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Classroom Relationships and The Power of Warm/Strict by Robbie Burns

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This is a copy of a blog by and with the kind permission of Robbie Burns. More of Robbie’s blogs can be read here: https://howthenshouldweteach.wordpress.com/


Stretching over three decades, research conducted by Wubbels (2013) suggests that teachers who combine maintaining high expectations for learning with ‘friendly’ characteristics (such as the ones mentioned previously), achieved some of the greatest learning outcomes for their pupils.

One of the first pieces of advice I was given when I started teaching was ‘don’t smile until Christmas’. The way I interpreted it then was to be as strict as I possibly could at all times, making sure I was always ‘sweating the details’ of pupils’ behaviour. I longed to be nice, kind and friendly, but I felt this wouldn’t be the right thing to do.

The following term, I did the opposite. I practically bounced off the walls, dressed up, sang songs and was completely wacky. Quite understandably, this didn’t work either. My nine year olds walked all over me.

By the summer term then, I was dumbfounded. I thought that I needed to start strict and then ease off as the year went on – this was a terrible mistake and one that in fact didn’t befit my character.

I was under the classic illusion that being strict and being kind were opposites in teaching. I fooled myself into believing that strictness (not smiling, being stern, sweating the details) would achieve better learning outcomes because my pupils would know ‘where I stood’. Then, once they knew this, I could go a bit crazy and try and smuggle in some kindness on the way.

There’s a better option, including a more precise definition of being strict. As Lemov (2015) says:

“The fact is that the degree to which you are warm has no bearing on the degree to which you are strict…you should be caring, funny, warm, concerned, and nurturing – but also strict, by the book, relentless and sometimes inflexible.”

Echoing the research mentioned earlier, Lemov (2015) suggests that strictness and warmness should go hand in hand. As teachers, we should look to bring laughter into the classroom while demanding excellent presentation at all times; we should care deeply that ‘things aren’t right at home’ but expect them to always remember their P.E kit; we should make space in our day to speak with some pupils about things that worry them, while delivering sanctions to others without excuses. The amount of ‘warmth’ we give off as teachers has no effect on the amount that we are ‘strict’ – they can work seamlessly together.

Furthermore, as teachers we ought to be both strict (have high expectations of pupil learning and behavior) and warm (taking practical steps to care about the child behind the pupil) at the very same time. This is because, as Lemov (2015) rightly states: ‘having high expectations is part of caring for and respecting someone’. How do we make this work in practice? We begging with the principle of ‘explaining everything’.

Where to start: Explain Everything

So what are the ways that we can make this happen as teachers? The first step I think is to explain our decisions and actions to our pupils. Personally, I think it is never acceptable for teachers to tell their pupils to do something because they ‘said so’. Pupils need to know why. How else will they know what our expectations in the classroom are unless we tell them? This is part of our warmth and part of our strictness. When pupils understand the logic and reasoning of our decisions as teachers, they are less likely to be defiant. More than this, when we have pre-empted student behaviours that may cause disruption in the classroom and then explain why they are unacceptable, we create a platform for our ‘strictness’ that is embedded in the expectations that have already been set. Let me explain this claim further:

Let’s take the classic primary school disruptive behaviour of ‘shouting out’. If a teacher doesn’t pre-empt and teach their class about the problems shouting out can cause before this behaviour happens, it is likely to be a behaviour that other pupils will replicate. More than this, the teacher is likely to give attention to that pupil (which is exactly what they want), by stopping the lesson and disciplining them for their action. If this continues, a classroom culture will develop that allows more dominant pupils to presume authority over others in lesson time, causing more shy pupils to withdraw and disengage in discussions that they vitally need. Not to mention the amount of disruption it will cause you as a teacher while you are delivering lesson content.

What instead should happen, is to set the framework for classroom behaviour before any misbehaviour happens (explaining everything) so that pupils know how they should conduct themselves at all times. That way, when teachers need to give sanctions, pupils will be crystal clear in their understanding of their incorrect classroom choices. If we don’t do this, our explanations sound like we are pleading with our pupils, to get them to do the right thing – this is a problem spot to be in as a teacher and I’ve learnt this the hard way.

Here is one small example from my classroom where I have tried to put this in place.

Firstly, my class really struggled early on this term to listen carefully to their partners during paired discussions and it became an area of lessons that was unproductive. After that first lesson, as a class we took time out of lessons in the afternoon to discuss what it means to have a ‘good’ discussion with our partners. We came up with some core habits that everyone needed to embed in their partner talk, including myself. They were:

  1. Turn your body towards the person you are listening to so that they can see you’re genuinely interested in what they’re saying.
  2. Look at your partner in the eye while they are speaking – but don’t stare!
  3. Ask your partner questions to clarify what they mean in more detail if you don’t understand.
  4. Be patient – they might not have all their thoughts together yet.

This took about fifteen minutes to come up with. This provided a clear explanation of how we listen to our partner but as a teacher, I still hadn’t explained why it was so important that we learnt to do this. I proceeded to explain that we’ve established these habits in our classroom because of two things. Firstly, it is a practical outworking of us showing respect for one another in this classroom. If we truly respect what our partner has to say, then we will do all these things every time. Secondly, we talked about how we can learn so much from each other in the classroom. Therefore, it is worth listening to everybody all of the time! We then discussed how if we don’t do these things, we might miss out on being the best we can be because our partners might have something awesome to say.

At this point, twenty-three minutes of our afternoon had disappeared. Was this a waste of time?

Definitely not. Since then, I have not had to do the reminding and nagging that has happened in previous years when it comes to paired discussions. I haven’t had to do the: ‘listen to your partner James’, ‘Sarah make sure you give Hannah a turn to talk,’ or have to cope with the blank face of pupils when I have asked them what their partner said in their discussion. This year, I think twenty-three minutes has saved me from hours of painfully slow discussions where limited learning progress is actually made.

 This is a small example of how as teachers we can be warm and strict at the same time. By explaining all of our actions and why they really matter, we are showing pupils we care about each and every one of them. At the same time however, we should be ready to provide sanctions to those who do not abide by the expectations that we have set together as a class. What’s really interesting about this particular example is that since we spent those twenty three minutes together, discussing what was expected and why, sanctions have been non existent and discussions have been rich and varied. I have learnt so much from my pupils, including new vocabulary and ways of solving mathematical problems. Just think: what if we took time out to discuss why we present our work neatly, say good morning to adults, play kindly at break time and move sensibly around the school to name but a few…

I could go on forever about how we foster excellent teacher student relationships but this is going to be my last one on this topic for a little while. This is largely because I need to continue to develop the practical out workings of the research and strategies laid out here.


Lemov, D. (2015) Teach Like a Champion 2.0 (San Francisco, CA, Jossey-Bass).

Wubbels, T. (2013). Interpersonal Relationships in Education : An Overview of Contemporary Research. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

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