Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Caught In The Squall Pt. 1

For the first time in my teaching career, I have spent a great deal of time seriously reassessing my beliefs on my classroom management. Like all teachers, I try my best to help maintain a classroom culture where students experience respect, acceptance, fairness, consistency, joy and positivity. Recently, I participated in a twitter chat about this topic, and my mind was absolutely blown. I was having a crisis of faith. Am I ruining my students’ lives with my current behavior system? Along with lots of chatter in the Twitterverse and blogosphere, this truly led me to have a genuine and legitimate essential question.

What is my belief on student rewards?

I have had many conversations with colleagues at my school and in my Twitter PLN about this topic. I cannot seem to resolve this issue. It lingers there on the horizon with so many questions splashing around. What I once considered to be smooth sailing is now drifting into choppy waters. I need a compass—a guide—to keep my boat balanced as I navigate through these questions and uncertainties.

Drive by Daniel Pink was the first, and most significant, factor in changing my thinking. When I read this book in 2010, I instantly drank the Pink Kool-aid. (I’ll give you a moment to notice what I did there. Got it? Good.) I want my students to develop the intrinsic motivation to do something because it is challenging or enjoyable, not because of any “if you do______, then you get______” motivators. These “if-then” situations tend to stifle creativity and critical thinking. Pink says that the three main factors that keep motivation high are mastery, autonomy and purpose. He states, “enjoyment-based intrinsic motivation, namely how creative a person feels when working on a project, is the strongest and most pervasive driver” of keeping people motivated.

Nevertheless, even Daniel Pink says that rewards are not always inherently bad. And this is where the storm starts to brew. This possible paradox in my thinking is stirring up the waters to create a great, white squall.

Wait. Let the waves subside. Maybe my thinking is off-course, and it doesn't need to be.

Upon further reflection, I realize that I can solve this. What Daniel Pink has made me think about is turning rewards into altruism. That means I do not give any tangible rewards for basic classroom responsibilities (e.g. homework, good behavior). However, I try to make sure every student feels supported and valued. These “rewards” are not always tied to a particular task, but are meant to acknowledge hard work or show appreciation.
  • A high-five or fist bump goes a long way
  • Give students a simple positive comment such as, “Thanks for working hard today” or “I appreciate your positive contributions to our class.”
  • Let a student read a new book for your classroom library first. Let him/her know you thought of them when you bought it.
  • Surprise the students by letting them choose their seats. “You’ve been working so hard on your student-led conferences, let’s have a choice of seats today.”
  • Let students share their work first during writer’s workshop. I can tell you this is one reward I don’t mind students requesting again.
These are all “rewards” that I try to do on a regular basis, and I don’t believe they reinforce the idea of dangling a “carrot and stick.” Are they extrinsic rewards? Well, I assume they are because I am the one giving them. But, I believe the most important part of these is the conversation I have with the students about the purpose. While some may see them as “rewards,” I see them as a way to keep our classroom culture strong. As long as I don’t dangle these rewards as an “if-then” situation, then I see no harm in acknowledging students’ positive behavior. They are positive consequences to keep students excited and energized to learn, and they let the students know that I’m thinking about them and that their hard work is not going unnoticed.

I am always searching for a way to connect with students, and show them that each of them is an important member of our classroom culture. The best reward I can give my students is to show them they are cared-for and valued. I want every student to know, “You matter.” In my classroom, everything I do is to cultivate a love of learning and encourage my students to be active learners and global citizens. I hope that coming to my classroom each day is reward enough, and for many of them it is.

Let me dock the boat for a few days, before I tackle...Caught In The Squall, Part 2.


  1. Great post. I appreciate your take and readily see the murky water that this leaves us in. I have frequently said to my colleagues that classroom management is a larger indicator of a teacher’s personality than any other observable. I could not run a sit-quietly-in-neat-rows class. It would not work for me, as this is not who I am. That being said, I think building relationships with your students, celebrating their small and grand success, building their self-efficacy, and building the concepts of interdependence and communal responsibility foster a post-classroom-management-necessary environment inside the classroom. Additionally I think that we need to remember that differentiation is not only about content and delivery, and that for some students the reward system may be the steps the need to achieve the connection, efficacy, and communal feel. I think we need to be careful to understand the philosophical, logical, and observational insights of scholars, while always remembering that our students are living in their own realities. Lastly, while i understand that we want to limit the "if, then" rewards, I do feel that the concept of disruption has great value hear. Having class outside, a session of math card games, or an impromptu party simply because it is Tuesday go a long way to building a culture that support this end.

  2. Thanks for the feedback, Drew! Yes, I whole-heartedly agree when you say, "students are living in their own realities." I have students from all sorts of backgrounds, cultures and families environments. My classroom culture is different than other classrooms' cultures. We need to balance theory with reality and make our culture comfortable for our students. I appreciate your support!

  3. Awesome sauce! It is always a goal to try and cultivate a climate for a passion of learning. It sounds like you off to some smooth sailing. I agree that it is so important to value each student and the uniqueness they bring to the classroom on a daily basis. The beauty of teaching is that the kids help to push you to grow as an educator when you value their voice and choice!

  4. Thanks Tonya! As you know, some days are smoother than others.