Strict AND warm

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As a collective, we have been discussing ‘warm-strict’ and its variations for ages, yet it’s one of the hardest things to actually obtain in our teaching. In many schools, staff seem to fall on either side of the partition.

When I first started teaching, after a totally teenager-free world in journalism, I was frequently told I was a little too ‘Miss Honey.’ In other words: too smiley and soft. Not tough enough. I worked hard to get tougher. I focused most on my voice (making it firmer and louder), my posture (looking more confident and authoritative) and even smiled a little less. While this invaluable feedback definitely improved my presence, I have learned that smiling less is never a good idea. The adage ‘don’t smile until Christmas’ is not the right advice. Let’s coin a new saying: ‘The tougher you are, the more you should smile.’

One of the teachers I have learned most from, Charter’s headmaster Barry Smith who I worked with at Michaela, is remarkable precisely because he is the warmest/strictest teacher I have ever encountered. To him, teaching involves a degree of acting: being ‘big’, being ‘on’, being larger than life and ready for jovial, positive interactions at every turn, even if you’re knackered and crawling to that time of year where you would prefer to be drinking gin alone in a dark room. This larger-than-life positivity is hard, but really important. [Side note: this is why teachers need so much sleep.] [Second side note: visit Charter if you can for an amazing demonstration of warm-strict in action.]

I also think teaching is about authenticity as much as it is about persona. Teenagers can sniff out disingenuousness; they’ve got to know that you actually do care about and value them. This means asking them questions, getting to know them, remembering the small details and checking in when you know things are hard. ‘Checking in’ is entirely distinct from letting them off.

This flood of positivity and warmth is absolutely necessary when you’ve got high expectations and unshakeable boundaries, but let’s face it: it’s really hard to do both well. Those who do are the teachers, I believe, who get the most out of students. You don’t want a student to behave and work hard just because they fear you; you want students to behave and work hard because they respect and, crucially, trust and know that you care about them. You want them to enjoy being in your classroom – not because you’re making it ‘fun’ with pointless activities that try to engage them, but because a) your expectations create a focused environment which allows them to feel successful in your subject and b) they are happy to be in the warm, positive atmosphere that you have created.

In my school, Jane Austen, we focused on positivity in a recent CPD session and thought about practical ways to inject more warmth into the school building. Here are some takeaways:

1. If you have a merit/demerit system, try to give out five times as many ‘merits’ as negative consequences.

2. Fill the corridors with positive teachers who greet all passing students with a ‘hello’ or ‘good afternoon.’

3. Use corridors and break times to have interactions with students that build relationships. Teachers could: test them on their subject using recall questions, ask what they have learned today, ask how their weekends were, ask about hobbies, ask what they are reading, recommend books etc.

4. Don’t relax your expectations, but relax your persona: have a laugh with your students, have in-jokes, laugh at yourself. That doesn’t make you weak or ‘too warm’. It makes you human and the stricter you are, the warmer you need to be.

5. Praise students on their successes whenever you see them: ‘Great to see that you’re the top house point scorer in form 10K Annabelle!’ Or ‘I called your mum yesterday to let her know about your amazing quiz result. Well done!’

6. If you know a student’s name: use it! If you don’t: try to learn it by asking them and testing yourself next time you see them.

7. Encourage students’ smartness by praising smart uniform.

8. If a student has been absent, always tell them how great it is to have them back.

9. Email heads of year/ assistant heads of year/ tutors with praise to pass on to individual students or whole classes.

10. Even if you’re correcting something – an untucked shirt for example – frame it positively. ‘We want you to look nice and smart.’

Let me know what you think, and if you have any more ideas!

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