New Teacher Chronicles: Reward Systems
With less than a week left before we return to work and undergo intensive professional development training, I am trying to figure out what systems worked last year and if I should resurrect them for the new year. One of the things I am undecided about is my previous use of a reward system, which is known by my scholars as the “Science Star Raffle!” [insert jazz hands here]
The “Science Star Raffle” emerged as a reactive survival tactic in the middle of the school year. Other teachers and I were struggling with classroom behavior management, and I ran with the idea of using raffle tickets for a raffle reward system. It ran parallel to the school’s merit/demerit system; scholars received a raffle ticket when they were “caught” by the teacher doing the following things:
- demonstrating academic excellence
- performing kind/generous acts
- showing courtesy and respect to others
- showing one, or all, of our school core values
When scholars received a raffle ticket, they would sign their initials on the back and pass it on to the Raffle Monitor who kept track of the tickets in a bucket. (The Raffle Monitor is instructed only to collect tickets during a break in direct instruction or independent learning times.) At the end of class, three scholars were chosen randomly from the bucket and they were each given the opportunity to pick a mystery prize from the Raffle Jar. There were slips of folded paper in a jar, which listed a variety of rewards such as…
- Friday lunch date with the teacher
- A classroom job of their choice
- Teacher’s assistant for the day
- A No Homework pass
- A “Good Note” home
- A fancy pencil or eraser
- A fancy button
- A “brain” mint
Sometimes at a beginning of a unit or right after a holiday break, I threw in one slip for “Invite to Cupcake Party” or some type of an end of the month food incentive. When class was particularly horrible one day, I threw away raffle tickets in the recycling bin or chose only one scholar to pick a prize. Sometimes I shut down the raffle and told them to try again the next day. When class was particularly stellar, I added Star Student nominations (extra scholars).
In the beginning, it worked really really well. Scholars loved the challenge and they competed against each other for the most tickets. However, it was not a sustainable system for me financially. On top of other student-teacher school activities that cost me money out of pocket, it was too expensive to keep the price box stocked, even with dollar-store items. Those raffle tickets were also quite expensive—we were literally throwing away rolls each month!
Over time, I also began to heavily question the effect of the rewards system on the learning environment. Scholars started to expect rewards for things that they should be doing anyway. They no longer said thank you, or congratulated a peer for a job well done. I tried to wean them off by distributing less raffle tickets and providing more verbal positive praise and non-verbal gestures, but they began to ask questions about it. Some became less motivated in class, while others simply shrugged their shoulders and moved on. I realized that the raffle system conditioned them to be more extrinsically motivated, which was the complete opposite of what I wanted them to be.
I want them to be intrinsically motivated– to feel rewarded by the feeling of a job well done, or a challenge they took on and tried. I guess as a new teacher this is something I do not yet really know how to explicitly do. These are some of the things I wish they taught you in college, or even grad school! Anyways, the more I think about it, part of me do not want to bring back this system next year. With new administrators and a new discipline system, all teachers are working hard to be consistent school-wide with their classroom behavior management so the problems we saw last year should not reoccur this year.
Another part of me though is still stuck on the rewards system. I mean, when I was a middle-school student, I craved gold stars and recognition from my teachers. Maybe I don’t have to buy rewards like cupcakes, pencils, and stickers. What about sticking with good experiences, like extra reading time at the end of class? Or picking a class job, or having lunch with the teacher? Surely those are more rewarding, no?
I would love to hear from other teachers about their experiences and feedback regarding reward systems in the classrooms, especially in middle school. If I were to bring back the reward system next year, how can I make it more meaningful and purposeful? Or, should I do away with it entirely?