Archive for September, 2010

Praise in the Classroom

Saturday, September 25th, 2010

Observers coming into classrooms count praise.  I don’t mean that they take it into consideration…no, I mean that they count number of times that you praise someone.  This active monitoring of your “positive behavior” is evidently meant to motivate teachers to praise each student for SOMEthing.  I understand this in theory, but in practice I have found a few things:

1) Praise is a commodity.  As any good economist will tell you (thank you, Bunny, for 9th grade Econ!), if you flood the market with your currency then the overall value of the currency will decrease.  Flooding the classroom environment with praise, then, may give everyone a feel-good mentality for a short time, but very quickly praise, itself, is cheapened.  A teacher who praises EVERYthing (simply because they have to fill a quota–like our small-town cop) will find him/herself gasping for a new means of external motivation by the end of the first nine weeks.  Cheap praise means that each comment becomes less and less valued in the students’ eyes.  Instead of it being similar to giving someone a Giardelli chocolate, it would be like offering them a dried venison jurkey nugget.

 2) Not everything is praiseworthy.  Sometimes students should not be praised.  I have often had experiences where a student should be shown the future possibility of praise.  For instance, “It will make me very happy when you…” or “I know how smart you are, but I need you to show that to me…”  Many teachers feel that you should never praise a student for doing what is expected of them.  I tend to disagree.  However, I do agree that you need to limit doing this until it is needed to correct previous misbehavior.  Students who have been “scolded” for an improper action need to know when they are meeting or exceeding your expectations.  This provides them with a benchmark for each subsequent class. 

Now then, when I praise, I make my praise unique to that student whenever possible.  I may comment on how neatly they write, or how organized their notes are, or what great leadership skills they have shown during a laboratory exercise that day.  Throwing out generic praise comments are old-hat.  Okay, maybe not to kindergarteners, but after a couple of years they’ve heared all the canned comments.  Custom-tailored suits tend to fit better (and help the wearer lift their head a little higher and square their shoulders, incidentally) than one I might pick up from the Salvation Army (a store which I recommend everyone frequent for those little treasures…but from which you cannot entirely outfit a post-90s wardrobe–believe me, I’ve tried).  This brings us to the 3rd point.

3) The language of praise matters.   As I said in number 2, above, you need to be creative with how you praise students.  Specificity is a neccesity.  If you are rewarding directionality (i.e., students are making the effort but not quite meeting your expectations) you had better be specific.  If you are not, then you are going to get a jumbled soup of confused smiles and mixed messages.  Also, I stress once more the importance of tailor-made praise.  You can still talk like a teacher (there is no need to use student-type language if it does not come naturally or will cause a problem in the classroom), but you may just find that taking the time to talk to a student about what they are doing is higher praise than an uninformed comment from out of the blue.  Learn what they take pride in, as individual people, and you can then direct your praise accordingly.  What book are they trying to sneak peaks at in between activities?  What music are they hoping you can’t hear from across the room (with your ears that were not part of the MP3-player damaged generation)?  What do they plan on doing this weekend?  How did they like the previous activity and what role did they take (and was that the one they would have preferred)? 

Without knowing your students as real people, it is only a matter of time before your praise becomes ineffective and unmotivating.  You will likely find yourself bored with praise, too, which is a difficult state from which to recover.

We are who we think about.

Wednesday, September 8th, 2010

It is now the Fall Semester.  In the daytime, I work with over 180 high schoolers from all types of backgrounds with extremely varied approaches to learning and life.  On some evenings, I work with a handful of dedicated and determined adults at the local community college who are also very diverse in background and personal life goals.  There are times when a teacher feels closely connected to his students.  Then, there are times when he might simply wish to stop and be somewhere else.  For those brief moments (and thankfully for me they are brief), I used to find myself praying within myself.  This communion helped me to step aside from momentary frustrations and become more objective in my observation of situations.  Then, when I was married, I started thinking about how at the end of the day I could go home to my wonderful, loving wife who always understood.  Now, after two weeks of my initiation into fatherhood, my wife still stands out in my mind during those moments.  There is, however, another help:  my son’s face.  I see his peaceful, young face–the product of committment and a reason to work well–and all of my troubles seem to melt away.  Because, at the end of each day, he needs me to persevere…even when I would rather walk into a closet and take a break from teaching.

And so, I take my strength (and my identity when it matters most?) from those who need my strength the most:  my Family.  I am a very traditional person–believing that the husband should be the head of the household (leading with wisdom and kindness).  Nonetheless, I see more and more each day that a family is made up of cogs all working together… and the smaller cogs (even the very teenie tiniest) are in no way of lesser importance.