Recalibrating Warmth and Demandingness in the COVID-19 Era

January 27, 2021

By Christopher A. Kubic
Principal New Tech @ Zion-Benton East

The concept of being a “warm demander” has been held as an ideal approach for educators to adopt, especially as they pursue more equitable practices in education.  Balancing warmth and demandingness, challenge and support, flexibility and accountability, are perennial challenges in education and are even more challenging in this pandemic that has forced drastic changes in teaching and learning. 

Zaretta Hammond, in Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, borrowing from Kleinfeld’s 1975 study of teaching and learning in School Review, defines a warm demander as “a teacher who communicates personal warmth toward students while at the same time demands they work toward high standards.  The teacher provides concrete guidance and support for meeting the standards, particularly corrective feedback, opportunities for information processing, and culturally relevant meaning making (Hammond, p.160).”

Certainly, this is an ideal to which to aspire.  But how?  And now, during a pandemic?  Educators must ensure that they can meet the “warm” component before being a “demander,” and need to reconsider what exactly they are demanding.  Being a warm demander will look different in these times than in normal times, and educators must take a critical and reflective look at what that means for their students.     


Earning the right to demand
It is important to understand that, at least in Hammond’s conception, the concept of the warm demander is not a standalone idea – it exists within the larger context of moving students from dependent to independent learning, and is the third part of a threefold strategy that begins with making a pact with the student, establishing the teacher as an ally.  

This is critical.  Without the pact and the allyship, I can’t be a warm demander. I’m just a demander. I don’t have the relationship and context to establish the warmth. In Hammond’s words, I haven’t “earned the right to demand” (Hammond, pp.97-98). 

For those who pride themselves on having a positive relationship with students, this hurts to hear.  But this isn’t an indictment of one’s character or ability to build rapport with students. It’s a reflection of the situation we are in. Fire, by nature, gives off warmth, but that warmth won’t reach someone who is far away or if there is something blocking the warmth from getting to them. That’s what’s happening here. 

Remote learning is the norm for many (maybe most) districts in the COVID era. In many districts, teachers started the year remotely, and never even got a chance to meet, much less get to know, their students. In districts that do not require students to turn on their cameras (many do this for valid equity reasons), teachers have never even seen their students.  Even in schools where some in-person instruction is happening, teachers may not see their students as regularly as they do in normal times, and the dynamics of any in-person interaction are very different.  Indeed, one of the most common frustrations among teachers in this COVID era is the difficulty with connecting with students, getting to know them, establishing community in the classroom and in the school.  We are missing so much – the banter before class starts, the fist bumps, seeing the students’ body language to know if they’re into it or lost, the smiles, the eye contact that reinforces a connection. The warmth isn’t there like it usually is, not because WE aren’t warm, but because the kids are so far away and are blocked from our warmth.   


Knowing what and how to demand
This has a chilling effect on our ability to live up to the “warm” part of a warm demander.  Additionally, our ability to be wise demanders is in question as well.  The concept of a warm demander is predicated on understanding the student’s zone of proximal development, or ZPD, a concept introduced by Lev Vygotsky in 1962 and defined by Hammond as “the difference between what a learner can do without help and what he can do with help (Hammond, p.160),” which is critical in moving students from dependent to independent learning.  In these times, we may not be able to ascertain a student’s ZPD.  We are missing so much information about our students as learners. Standardized tests have been interrupted. Even if we have that data, we have reason to doubt whether it is a valid measure of knowledge and skills because of disruption to the learning environment that started last March (not to mention the impediments to accessing the assessments themselves).  Grades from last spring, which are often used to place students or at least make adjustments to curricular scope, sequence, and pacing, have been disrupted.  Just as important is the lack of anecdotal data from interpersonal interactions. When teachers know their students, they can read their body language and tone of voice, they can feel their “vibe,” they can see how they interact in groups and how engaged they are.  We are missing most of that in this remote environment.  This makes it much more difficult to determine a student’s ZPD, which in turn makes it difficult to know which demands are realistic and which are outside of the ZPD, calling into question our ability to be accurate demanders.

