Tools for Being a Warm Demander

One of the aspects of teaching in the world’s largest public university system that I love the most is the CSU’s bone-deep commitment to an equitable education for all. While most of us can point to a seemingly tone-deaf initiative or two, at its core, the CSU was created to be the people’s university. For most of us who teach at CSUCI, that student-centered approach is what drew us here. That was the case for me, as well. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to work with students who fill me with awe on a daily basis. They succeed despite being first generation students, immigrants and children of immigrants, or English learners. They persevere despite being homeless or hungry. They thrive even though they have two or three jobs, are providers for their families, or have siblings, parents, or children at home to care for. These situations are reality for many of our students, and understandably, they can affect the work that our students do, or their ability to meet deadlines.

As Stacey Anderson’s recent post in this series points out, students need our empathy. This Warm Demander approach entails showing students that we care about them enough and believe in them enough to hold them to high standards.

The term Warm Demander was first coined by Judith Kleinfeld. In a 1975 article, Effective Teachers of Eskimo and Indian Students, Kleinfeld sought to answer a question: While there’s a great deal of research on what ineffective teachers of marginalized students do wrong, what do effective teachers do right? The conclusion that she came to hinged on two principles: effective teachers make a point to get to know their students and effective teachers make it clear that they care about their students. Based on those two principles, comes the third, when students know we care about them and we believe in them, they will do their best to meet the standards we hold them to.

You may well be thinking, “It’s Week 13, I’m completely overwhelmed.” I understand. I am, too. So are our students, and this is the time of the semester when they may not be showing their best sides.

You might also be thinking, “How do I get to know my students when there are so many of them?” I recently participated in TLi’s 5 Day Responsive Teaching Workout, in which faculty participants learned about small changes they could make in their teaching practices to help students feel like they matter and are part of a community. One of the things we talked about was the Learner Survey, which I’ve found is a great way to find out who students are and what challenges are going on in their lives. Most semesters, I ask students to write me a 300-350 word letter for our first class meeting. This semester, the questions I asked them to answer included the following:

  • What do you see as your strengths and weaknesses as a writer?
  • What are your past experiences with writing, in and out of your major, and what kinds of comments have teachers made about your written work?
  • What goals do you have in mind for yourself in this class? What apprehensions do you have? What challenges do you think you’ll experience? What are you looking forward to?
  • Is there anything else you’d like me to know about you, like challenges in your life, or things that might impede your success?  For example, are you responsible for the care of others, for example, children, younger siblings, grandparents?
  • Can you think of ways I can help you succeed as a writer or a student?

These letters are a way for me to quickly get a sense of who my students are, what matters to them, and to show them that I’m invested in them. Also, I have students post the letters on Canvas, so, as the semester progresses, I can easily refer back to the letters, which helps me remember and recognize the challenges and anxieties students have. Of course, new challenges arise all the time, but taking the time to get to know students early gives me a leg up, and helps me stay focused on what’s good during the longest stretch of the semester.

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