I’ve worked with thousands of lovely teachers over the years, and one thing I especially love is when they tell me funny stories about the rewards they have created. There is the Hallelujah Button, which plays the Hallelujah Chorus. That button gets pressed maybe once a term, but when it does – well, Hallelujah! obviously. Signed Celebrity Photos make me giggle. Rip a photo from a celebrity magazine, sign it with a message from the kid’s favourite celebrity, and hand it over nonchalantly as you pass the desk. “Ronaldo asked me to give this to you,” you say, as the kid does a double take. Then there is the Ask Me What I’ve Done badge. A big yellow badge worn by a child who has done something good or kind or nice. The Shoebox of Shame isn’t actually a reward, but it qualifies for this blog on the basis that it is a very funny idea. Caught using your phone? In The Shoebox, please.
I once taught a kid who liked the teachers to put the stickers on him. He would end up with them on his hands, his arms, his face – for some reason stickers were his thing. One day he turned up at my class, covered in stickers. He beamed a massive smile at me, pointed at his cheek, and said, “I’m having a really good day, Miss, but I saved a space for you.” Although the *very best thing* is obviously for children to be intrinsically motivated to learn, this is not really possible all of the time. At preschool we don’t use a reward system, because the children are motivated anyway – playing is fun! The thing about extrinsic rewards is that they act as a sweetener, when things get tough. They are a bridge between I Want To and You Have To. We don’t need to go over the top – keep the main thing the main thing. But rewards are part of a relationship between you and your class – they can say “I’m pleased” as well as “you get this if you do what I told you to do”.
Interestingly, sanctions are a type of extrinsic motivator: I do this to you, because you did that. But you don’t do them with the children, you do them to them. Used to excess, sanctions can exert a negative pull on motivation. No one wants to be punished all the time. (It would be handy if the DfE and Ofsted understood this concept.) Yes, sanctions are necessary, but don’t forget to focus on the positive first. I often ask teachers the question, “Why do you turn up for work every day?”. This gets a laugh (my mortgage!) but people quickly start to talk about the real reasons – they love the teamwork, the challenge, the children. Young people don’t get paid to be in the classroom, and sometimes they don’t especially want to be there. If we want them to be motivated all the time, and not just some of it, we need to give them a reason to want to.learn. I understand the value of a growth mindset and high expectations, but it can’t all be up to them, because otherwise what are we doing there? I can control your behaviour by punishing you, but no one enjoys a sanction. Rewards might have their drawbacks, but at least we are rewarded by rewards.