Does this mean that we should give up on the notion of being warm demanders?  Not at all.  We just have to accept that being a warm demander will look different now than in normal times.  Because of the disruption to the ways in which we usually transmit warmth and know what demands to make of students, we will have to be more deliberate and creative in doing both.  Now, more than ever, we need to remember that we are not just teaching our courses and content – we are teaching our students.  Some specific ideas for how to do this are below, but they all start with acknowledging and accepting that it is OK to relax on the “demander” side until we can do the “warm” side more effectively and understand our learners better in this new world.  


It is imperative that administrators and other leaders model and support this recalibration.
They can do this by publicly acknowledging it, adjusting their own warmth and demandingness, assuring teachers that they will not be punished for “lowering standards” or not getting as far in their curriculum, leading and empowering discussions to elevate student, teacher, and family voices about what this actually looks like, communicating these adjustments to families, adding more time for professional development on scaffolding and community building, creating more time for teams to contact families and adjust the scope, sequence, and pacing of curriculum and infuse community-building into their classes, and making adjustments to the master schedule to create systems for academic interventions and social-emotional programming (such as a resource period or advisory/homeroom).  

Some ideas to consider and discuss with teammates and administrators about what this would look like at your school:

  • Incorporate reflection more frequently – ask students to assess themselves on their skills and knowledge, get them to think about their growth, strengths, and weaknesses
  • Ask for feedback more regularly – use anonymous surveys to ask students about the balance of challenge and support, pacing, topics, etc. 
  • Do icebreakers/teambuilders all year long, not just at the beginning of the semester
  • Build a partnership with families by contacting them not just when problems arise, but for good news and also to get more information about students’ interests and abilities
  • Increase communication with teammates who teach the same grades to exchange information about students’ strengths and weaknesses, what works and doesn’t work for them, and ideas for scaffolding and teambuilding
  • “Weed the garden” – work with teammates to revise the scope, sequence, and pacing of your course so you are focusing on the essentials and ensuring that everything you do has a solid plan for assessment and scaffolding
  • Prepare a stock of acceleration/enrichment activities that you can use to challenge students who “get” material more quickly than others, while you provide individualized differentiation for students who are struggling
  • Note trends in work completion and quality – if a sizeable number of students did not turn in or do well on a given assignment, you may need to consider reteaching the content with more scaffolding, giving the instructions in a different way, or modifying the assignment – it’s OK to slow down.  If grades on these assignments are bogging down many students’ grades, consider lowering the weight of the assignment.
  • Establish catch-up days during class, and work with interventionists, other teachers, or advanced students to host breakout rooms to provide supervision and support
  • The following suggestions are based on Joe Feldman’s book Grading for Equity (2015).  Part III of that book provides specific ideas for more equitable grading practices.
    • Allow students to submit late work without penalty, and allow them to reassess if they don’t do well on an assessment
    • Experiment with new grading systems that reduce the weight of missing work and low grades
    • Increase the use of drafts, practice opportunities, formative assessments, and ungraded feedback
    • Do not grade for participation
    • If there are a few assignments bogging down many students’ grades, consider whether those assignments are worth the point value you’ve assigned.  Are they aligned to standards?  Do they reflect essential content and skills?  If they are worth their point value, they are important enough to reteach and reassess the content and skills.  If, after reflection, they are not worth their point value, consider reducing their value/weight.  



Feldman, Joe (2019).  Grading for Equity:  What It Is, Why It Matters, and How It Can Transform Schools and Classrooms.  Thousand Oaks, CA:  Corwin.

Hammond, Zaretta (2015).  Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain:  Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students.  Thousand Oaks, CA:  Corwin.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1962). Thought and Language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. (Original work published in 1934).