How I motivate my students and manage my classroom without reward systems

Read the following quotes, I’m going to be reflecting on them in relation to my philosophy of teaching and learning around motivation and classroom management and what all of that looks like in my classroom.

Babies cry for a reason. It’s never ‘spoiling’ your baby to take his baby’s cries seriously, and to respond to them. Babies are not manipulative, and don’t cry to wind you up – they cry to communicate distress, and need you to ‘put things right’, if you can.

A consistent response to your baby’s needs allows your baby to gain confidence and understanding that you’re around for her and she can trust you – he’ll learn to wait for attention eventually, but right now she needs you to come to her straight away. Research shows very clearly that babies who’ve been cared for in this responsive way cry less as they get older. (BBC Health)

Immediate response to a baby’s cry went unquestioned for thousands of years until recent times. In our culture, we assume that crying is normal and unavoidable for babies. Yet in natural societies where babies are carried close to the care-giver much of the day and night for the first several months, such crying is rare. In contrast to what many in our society would expect, babies cared for in this way show self-sufficiency sooner than do babies not receiving such care.

In fact, research on early childhood experiences consistently shows that children who have enjoyed the most loving care in infancy become the most secure and loving adults, while those babies who have been forced into submissive behaviour build up feelings of resentment and anger that may well be expressed later in harmful ways. (Jan Hunt – The Natural Child Project)

What cry research tells us. Researchers Sylvia Bell and Mary Ainsworth performed studies in the 1970’s that should have put the spoiling theory on the shelf to spoil forever. (It is interesting that up to that time and even to this day, the infant development writers that preached the cry-it-out advice were nearly always male. It took female researchers to begin to set things straight.) These researchers studied two groups of mother-infant pairs. Group 1 mothers gave a prompt and nurturant response to their infant’s cries. Group 2 mothers were more restrained in their response. They found that children in Group 1 whose mothers had given an early and more nurturant response were less likely to use crying as a means of communication at one year of age. These children seemed more securely attached to their mothers and had developed better communicative skills, becoming less whiny and manipulative. (

Each time you try to respond promptly to your newborn’s cries, you simply send your baby a message that you’re there to tend to her needs. (Dartmouth-Hitchcock)

So, no, I don’t teach like my hair is on fire. I don’t really think that Rafe Esquith does either. He teaches like his heart is on fire, and that’s the greatest thing a teacher can offer his/her students. And when you are reading about astounding things that others are doing, don’t get overwhelmed by the how’s. Focus on the why’s. When you do that, you will find inspiration to light the fires of your students. (Kelly Hines)

Be genuinely interested, caring, kind, and loving to your students.
It’s that simple.
It’s that hard. (Michael Doyle)

And finally, Monday morning @chucksandy tweeted in my ear

“If you treat people right & show you care about them you’re going to do some amazing things” says @gcouros.

Last year I started to teach French as a 2nd Language at an elementary school in Eastern Ontario. Slightly out of my comfort zone as I had been teaching High School everything (I was an alternative school teacher at different schools) for many years before that. The school board promotes the use of the AIM Language Learning method, of which a large component is the use of coupons for using French. So I started to use them – after all, they were part of the program.

Then I remember who I am as a teacher, and I stopped.

I remember writing, just before I began teaching as a French teacher:

I am not interested in offering rewards. I don’t want to raise a group of trained seals who will do anything for a candy.

I think the answer lies somewhere in here:

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.— Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

in creating learning situations where they must speak the 2nd language in order to participate and where they will want to participate…

So what do I do when I remember who I am as a teacher?

It starts off with my being wholly present to them as their teacher. I remain accessible. I love them. I remain interested in who they are and excited for them. I am also interested in who I am and excited for what I am teaching them. Excitement, interest, and love is contagious :)

I taught French so we talked a lot. I told them stories, they told me stories. Very quickly we established that French class was for talking and we created a safe place for that to happen. I probably had the noisiest classes in the school. For the most part they were good noisy. When the noise started to be more English than French and becoming more waste of time noisy, I intervened and got us back on track or switched gears, depending on what was necessary. We played games a lot :) At the same time, I knew that there were some students who needed to be allowed to speak English in order to learn to speak French. So I let that happen. For some students, I only spoke to them in French. For others, I made sure to ask them about their day, their pet, their grandmother in English.

When things didn’t go so well, I was also present for them. When students were consistently not doing the work expected of them we’d have lunch dates (actually after lunch dates, we ate first then worked) to get the work done. Sometimes the work wasn’t being done because they were fooling around, sometimes because they needed some extra time, sometimes because they needed some extra help. The lunch dates worked for all of those reasons. When things weren’t going so well socially and it carried over into class I was also present for them. I’d get the rest of the class going on some activity (it was usually for these times I’d save the quieter seat work) and we’d go to a (semi) private area of the classroom and address the issue together.

That was an example from elementary school, where I taught basic French (50 minutes/day) to students from JK – Grade 6. Most of the classes were split grades and the students in each class ranged from being able to speak French fluently to zero French language ability (or desire), some students were reading and writing above their age level, some had learning disabilities, a few had autism. I had anywhere from 15 students (JK/SK class) to 34 students per class.

Before teaching French I taught a variety of subjects to students in Grades 10 and 11, in an alternative program where I had about 18 students per group and where our first job was getting the students to come to school and to take responsibility for their learning so they could graduate high school before turning 18.

Again, though the context was different, creating a safe environment for learning was the key to successful learning. Being present. Caring. Flexible. About what, how and who I was teaching. In this setting we didn’t have lunch dates, we had after school dates but for the same reasons as in the elementary school: for students who needed more time, who didn’t complete work, who needed more me, who needed a quiet place to work – they had a date with me after school. When social issues trumped academic activity, we dealt with it so that work could get done.

Celebration in both settings happened for its own sake and wasn’t tied to behaviour.

I left that job because I moved. At first I travelled the 3 hours a day for work but it quickly took its toll and the travel time left less of me available to be present at work. I wasn’t doing a good job being present and it wasn’t fair to me, my students, or my colleagues (not to mention my dogs with their legs crossed at home when I stayed until 5, 6, or later with students :) ) Being present, caring, excited, and interested about my teaching and students is so tied into what I do as a teacher that I felt I was becoming a lousy teacher. I had to stop.

They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Showing my students my genuine interest in them as people is worth so much more than a sticker chart or a jar of marbles.

It doesn’t happen right away, it’s a process. Just like any other relationship, even like the relationship mothers have with their newborns: if I show them that I am present for them when they most need it they learn to trust and become more confident about their learning. Its a process so worth going through. Each and every time.

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