Tuesday, 11 February 2014

'What do the good kids get?' A short blog post on rewarding those that love learning.

It's true to say that a large proportion of teacher time can end up spent devising systems and planning strategies and approaches for children who find it difficult to engage with learning and behave well.  For whatever reason, where we recognise that there is a barrier for a child between them and learning we throw our hearts and souls into reducing it as much as we can.  Even removing it, if we can.  We have that as our core purpose and hold the belief that good systems for reducing barriers to learning benefit all children.  We may also feel that those that don't have barriers there are the privileged.  That to love learning and be unhindered in that love is reward in itself.

From time to time though throughout my career I have encountered the 'but what about the good kids?' question.  It's perfectly valid for staff to feel that those children who make a sustained effort to work hard and behave well all of the time deserve reward. At times I have myself worried that the lion's share of my energy and time is spent on children, and parents, who don't behave toward me or my staff in a respectful way.  It can even make our thinking as teachers and leaders disproportionate.  The feeling that there is a huge problem with disrespect around school when actually the quiet majority are just that, quiet. The loud minority are very loud, but a minority nonetheless.

At my last school, a large primary in a deprived area where I was Deputy Head, we had the 'but what about the good kids?' chat at SLT. We decided to reward them with a gold certificate every term.  This was for every child that hadn't lost a single minute of golden time.  At the end of the year, if they had all of their certificates they got a golden medal.  A couple of slightly unexpected things happened.  Some expected things did too, like the desolate faces of the children who knew very well they would never get one but we'd already reconciled that in our minds with the rewards they regularly got.  The unexpected bit was though that the really good kids started to have golden time taken away after we introduced this for things like talking.  It was like staff were watching them harder.  Having never had to cope with that before they were devastated.  It was like we weren't satisfied with trying to deal with the children who found it hard to behave, now we'd made it harder for the children that found it easy! The other thing that happened was really good kids arguing decisions about removal of golden time when they thought it was unfair, which of course then got them into more trouble!  We introduced the medal idea for valid reasons and we all believed it was right, but looking back perhaps not, or maybe it was the linking to golden time, who knows.  The Head there is amazing and has taken the school from bottom end of satisfactory to top end of good in really challenging circumstances so I'm sure it got tweaked but I just include it as an example of where extrinsic reward can go as awry for the well behaved as it can for the poorly behaved.

My daughter is year 5 and she is a good girl.  She works hard, loves learning and I'm told she's a pleasure to teach.  As I tucked her into bed last night she said 'Oh mum, Mr Grant came to find me at lunchtime to tell me he'd marked my assessments and I got a 5C.  He was really proud of me.' She was made up, glowing with pride.  Mr Grant is a fabulous teacher, he has a strict but caring manner.  He's humorous and she likes him very much, he doesn't bandy compliments around unless they are very well deserved.  The fact that he'd taken the time to come and find her at lunchtime, the fact that he was proud of her. To her that made every bit of work she had put in worth it.

My husband is teaching a bit of the time again now.  In the year 3 class he has sometimes there's a girl he calls Dave, don't ask me why -apparently her mum doesn't mind!  He has a bit of jokey banter with Dave, she's a quiet girl who always gets on and works hard.  But she needs to know her learning is noticed and appreciated.  Last year in his year 6 class he had a very quiet lad called Stratton.  A very clever boy but needed bringing out of himself a bit.  My husband put him  in charge of the assembly music and they had a bit of quiet daily banter about it.  I visited one day and at the end of assembly as Stratton walked to the line after putting the music away he jokingly shook his fist and said 'Moore!' My husband did the same gesture and said 'Stratton!' The lad had a little laugh to himself.  Anyone who has heard David Didau speak about stuck strategies may remember 'ask Chloe.'  This was in a class he had that constantly fussed.  If the fuss was beneath his contempt as teacher he would refer them to Chloe, a sensible hard working lass who would then put them straight.  Which she loved.

Great teachers like Mr Grant, David Didau, and my husband get how to reward the good kids.  They capitalize on their love of learning, allow them to explore humour and praise them so that they grow a bit.   They also show that they have taken time to be proud of achievements.  A positive word at lunchtime or a quick phone call home can mean as much if not more than a certificate or medal.  The value in loving learning is reinforced and the love of learning continues.