Illustrated by Tikumporn Boonchuaylue and Sutthiya Lertyongphati
Getting a handle on how to give sincere praise on a regular basis, and giving it regularly to the same students (i.e. all of our students), is a skill that the very best practitioners have mastered.
Praise is not the cute fluff-ball it appears to be, however. It is complex, dynamic and works effectively through a variety of methods. Let’s begin with a true story that illustrates the massive power of praise in teaching.
Joanne had recently qualified as a secondary school science teacher and had just started her new teaching post at an English comprehensive school. She was excited about the new challenges she would face. and was ready to put all of her training into action. She had been given responsibility for a Year 11 (age 15 – 16) general science class. Their previous teacher had left her some handover notes, and had specified that she must be careful when dealing with one student in particular: Damon. This young man was notorious for being argumentative, aggressive and non-cooperative. She was told that she must not con- front him under any circumstances. Naturally, Joanne was more than a little apprehensive when she met this class for the first time.
Damon walked into the science lab slightly later than the rest of his peers, and Joanne greeted him with a friendly “Welcome in young man, please take a seat”. This caused a giggle amongst the rest of the students, who were naturally expecting the same reaction that Damon’s other teachers would have given him – a good telling off! Damon sat down as instructed, but, being a feisty young teen ready to push the boundaries and test what he could get away with, he pulled out a can of cola and started to drink it at his desk (something that is generally not allowed in a science lab). Joanne, knowing what she had been told about Damon, decided on a very positive and useful approach: she decided to ignore this misdemeanor at that moment and proceed on with the lesson.
As the lesson proceeded, Joanne set a group work activity and walked around the classroom to see how the students were getting on. As she passed Damon, she noticed that he had a very neat and organized set of felt-tip pens on his desk, arranged in a very nice standalone display case. Joanne praised Damon with a “You’re so organised, Damon. It’s good to see that you’re prepared for your lessons. I wish that every student was as prepared as you are.”
What do you think Damon’s reaction was? – He was absolutely stunned! This was a young kid who was accustomed to being reprimanded, put on detention and confronted on a daily basis. Here was a new teacher who could actually see his worth, and what he could contribute. He lapped up the praise, and responded with an “Umm, err thanks. I always like to be ready for my lessons. I also love art”. This led to a short conversation about Damon’s love of drawing tattoo designs. Joanne subtly drew his attention to the artistic graphics on the cola can, and reminded him he couldn’t drink it in the science lab. He smiled.
Later that lesson, Joanne assigned him the role of ‘Work Presentation Chief’ for the class. Each lesson, from then on in, Joanne made sure that she praised Damon for his work, and allowed him to go around the class and assess the presentation skills of selected students. What was the effect on Damon? – He became Joanne’s best student. He felt empowered, because, like all human beings, he craved a sense of importance and he craved appreciation. When Damon achieved his grade C in GCSE Science that year (a massive accomplishment considering his turbulent history) he said to Joanne “It was all because of you, miss”. Even at that moment, Joanne praised him by responding with “You did all the hard work, Damon”.
Any fool can criticise, condemn and complain – and most fools do
What do most people do when they are criticized? How do most people respond when their character or judgement is scrutinized? Answer: most people try to justify themselves, and this often leads to resentment felt towards the person doing the complaining. Your students are no different in this respect than you or I. We all love to know that we’re doing a good job, and we all want to feel appreciated and important. Make your students feel appreciated by praising them often, and make sure you mean what you say!
The 4 main rules of praise
Every student we teach is different, and our styles of praise will naturally adapt to suit the personalities of each child. However, there are some fundamental rules that all forms of praise should follow (written rules follow the YouTube video):
Rule #1: Praise must be sincere
If you don’t mean it, then don’t say it. Kids are not easily tricked. Praise is only ever effective when the teacher saying the nice words of encouragement truly means it.
Rule #2: Praise must be specific
Does the student know exactly why they’ve done a great job? Does the student know what they did well?
Be specific. Here are some examples:
“Well done, John, for drawing your diagrams with a ruler. They look really neat and tidy, and I can tell that you’ve put time and effort into this work. I am very pleased. Keep it up”
“I’m so pleased with the excellent progress you have made this term, Rosie! Just look at these results: You’ve gone from a level 5 in test 1, then to a level 6 and now you’re working at a level 7. That’s very impressive, Thank you for your hard work and commitment”
Rule #3: Praise must be recorded and remembered by the teacher
Try keeping a professional intelligence journal.
I’ve written about the power of this technique before, but I’ll go through the process again for clarity.
Basically, at the start of every academic year you should purchase a new notebook. Make sure there are enough pages in it for every student. Every student gets a page.
On each page write down and record any significant interactions with the student. Record their birthdays, hobbies they have, times when they were praised, significant achievements in extra-curricular activities, etc.
Rule #4: Reinforce the praise at significant points in the future
Did you notice that my platoon sergeant praised me the next day? That was powerful, because she wasn’t actually there when I did the signals work, but someone had spoken with her.
Praise must be collective if it is to be truly effective. When a student does a great piece of work, tell your colleagues and your line manager. Ask them to reinforce your praise by giving their own praise to the student.
Reinforcement should also be self-driven – remind your students of previous achievements in order to empower their momentum.
“I remember the excellent Chemistry student who built the atomic structure model in Term 1. She said ‘I’ll find a way to suspend the protons in the middle’. Jessica, you’ve already shown me what a hard-working, committed student you are. This is your moment to shine once again. Put your best effort into this, I believe in you. I know you can do this!”