!? Somehow I assumed she’d be an easy grader. (A sentimentalist, I guess.)

x by Linda Stewart 9 months ago


Thanks for sharing these great ideas! I want to read Culturally Responsive Teaching now.
As a student in your OIO course, I noticed you employed “different paths” by allowing us to submit our answers in writing or as videos/audio. Your post made me consider ways I could offer “different paths” myself.

Idea: maybe you could elaborate on each of the three implications in future posts.


x by Heather Guevara 9 months ago


What a great post! I’m glad you addressed “what does all of this mean for online teaching?” It’s easy to get bogged down in the theoretical (especially when there are quadrants involved).

Another way to maximize opportunities to share care is through use of preferred names. Many instructors ask students what their preferred name is. It’s important to then use that preferred name when addressing students in all communications (assignment feedback, emails, discussion forums). I print a roster and write down the preferred names. Then I used it as a quick reference when communicating with students.


x by Sylvia Gray 9 months ago

Thanks, Peter, for this very helpful nudge!

x by Tony Greiner 9 months ago

PCC has four copies of “Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain”, all checked out at the moment, but you can get on the hold list by copying the link below and pasting it into a browser. It will take you to the PCC library record.

Thanks for the thoughtful post Peter.

x by Kris Fink 9 months ago

Thanks for you post. I’m really interested in Hammond’s work and thought others might enjoy this podcast:
As a long-time online instructor, I think there are lots of ways to present as “warm demanders.” I try to use a lot of humor in my online content (of course, being online, I’m never quite sure just how funny my students really think I am), and I’ve found that just leaving a note at the end of a group email about what I’m up to that weekend can result in several emails back from students about their own plans.
I’ve been wrestling with what I think CRT means on a granular level, and your “mother of ten children” answer really helps to frame my answer. Of course, the challenge of figuring out who our students are and how to love them the way they need to be loved in ten weeks is no small ask, but I like knowing I’m least on the right path.

x by Michael Trigoboff 9 months ago

I don’t teach online anymore, but this is applicable to any teaching situation. Thanks!

x by JF Patterson 9 months ago

Thank you for the great insights. Perhaps instructors move between different styles throughout their teaching life. Sometimes students like to take classes with an “easy instructor”. Instructors need to challenge students to rise to the challenges of learning new material. Students who are struggling can be referred early on to other PCC supports who can provide concentrated help to writing skills and tutoring as needed.
Warmth can be delivered through concern and support. We can encourage students to persevere towards their goals.

x by Jean E Mittelstaedt 9 months ago

Zaretta Hammond will be speaking at the Oregon Statewide Literacy Association Conference on February 8, which I will be attending. I’ll be sure to pick up a copy of her book.

x by Carolina Selva 8 months ago

Fantastic post, Peter. Inspiring, and the examples make it practical and useful. Thank you!

x by Katie Standish 8 months ago

Thanks for the great post! I find I tend to dabble in all four quadrants but the image of a “warm demander” is a good ideal to shoot for!

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