I admit it. Gold stars, super duper stickers, sticks, names on the board; I have done it all. And when one reward system failed, another one took over. Never one to sit and reflect that perhaps it was the system that was faulty and not just that the students grew tired of it. After all, that carrot at the end of the stck was essential to my teaching success. Those stickers meant I cared. That Awesome board where A+ work was proudly displayed gave students something to strive for. That certificate if you got an A on your math test meant that you were smart and that other students should look up to you. Right? Wrong again.
Oh, I thought I was clever. I thought I knew how to motivate students and after all, what could a little reward do that would possibly hurt the child? Well, after reading Alfie Kohn’s book “Punished by Rewards,” I realize just how wrong I have been. Those papers on the awesome board did nothing to improve unity in my room. Instead they acted as the great divide, highlighting the students that could from those that could not. Those stickers I doled out for anything above 90%; not a cheerful way to celebrate achievement, but rather a glaring marker showing which students did the best in the room. Those great “you did it” award certificates stapled to their math tests, not great posters of pride but instantaneous feedback on where a students falls within the grade hierarchy. And yes, the students knew exactly where they fell within the classroom.
So this year I am throwing it all out. Well, most of it anyway, I do like those stickers and will use them for good rather than evil. And I am petrified. After all, this is how I was taught to teach. If a student does something good they should be rewarded and nothing says “Great job! I can tell you worked so hard” better than a smiley face sticker. Wrong again. A smiley face sticker says; “If you work hard, you will get a smiley face sticker.” And when in life does that ever happen? This year, I plan on talking to my students even more. Telling them what was great, asking them what they thought was great and then peeling apart things that didn’t quite get there and figure out what went wrong. We shall learn from our supposed mistakes, those will be our rewards.
So while I am excited for this new no-reward agenda, I do shudder a little bit at the implication it has. No longer will I be the cool teacher with the Awesome board, the one you get to have pizza with if your stick doesn’t get moved, the one that doles out classroom parties as if they were clean socks. Instead, I will be the one that shouts the praise the loudest to every kid. The one that talks to all my students and highlights all the things they did right. The one that creates more work for herself because talking rather than just placing a sticker takes more time, more effort, more thought. And I can’t wait. Will you join me?