4 years ago I decided that rewards in its most basic sense of trinkets, special events, and things to earn had no place in my classroom. I threw it all out, decided to go rewards free and then held my breath. 3 years ago my former school adopted PBIS. And I was in a dilemma. Questions like what do you do when you are anti-rewards but part of a school that has a school-wide reward system? What do you do when you are seemingly the only person like this? How do you follow the expectations and rules without betraying your own philosophy? surrounded my brain. Turns out I am not the only one in this situation. In fact, this is one of the most common emails I get from people who have read my book “Passionate Learners” or this blog; how do you fit into a school that does rewards when you don’t believe in it yourself?
It would be easy to say that you stand your ground. That you refuse to give them. That you tell everyone how wrong they are and that you will never, ever participate. But let’s be real. If I had done that it would have been put in my file as being a non-team player. I also would have looked like a jerk. And nobody wants to look like a jerk. So instead there is a few things you can do if you find yourself in this situation.
You can participate like everyone else. I did this my first year. I followed all of the expectations, didn’t ask any questions (for a while any way) and made sure I gave it a chance. I did not want to judge something that so many people loved before I had fully tried it. What I discovered helped me shape how I worked with the expectations in my own classroom.
I discovered that PBIS, or similar all school “management philosophies” works on noticing the positive. That I could stand behind. It also works on common expectations and common language. That I also believe in. So those parts were fine with me. What I didn’t like so much was the handing out of rewards to earn something materialistic, the singling out of certain students, and the exclusion of others. I had a hard time being okay with handing a student a ticket for walking properly in the hallway, following normal rules, and pretty much just doing what was expected. And yet I had to work with it, not against it and thus make it work. So, some ideas to work with this are:
- Create your own “awards”– rather than trading tickets in for things, my students could show them to me and get a thumbs up/wohoo/high five etc. This may sound totally ridiculous but my students work on being noticed for their great behavior and so I worked on noticing those. Often we get too busy with teaching that we don’t see or say when kids are being great, a few seconds here or there for positive call outs go a long way. So when students were awesome, I told them that. When students weren’t so awesome, I also told them that. They would rather have words from me than a ticket. However, if you have to hand out tickets for students to earn things, see if they can earn time with you, earn time to read more, earn time to read a picture book etc. That way you are still following school rules but getting rid of the trinkets.
- Have class parties. My students never earned these in the traditional sense, I would surprise them with a special afternoon when they had worked really hard. Parents knew and would help behind the scenes, but the students most of the time did not know it was coming. They never acted in a certain way to get something and no one ever lost the privilige to take part.
- Have students pick students to be recognized. I was put in the uncomfortable position or picking two kids to honor at an assembly. Uncomfortable because I really had a lot more than two that could have been honored. So instead of picking, I let the students vote. That way they were recognizing their peers, which meant more in the long run.
- Have them set their own rules. Yes, we were a PBIS school with PBIS rules, but I also wanted students to set their own expectations for behavior within our class. I wanted them to decide how they would get the most out of school by deciding what their learning environment should look like and feel like. This was not to replace what the school had decided but to supplement it. Students made rules that worked for them in their language and then modified/fine-tuned throughout the year.
- Plant a seed. It is okay to start a conversation on how PBIS or other all-school reward/award philosophies can be changed to fit your school and all kids better. You don’t have to come out with guns blazing, you can bring up small questions and points, thus planting the seed of change. You can discuss how you would rather not reward students with trinkets for what they are supposed to do, and then offer alternatives. You can discuss how you work with it in your class. You can also have students discuss it. When I asked my students whether they thought the tickets made a difference, some of them laughed. They did not care much about them and saw them as silly since it seemed random as to whether they got them and the prizes associated with them were not very good (gotta love 5th graders’ honesty).
- Band together. Find people who also question some of the philosophies and discuss it with them, this is not to form a terror group of “we are right, you are wrong” but rather to not be alone in presenting your views. If more than one person is questioning certain parts, a better conversation can be had with differing viewpoints.
- Make it work for you. I think we can take even some of the strictest systems and make them work for us by starting thoughtful conversations with those in charge, by asking for small tweaks and changes and explaining why. Don’t try to ridicule the system because parts of it does work, but find ways to work with it without making yourself sick. There are always battles to pick and fight, but compromise goes a long way as well. Yes, in a perfect world, we would not have to change our own philosophies to fit our school’s, but we work in buildings with many needs. What works for us may not work for others and if we model that belief we can create a space where we all fit.
I know I am not the only one in this boat, so what has worked for you?
I am a passionate teacher in Wisconsin, USA, who has taught 4, 5th, and 7th grade. Proud techy geek, and mass consumer of incredible books. Creator of the Global Read Aloud Project, Co-founder of EdCamp MadWI, and believer in all children. I have no awards or accolades except for the lightbulbs that go off in my students’ heads every day. First book “Passionate Learners – Giving Our Classrooms Back to Our Students” can be purchased now from Powerful Learning Press. Second book“Empowered Schools, Empowered Students – Creating Connected and Invested Learners” can be pre-ordered from Corwin Press now. Follow me on Twitter @PernilleRipp.