I agree with my former principal that report card grades should reflect students’ academic ability. Effort, quality of work, work ethic, general ethics, networking, maximizing personal strengths, minimizing personal weaknesses, aptitude, manipulating a set of circumstances to your personal or financial benefit, discipline, devotion, and teamwork are not generally reflected in academic pursuits. They are greatly reflected in professional success. They are assessable skills, and as such, they should play an integral part in your classroom.
I know almost nothing about the military. I was, however, once a soccer player, and I know that I worked out for about a million hours, read about a million pages, and cared about a million units of measurement about my soccer team in order to become a co-captain during my senior year. There were four of us on a team of twenty-ish, if I recall, not exactly a lofty achievement.
This chart is created each year when students scream "Mister! We work better and harder when we listen to music in the background of our work!!!" I let them try it our for one assignment, and then compare the completion and proficiency ratings before and after music allowance, and the above has always proven true. Yes. I do draw adequate flames all by myself.
My understanding from several friends in the military is that making the next rank is accompanied by more honor and responsibility than real financial gain. My real life knowledge from a soccer team is that I worked really hard for a designation that means virtually nothing. There’s no reason that a classroom can’t run the same way.
Make everything assess-able, and have appropriate rewards and consequences for everything that happens. If you do this well, kids will do hours of work to sit in a specific seat that you’ve designated as the most important, even though it is quantifiably no different than any other seat in the classroom.
Kids work hard for fake rewards that cost teachers nothing. It’s all about how you pitch the rewards, and how you quantify the success required to achieve those awards. Make an impossible academic and moral target for kids to reach and reward it with a $0.39 magnet from the thrift store that reads “Ninja Master.” Kids will move heaven and Earth to earn that magnet and hang it in their locker from November to June. Ironically, often times more ‘real’ rewards that are more common, like $210 candy and pizza parties, often do not inspire kids at all because they’re so used to getting them. It’s always awesome when something that’s cheaper actually yields a better result. I currently allow each class’ top student to choose the image that tops their Google Classroom. It is literally free, and costs one minute of my time. Kids work harder for that than for pizza. Learning for pizza doesn’t work.
**If you haven’t realized by now, I cannot prove that cheap and useless rewards yield better results. I did not do any research. I just teach real kids and my classroom is genuinely a zen learning paradise.
Buy one lightly used trophy that reads “Chautauqua County Bowling Runner Up 1987” and offer it weekly to the student with the highest overall average. All of a sudden, ten kids are competing with vigor to keep that trophy in their locker for one more week. The reward doesn’t have to be “real” by any standard in order for it to have a real effect on student performance.
You don’t believe me? If you know any runners, ask them about the Boston Marathon. It’s spoken of in hushed tones and whispers. It has its own ‘BQ’ acronym. I would do anything to qualify for the Boston Marathon (I’ve never been closer than 54 minutes away from qualifying -- an eternity, I’m over two minutes/mile too slow), and many runners feel the same. If the Devil showed up in my office tonight, at 12:08 A.M. and offered me a BQ time in the marathon this spring in exchange for my soul I’d happily make the trade, and offer him the finest of boxed wine served in regifted, thrift-store wine glasses my salary offers him. The reason we runners love the Boston Marathon so much is because it has stringent and arbitrary qualification standards. I only want to qualify to prove that I can qualify for Boston. I can run marathons. I can visit Boston whenever I want. Running a marathon in Boston has an almost spiritual significance in the lives of many runners simply because it’s hard to achieve.
The trick to successfully using rewards like these is to find a way to make positive behavior quantifiable, measurable, and assessable. You can’t just give these rewards to kids you think deserve it, because that just ends up as an argument and a rousing screaming match about favoritism. Want kids to come make up the work they missed? Offer a seat at the wheely chair for the first student to get five teacher signatures proving they stayed after school for help. Want kids to use more polite words? Have a goal for your students to start treating each other respectfully? Make a bunch of those super-cheap rubber-bandy bracelets and give them out to students each time they use a positive word or phrase. Then, challenge the students who accumulate lots of bracelets to give them out to other students when they use positive words or phrases. It’s not that hard. You probably don’t even need to buy rubber band bracelets, most kids would do it just for normal rubber bands to put on their wrist, or to blast their friends in the eye in the classrooms of teachers who don’t know how to manage a classroom.
In order for any assessable measurement to work, it’s imperative that you follow through quickly with all the behaviors you assess. Make it small, quick, cheap, and manageable. (“Cheap” needs to be by both time and money standards.) I know of lots of teachers and students who do hours of paperwork and have elaborate reward systems that work alright. My time is valuable enough to me that I’d rather get alright results from a minimal time commitment. Great results from a huge time commitment means I am working harder than my students, which is not what I go for. Acceptable results from a great time commitment is useless. Unmeasured results from an unmeasured time commitment is useless. I want a big bang for my classroom management time buck. I want measurable, noticeable change by tomorrow, not in six weeks, and I want it to cost me seven dollars and seven minutes, not seventy dollars and seventy minutes.
So much of the writing published about education is published by people who don't teach. I figured it was time for a teacher to write about teaching. I've been proud to teach 8th-grade ELA in Dunkirk City Schools since 2007, and to serve at Fredonia State University as an adjunct professor, teaching educational technology since 2017.