In Praise of Praise

Thumbs_up_by_WakalaniI 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.

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Teacher trainer, technology specialist, educational thinker...creator of EFL Classroom 2.0, a social networking site for thousands of EFL / ESL teachers and students around the world.

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2 Responses

  1. Hi David,

    The problem with praise is when it’s done for no reason at all and then it just sounds empty, as if the teacher were just some sort of praising machine who says “Great”, “Fantastic”, Fabulous”, and “Superb” for anything that students say in class.

    I really agree with you on the idea that one of the things that makes students succeed is success. As a matter of fact, what keeps us going whenever we’re trying to do anything in life is succeeding in whatever task it is. If you spend a whole month on a diet and you lose half a pound, you’re probably abandoning the diet. If you’re trying to learn how to play the guitar and after one month you can play a full song, you’re likely to keep practising because you suddenly know you can do it!

    When it comes to learning, we sometimes need other to tell us we’re making progress, and how wonderful would it be if all teachers remember that and were able to do it as judiciously as you suggest. The three pieces of advice you offer are paramount if praising is to do any good. Just the same, students should also be made aware of the fact that they’re failing when they’re not giving you their very best.

    What a complicated thing this teaching business is, huh?! But it would never be as rewarding and as much fun as it is if it were simple. 🙂



  2. ddeubel says:


    I’m in total agreement about teaching not being “simple”. That’s why it is experience more than anything that matters. And you are right, it always provides us with the opportunity to learn. “If you think you know how to teach – you don’t know how to teach” would be my Buddhist dictum.

    Yes, it is all how the praise is done. Not to over complicate it though. Teachers just should be very sincere and “connect” to the student’s activity when they praise. As you noted – just “good job” and “well done” are not enough and quickly become demotivating and trite.

    I’m not sure about telling students they are “failing”. I don’t see any “win” with that though I suppose in some circumstances it might work. I don’t think a direct approach works – I’ve tried that “hard talk”. I find a little sugar goes much further though it takes time and patience on the part of the teacher and administration. It is about setting up a positive school culture too – even more important and that would be another post.

    Thanks for dropping in.


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