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C2C Digital Magazine Spring-Summer 2022

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From gatekeeper to warm demander: Reconceiving instructor-student relationships for equity

By Michelle Pacansky-Brock, Ed.D., Foothill-DeAnza Community College District

Take a moment right now to reflect on your life and identify one memorable teacher you’ve had. It can be anyone, perhaps not a traditional “teacher” at all. Got it? Now identify two distinct words that describe why that person is memorable to you.

That is a prompt that I’ve given at the start of many recent presentations to higher education audiences. At the time of writing, I’ve recorded 438 words shared by audience members to describe their memorable educators. The five words that have been submitted most frequently (in order) are “caring,” “encouraging,” “kind,” “supportive,” and “challenging.” If our personal narratives reveal these adjectives as essential traits for meaningful teacher-student relationships, why aren’t they characteristics that college professors strive to portray? In a time of immense change and an increased commitment to achieving educational equity, the nature of instructor-student relationships is a do-able and realistic shift that can make a real impact on who succeeds in college.

Cultural influences on relationships

Figure 1.  Goalkeeper and Coach

Goalie photo by Andy Hall on Unsplash. Coach photo by Jeffrey F Lin on Unsplash

 I am a White, cisgender, heterosexual, fifty-ish year old woman with more than 20 years of experience in higher education. When I began teaching in college, I envisioned myself being an inspirational, life-changing instructor. Teaching at a large community college presented me with the opportunity to change lives by supporting my students’ upward social mobility. But that dream quickly faded away as I found myself donning a gruff and tough professor expression and communicating rigid course policies. My behaviors created a cool “professional” distance between me and my students. As I look back on those years, I am sure most of my students hated me. I didn’t like knowing they felt that way, but for some reason I continued my same pattern of behavior. Week-after-week, semester-after-semester, I put on my emotional armor. Over the years, I began to change, and today I am beginning to make sense of this journey.

Culture has been described as an iceberg; it has visible attributes like food, clothing, rituals, and art at the tip, and the much larger bottom portion of the iceberg is composed of invisible attributes like values, perceptions, beliefs, and attitudes. The longer a person is immersed in a culture, the more difficult the invisible attributes are to detect. When your culture differs from the culture that is centered around you, however, those same attributes smack you in the face – this is referred to as a cultural mismatch, and it’s a significant factor that prevents many students from developing a sense of belonging in college, which is linked to persistence and degree achievement (Hurtado et al., 1998).

In the United States, there are a vast array of cultures represented by our diverse population, but there is only one dominant culture – the culture established by White Europeans, built upon the enslavement and torture of Black people and the genocide of Native Americans. Culture is powerful stuff. It is continuously reinforced and constructed through the actions and words of people, movies and television shows, music, podcasts, and books. Who is portrayed as the hero; who is portrayed as the villain; who is objectified and who is humanized; who is murdered and who lives; who achieves and who does not – that’s all governed by culture. It penetrates our minds and influences how we think and act. Nobody ever told me how to act as a professor, but I knew what my role was and, as I look back now, I recognize that my behaviors were at odds with my personal narrative about the kind of professor I wanted to be. And I also recognize that my actions privileged some students and hurt others.

Today, after much hard work and a commitment to developing an awareness of my racial identity, I can see White dominant culture at play in my day-to-day life. I recognize its values and connect them with the processes and structures that permeate higher education and every other system that comprises United States society. Dominant culture in the U.S. loves clean, crisp boundaries and shuts down in-between, messiness. Either-or-thinking and only-one-right-way are currents in our river of life (Okun, n.d.). Disrupting dichotomies means opening space for discussion, debate, and the voices of other people, which starts to undermine other dominant values like individualism. Being a professor is deeply influenced by all of these values.

The fear of threat

As I look back on my career, I recognize now how much privilege my identity afforded me, but I also recognize that my age and gender triggered a fear in me that I would be judged by my students and my colleagues as a pushover or a big softie. Wearing emotional armor was, at least partially, an unconscious defense mechanism. I see now that I was experiencing what is known as stereotype threat, which is defined by Claude Steele (1997, p. 614) as the “socially premised psychological threat that arises when one is in a situation or doing something for which a negative stereotype about one’s group applies.” Cia Verschelden refers to stereotype threat as a cognitive underminer that reduces a person’s mental bandwidth – “the cognitive and emotional resources needed to deal with making good decisions, learning, caring for family, having healthy relationships, and more.” (Verschelden, 2017, xiii). 

