Much of my research has focused on identity and agency of Black boys to understand the ways these boys make sense of, respond to, and participate in mathematics. Identity has to do with how students engage with mathematics, how others perceive them, and how they see themselves as participatory in the space. Agency is seen in the ways students take risks to make their mathematical thinking visible and how they leverage problem-solving approaches that work for them. Teachers support students’ sense of agency in the values they communicate to through their words and actions, such as how they hold and express high expectations and show care for learners. For many students, high expectations and care are a proxy for how their teachers value them as people and learners. When asked, “how does a mathematics teacher show that he or she cares about you?” Darren stated:
“My teacher, Ms. Blaine, cared about all of us. She would bend over backward to help us when we needed it. She really helped me. She talked to me and told me that I had a lot of potential in math and that I should use it to get ahead in life. [She thought] I was capable of doing a lot in math. That’s what really motivated me…she understands that there is a lot of pressure put on African American males…She lets me know I can be cool and smart at the same time.”
Darren’s comment about Ms. Blaine is an example of a teacher who is a “warm demander” (Irvine & Fraser, 1998). Warm demanders know students’ cultures, have strong relationships with students, and demand that they maximize their efforts, show respect, and follow classroom norms. Warm demanders communicate their expectations of success by using personal warmth, while using instructional practices that insist on students meeting their high expectations. From this perspective, caring in more than an affective connection between students and teachers. It is actually a means for shaping students’ disposition towards mathematics, molding their mathematical identity, and developing students’ sense of agency by helping them believe that they can do mathematics.
I’d like to share some Black boys’ voices to describe warm demanders across three categories: a) warm demanders as authority figures, b) warm demanders as caregivers, and c) warm demanders as pedagogues.
Warm Demanders as Authority Figures
Phillip describes his teacher, Mr. Wallace, who is an example of a warm demander as an authority figure..
“My algebra teacher, Mr. Wallace, is one of them [role model]. I see him as a father figure because he is strict, friendly, and spiritual. I like the fact that he is strict because this shows that he expects the best from his students. In Mr. Wallace’s class, ‘can’t’ is like a curse word, so when he hears that word, he will work with you until you believe you ‘can’.”
Phillip’s sees Mr. Wallace as authoritative in his disposition while at the same time caring enough to invest in students to demand that hard work. Consequently, Mr. Wallace is developing students’ sense of agency by insisting and working with students to change “can’t” to “can.”
Phillip’s use of the word “strict” is consistent with Irvine and Fraser’s (1998) indicators of warm demanders teaching with authority. Strict in this context means that these students see this type of behavior as an effort to push them to attain success and manage the class environment that supported and fostered success. Mr. Wallace’s “strict, friendly, and spiritual” disposition suggests that students respected his authority and understood it as caring.
Warm Demanders as Caregivers
Being a warm demander as a caregiver means being dedicated to your students’ needs and familiar with what motivates them to work to meet your high expectations. Anticipating students’ thinking and action is a form of caregiving. It conveys to students that you care enough about them to understand how they think and see the world. This anticipating is also a means of demonstrating high expectations, because students who feel you know them well also know they cannot get by with minimal effort. See how Jabari describes Ms. Jackson’s response to his thinking and action.
“I don’t know how she does it, but sometimes she knows what we are going to do and say before we do and say anything…she knows us so well that she gets us out of trouble before we get in trouble…In math, she knows the right thing to say to help us with our work.”
Warm Demanders as Pedagogues
Being a warm demanders as pedagogues means that you demonstrate practices that are consistent with culturally relevant pedagogy (Ladson-Billings, 1994). You can better recognize and build upon your students’ cultural and social resources when you use contexts in your mathematics teaching and learning that are relevant to them. This in turn helps students better make sense of decisions about mathematical procedures when problem-solving. Phillip described how Mr. Wallace made mathematics relevant for students.
“Mr. Wallace basically explains things so that you can understand them and give you lots of examples…he used everyday life…the newspaper, anything you can find around the house, and sports. Most of the time, he likes to use basketball.”
Mr. Wallace uses pedagogy to make connections between content and context by selecting mathematics tasks that are engaging and relevant for the students. He takes care to make sure students know, understand, and have the readiness for continued studies in mathematics.
When being a warm demander in these three ways, teachers overcome the passivity of low expectations and a low sense of agency through the care they show. They form connections with their students, which reinforces high expectations, supports positive classroom interactions, and demonstrates belief that all students can perform well in the mathematics classroom. Teachers must work to know and understand their students’ identities, histories, experiences, and cultural contexts; consider how mathematics and school experiences may differ for their students based on these contexts; and then connect these meaningfully with mathematics.