Merry Christmas everybody! Isn’t it nice to be off work? I hope you’re all feeling as relaxed and refreshed as I am.
I’m also feeling reflective. I’m thinking about praise; more precisely I’m thinking abut compliments.
Be specific: I have talked about the importance of being specific in your praise of students rather than lavishing students with fluffy, unfocused praise like a cuddly but heavy synthetic blanket. So “Good job!”, “Wow, you’re so clever!”, “Great answer!” and any other pithy enthusiastic utterance with a silent exclamation mark at the end is out, to be replaced by “Well done on using the correct terminology”, “I like the way you justified that answer” or even, for those kids who often pose problems by being confrontational “Well done for taking off your coat without being asked”.
Unfocused praise washes over kids – it’s not meaningful and it conveys low expectations because it’s patronising. It has no effect on behaviour for the same reason and because it’s so non-specific that kids can’t even be sure it’s addressed to them.
Be personal: talk to the student privately about what they have done that warrants your approval. Stand by them and point to specifics on their work. Picking out three things to commend and then following them with a suggestion as to how to improve even further , a verbal three stars and a wish, is always a winner.
“Look at this work, Emma! That’s a great opening rhetorical question, then you’ve paragraphed really carefully and remembered to put all speech in speech marks. Well done! Now just think about adding some intensifiers to make your work even more interesting.”
Catching a student as they leave the class and pointing out specifics of what they’ve done well is a good way of creating a bond with a student.
“Just a moment, Sam. I don’t know what got into you today but that was a cracking lesson – it really looked like the penny dropped about this topic. Do you feel that way too?…”
Everyone likes to be noticed – not everyone wants it to be in the full glare of the whole class.
Praise what is worthy of praise: Don’t praise for the sake of it. Coming to the end of a tough lesson and saying “you’ve all worked very hard” when six of them have done the bare minimum or less does not make you look like a good teacher; it makes you look like a mug. Stamping work enthusiastically with the “Good work!” stamper without really looking at it betrays a lack of interest in whether they do well or not.
So far, so obvious.
But all of these are examples of extrinsic praise, complimenting people on what they do.
When was the last time you complimented someone? What was it for? Odds are that you complimented someone on something that they did, either for you or for someone else.
What compliments do you really remember for years? Was it for something that you did, or was it for who you are and for the values that you hold? I bet it was the second. This is intrinsic praise. From time to time, we shouldn’t be scared of complimenting students on who they are.
“You’re a very kind person – you always seem to be the one who lends someone a pen.”
“You’re very brave – I always notice how you try to do more than is expected.”
“You’re curious – I like that, always wanting to know more will take you a long way in life.”
“I admire you – you’ve had a lot to put up with in your life and you keep going, aiming high, doing well. That type of resilience is very rare.”
This kind of personal interaction goes to the heart of the teacher-student relationship. These are the kind of conversations which students will remember.
And conversely, I will always remember the day my history teacher said the following to the 14 year-old me.
“You remind me of Charles I, Frances. Like him, you are stubborn and weak.”
This woman was also the Head of the boarding house in which I lived for four years, meaning we shared a roof for a long time, and yet I don't remember a single other thing she said to me. Don’t do that. Don’t be like her!