Everyone experiences stereotype threat, but in higher education, low-income students, students of color, and first-generation students are affected most severely. When the human brain is at threat – either consciously or unconsciously – it kicks into an automatic cycle of scanning one’s environment for safety cues. For humans, visual cues like a smiling face, a welcoming body gesture, and/or people who look like you ease the threat. And language, whether spoken or written are cues of inclusion too – like flexible policies, as well as language that positions learning as a process of growth and values diversity as an asset. Scanning, whether it’s conscious or unconscious, puts a person at a disadvantage because it literally blocks their ability to perform to their full potential. The social psychological dimension of being human is tied to a person’s sense of belonging. When a person senses that they belong, they’re more likely to stick around, lean in, and achieve their goals. Belonging is motivational (Baumeister & Leary, 1995).

Research shows that how we interact with our students and the types of activities we design for them has the potential to change how they think and feel about a class and, in turn, improve their sense of belonging (Cohen & Garcia, 2014). The cues a professor gives off to students have the potential to either exacerbate psychological threat or ease it – and that is true whether we are in a classroom together or separated by space and time. Online classes (whether asynchronous or synchronous) do not eliminate a professor’s ability to create a welcoming, safe environment for students; they merely change how one go about doing it.

Redefining instructor-student relationships

In the United States, life is deeply influenced by rugged individualism, which glorifies busy-ness and snubs rest and restoration. This is the undertow that set us up to crash and burn when COVID hit. Brain researchers have proven Descartes’ “I think therefore I am” theory is wrong by showing that emotions, cognition, and social functioning are intertwined processes, as opposed to disembodied systems. Neuroscientists Immordino-Yang and Damasio explain, “emotions are not just messy toddlers in a china shop, running around breaking and obscuring delicate cognitive glassware. Instead, they are more like the shelves underlying the glassware; without them cognition has less support” (Immordino-Yang & Demasio, 2007, p. 5). Positioning sensing and feeling as interconnected dimensions of human existence is a return to indigenous culture (Rendón, 2009). Intentionally centering cognition and emotion in college level instruction is an anti-racist, decolonization of learning.

Culturally responsive teaching has been a popular focus of teaching in K-12 for decades; however, it hasn’t made waves in higher education. As diversity, equity, and inclusion become guiding lights for institutions, culturally responsive teaching is becoming a more significant focus for colleges and universities. Classes are composed of culturally diverse students and when all students are valued and welcomed for their true authentic self, as opposed to needing to change who they are to fit in (Brown, 2017), they will all be likely to achieve their academic goals. Making the move to culturally responsive teaching requires a reconceptualization of the traditional notion of professor authority from positional to relational authority.

Figure 2.  The Foundations of Culturally Responsive Teaching

In higher education, coddling is synonymous with care, and struggle is synonymous with being tough. Culturally responsive teaching flips those distinct dichotomies on their head by emphasizing that care and push are two sides of the same coin. Culturally responsive teachers create a course climate that values diversity as an asset and fosters a welcoming, safe environment for students of all identities. Instructors get to know all students at the start of a course through intentionally designed activities and develop relationships with learners based on mutual respect. Through course materials, language, and behaviors, instructors position themselves as learning partners, decentering individualism. Students’ life experiences, values, and goals are the context through which teaching and learning occurs. Caring, as explained by Geneva Gay, a pioneer in culturally responsive teaching, is a moral imperative, placing “teachers in an ethical, emotional, and academic partnership with ethnically diverse students, a partnership that is anchored in respect, honor, integrity, resource sharing, and a deep belief in the possibility of transcendence” (Gay, 2000, p. 52). In short, caring is a validating act that is active and intentional, as opposed to passive and coddling.

