I sat down this morning, coffee at the ready, ready to write some advice to new teachers about the coming school year. I thought about the usual things – classroom management, organization, icebreakers, action research, personalizing, then for some strange reason I started thinking of Mr. Worth, my high school math teacher.
Mr. Worth was a string bean of a man always smiling. He always was standing outside of his classroom greeting every student and not just his own. Smiling, grinning, with a kind of Jim Carey stance – he’d shout out to each student, “Hey, James looking good today!” or “David, wow, what a game yesterday!” . He would do this all the time, over and over. To me, he was my educational human growth hormone. I felt good, I believed in myself, I tried my best because of him. And he did this for everyone in the school AND outside of school. You’d meet him in the mall and as you tried to avoid contact, he’d come rushing up and pat you on the back, saying, “I heard you are thinking of coaching soccer – great idea, you’d be wonderful at it!” or something such.
Mr. Worth did a few other things that I think are important to note. He always spent time asking us about our lives and talking “shop”. He’d sit at the front and blather back and forth with us about “Mork and Mindy” or the latest U2 album (I’m showing my age!). He’d laugh with us and be jovial – then, he’d roll up his sleeves and say – let’s get to work!
Doug (I’ll now call him Doug – I got to know him well enough after I left school) also had a unique way to give tests. We always had a review before a Friday test. He’d wink and say, “I can’t tell you these questions will be on the test but if you do these well – you’ll see much the same on the test!”. And we’d do the algebra problems and as we solved them, he’d keep winking and nudging as if it were a big game and he was telling us the answers. But HE WAS TELLING US THE ANSWERS! Sure enough, the next day, test day, the same questions were for the most part on the test. At least enough of them so a duffus at math like myself could do well and could learn.
Why am I telling you this – this personal stuff from my past? Well, I think that Doug knew what it takes to get a student to succeed – success! Nothing breeds success like success, so the old saying goes. Doug bred success not just through accomplishment but through the power of praise. We’d do well on the test and he’d personally say to those struggling (like myself), “wow, you did quite good, great work, keep at it!” And I did, I tried harder at math and though I didn’t have the greatest mark, I learned, I really learned!
Praise is so, so, so underrated by teachers. In my own years teaching, I’ve become convinced that teachers should be taught to praise students ad infinitum. We are as much cheerleaders as teachers. Failure is learned. Smart kids and not so smart kids can “fall off the map” if they don’t encounter praise from their teachers. It happens every minute of every day in our classrooms.
However, there are several things that a teacher has to do right when praising.
1. Make the praise specific. Don’t use generalities. Doug always praised a specific act, a specific state. He referenced the praise and in that way, we knew it was genuine and not just robotic, soulless. We knew he was aware and connected to us as individuals.
2. Make the praise about the “doing”, the achievement and not intelligence. Meaning, don’t praise a student saying, “You are so smart” , “You are the best”. This actually demotivates students and turns them off of learning at school. Why try when you are so smart and teachers think so? Read about Carol Dweck’s amazing research into praise and about the student Thomas – this should be read by all teachers at some point in their careers.
3. Praise is not encouragement. Praise is something that is sincere. If you endlessly encourage students, they will “achieve” to please others and not for the sake of learning. Praise can be an intrinsic motivator if it is sincere, spontaneous and given without any intention of manipulating the student’s behavior. Praise must be without conditions – encouragement usually comes with the unspoken, “you’re still no good – you aren’t there yet” feeling. This article outlines well these principles. Alfie Kohn scoffs at praising students – thinking we will create, “praise junkies”. I completely disagree. It is all in how it is done. Human behavior and psychology are not black and white or push button. I can only say he should stop self showmanship and aggrandizing and think a little deeper about things. If he ever wants to debate this, he knows where to find me.
So if I have one piece of advice to new teachers – accentuate success and the positive through praise. Be like Mr. Worth, as much as your personality will allow you.
And in ending, a big thank you to Doug. You’ve passed the torch and that’s all that a life needs to do – to be a “success”.
Interested in reading more on the notion of “Praise”? Start with Joe Bower’s powerful essay in ebook form.