Figure 3.  Moving from a Dependent to an Independent Learner


Through validation, care, and trust, relational authority is developed through the instructor-student connection, which earns an instructor the right to challenge students and hold them to high standards (Gay, 2000; Hammond, 2015; Kleinfeld, 1975; Ladson-Billings, 1994; Rendón, 1994). When a human feels seen and knows that another person believes in them, they lean in and they challenge themselves (Wood, 2019; Wood & Harris, 2017; Wood et al., 2015). And this is particularly essential in higher education, where classes are comprised of both independent and dependent learners. Independent learners have the cognitive strategies to get unstuck in a class and will attempt new tasks without scaffolding. Dependent learners are uncertain about how to tackle a new task and may sit and wait for help – a behavior that is often misinterpreted as a lack of motivation or commitment when professors approach teaching through a deficit-based student mindset. The only way to develop from a dependent to an independent learner is through cognitive struggle. Due to structural inequities and the biases that teachers bring into their classrooms, students of color, poor students, and English language learners are less likely to experience intellectually challenging tasks prior to entering college (Allington and McGill-Franzen, 1989; Darling-Hammond, 2001; Oakes, 2005). Education is not neutral. Becoming an independent learner is cultural capital. Achieving educational equity requires professors to assume that all classes include dependent learners and to approach every class with culturally responsive teaching to ensure students feel safe and supported as they lean into the very vulnerable experience of taking intellectual risks in the care of their professor.

Professional development as equity infrastructure

The American value of rugged individualism is deeply entrenched in the notions that hard work leads a person to good grades and individual perseverance results in a college degree. In reality, higher education systemically discriminates against students with limited access to free time and a predictable schedule, financial resources, cultural capital, and those who are neurodiverse, disabled, or/and English language learners. The “professor as gatekeeper” model fits right into this paradigm. Faculty development programs that illuminate how professors’ behaviors can reinforce a White supremacist world view or challenge it and support more students in achieving social mobility and their academic goals are essential to the future of higher education.

Moreover, introducing college instructors to culturally responsive “warm demander” (Kleinfeld, 1974, 1975) pedagogy is an opportunity to make higher education more equitable (Vincent-Layton, 2022), while also reconnecting professors with a passion for teaching –  especially today in our era of burn out. Human connection is restorative. Hiding behind the guise of cold, isolating professionalism is exhausting. An online professional development program that introduced STEM faculty to warm demander pedagogy resulted in critical reflections from participants. Upon completing the program, one female participant wrote, “As a younger female professor, I believed I needed to put on a tough outer shell in the classroom and uphold ‘rigid expectations’ so that students wouldn't take advantage of my kindness/vulnerability. But what I've realized in the past year is that this was a terrible misconception I held onto for much too long.” That same professor reported that her student evaluations for the two terms following that program have been more positive than ever before. Another participant wrote,

I carried many traumas and pains from my own undergraduate STEM experience. … It was not the course material that was challenging for me, it was the feeling of not being cared for and simply being a number on my ID card. I felt that I was a dollar commodity for the department and not a person. ...Now… I have a deeper understanding of myself and how I can improve my own courses.  … In many ways, I have held myself back from my true nature and have tried to work within what I thought were the ‘rigid expectations’ for a professor. However, I now have a deeper understanding of how important emotions are in learning.

This quote suggests that professional development for inclusive teaching, particularly when facilitated with warm demander pedagogy, can be a path of healing for faculty who have experienced discrimination in higher education.

Inclusive teaching programs that foster self-awareness, empathy (Dewsbury & Brame, 2019), and cultural humility in faculty are vehicles for transformative learning, as well as systemic change. They are rich opportunities for research and the creation of open-educational resources. Sharing equity-minded professional development is a contribution to social justice. As more research efforts are focused on professional development, evidence-based practices that influence mindset shifts in faculty and prepare them with the digital fluency to develop relationships anchored in mutual trust at a distance will become more accessible and adoptable. Institutions must invest in high quality professional development and consider it equity infrastructure for the future.


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About the Author

Michelle Pacansky-Brock is a noted leader in higher education with expertise in online teaching, course design, and faculty development. Dr. Pacansky-Brock's work has helped online instructors across the nation and beyond understand how to craft relevant, humanized online learning experiences that support the diverse needs of college students.  She is the author of Best Practices for Teaching with Emerging Technologies (2nd edition, Routledge) and has received national recognition for her excellence in teaching and faculty development from the Online Learning Consortium (OLC).

Currently, Michelle is Faculty Mentor, Online Teaching and Learning with the California Community Colleges California Virtual Campus-Online Education Initiative (CVC-OEI) system. In her role, she coordinates professional development in support of quality online teaching and learning for @ONE (Online Network of Educators) and is leading a California Learning Lab grant project that will examine the impact of humanized online instruction on diverse students in undergraduate online STEM courses in California. Learn more about Michelle at and connect with her on Twitter @brocansky.

Her email is

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