Learning How to De-Motivate Teachers from Our Middle Schools

Recently, I read an article on shaming in our elementary schools that showed how teachers at one school put student reading scores on the walls outside teachers’ classrooms.  I understand the need to motivate with intrinsic rewards, especially in early childhood but, I never use stickers or treats.

The other day I was talking to an 8th grade student who attends a well-respected middle school. He mentioned that there is a great deal of focus on “school spirit” since a new principal took over. This student is an A student and is highly motivated. He mentioned that at the last pep rally, the school gave out a new recognition for student GPA.

Students received one of three different colored cards, or nothing at all. These cards could be used for an additional 5 points on a test, a no homework pass, or an ice cream party. It  turns out that they set the cutoff for recognition at a C average with each corresponding letter grade of GPA. This meant that less than 10 % (percent) of the student body didn’t get recognized. Sounds okay – unless you are the “non-proficient” kid.  Essentially high-performers were told that school should be made easier for them; the others needed to work harder. I understand that school spirit is important. I understand that it is easy to believe that some students are motivated by extrinsic rewards (even though a multitude of psychologists would disagree) but, old habits are hard to break.

However, this is not why I am writing this post. Wait for it. Here it comes. The cards LITERALLY ranked students by GPA according to military ranks.

  • A Average = General

  • B Average = Colonel

  • C Average = Lieutenant

Apparently the Military Industrial Complex is alive and well in our public schools.

But wait, it gets worse. This type of flawed behavioral and business based practice is not just used on students. I learned recently that several local schools are attempting to incentivize professionalism with fake money. Yes, that popular classroom management scheme popularized by B.F. Skinner and further implemented in the workplace is now being turned on teachers.

Of course, it is one thing to use a token economy with kids, but teachers are professionals. (Aren’t they?). In some schools teachers get “behavior bucks” for turning in lesson plans, attending PTA meetings, and even attending child study meetings. These behavior bucks can then be used to “buy” gift cards and other nominal rewards.

It is as if, instead of actually paying teachers to be professionals who care deeply about their work someone in administration has decided to pretend to pay teachers for doing what any committed teacher would do without any incentive besides the benefit to students.

My stomach turns just thinking about it. I mean, it is bad enough that teachers offer students gift cards to local yogurt bars as prizes in competitive learning competitions but then they are expected to turn around and jump through the same hoops. Is this really a microcosm of the world we are trying to create? Are world in which every action has an instantaneous and meaningless reward that we can use for prizes. Is learning not enough? Is making a difference in the life of a student not enough? Is the business model in education really that narcissistic?

If my school were to try to do something like this I would fight it tooth and nail. I would likely revert to my pre-teacher persona that was constantly trying to drive wedges into the cracks in our unequal and insufficiently human educational system. It would de-motivate me to the point of insurrection. Sadly, many of the teachers in these schools view this type of reform as, “the way it is.” They will keep their head down and wait for the next fad reform to blow through their school when they could be creating something entirely relevant for students and teachers. The energy required to kowtow to this type of mistake costs our schools progress. This is exactly the type of thing that would not happen if teachers were asked how to improve their schools.

Image remixed: @jmholland

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  • BillIvey

    Takes me back…

    .. to when one of our Deans of Students instituted a points-based disciplinary system in my school, which she announced for the first time in the fall back-to-school meetings. I was appalled and furious and, after forcing myself to cool down for long enough so that I would sound reasonably rational and have half a chance of making my point heard, I talked to her and successfully got the middle school eliminated from the system.

    I would refuse Behavior Bucks, and depending on my relationship with any administrator who attempted to give me one, I would explain that this plan manages to be simulataneously insulting and demeaning on the one hand, and pointlessly rinkydink on the other. Even if I were motivated externally (which I most decidedly am not!!!), this would not work. Please tell me this article was in the media and not in an actual educational publication.

    I would certainly start looking for a new job if it appeared this system was actually catching on. And it wouldn’t have to be great to be better.

    Do you get the feeling I don’t love this plan?!

    • JohnHolland

      Making your point heard

      I think the key point in your experience Bill is”after forcing myself to cool down for long enough so that I would sound reasonably rational and have half a chance of making my point heard, I talked to her and successfully got the middle school eliminated from the system” I think this is not necessarily an experience that out teacher preparation or our profession considers consistent with the educational system; or even possible. I have done similar things in my schools with principals I respect but when I bring it up in my courses in college it all I can hear is a dull thud as my suggestion bangs up against my students’ perception of reality.

  • SandyMerz

    No, behavior bucks for teachers? Noooooo

    Do you remember the video that was going around last year that showed Chicago teachers in PD? Bucks for teachers is right there as one of the most embarassing things our profession has come up with ever.


    • JohnHolland


      No one should be talked to like that. Not kids. Not teachers. I understand giving people the words but…. blech!

  • TriciaEbner

    Still baffled and a bit speechless . . .

    I read this yesterday morning and kind of like Bill, had to walk away and gather my thoughts. I’ll admit I’m still baffled. 

    Sometimes I think these kinds of things come up as a way of addressing concerns that leadership has with one or two people. I don’t quite understand why those concerns aren’t directly addressed. Why not talk to those individuals, rather than doing something like this to the entire staff? Calm, logical discussion is a cornerstone of problem-solving. 

    Yeah, if our profession heads in this direction, I am most definitely going to be questioning what in the world is going on . . . 

  • Melissa Hoffman-Long

    Competition or collaboration…

    At our school bonuses are given every year. No one ever knows how much is in the pool, no one every really knows who decides who gets how much or why, but it has been made clear that part of the detemination on whether you feel like an awesome, life-changing teacher or a failure when that check gets deposited in July is your passing rate. I could write a whole thesis on this topic because it fires me up so much, but my major issue with this system is that education is supposed to be based on collaboration. At least in my philosophy. So every year each department gets ranked on their passing rates, and a few other arbitrary things, like student attendance in each teacher's class (excused absences do count against you) and then the money (if there is any-they like to hold it out there every year and threaten budget cuts, then they do not have to give raises and everyone is grateful they got some crappy bonus AND they have a job com August-brilliant bait and switch technique, sorry got off topic), then the money is dispensed based on how you compare to your peers. This is incredibly demoralizing AND it creates an environment where people are less likely to work together for a common goal, our students, and more likely to be cut-throat. I have brought up at so many meetings that the bonus system it is not appropriate for education. In education we should be hiring and supporting teachers that are invested in their career and their students. If we need to rely on creating an environment that assumes not everyone is doing that, and then "reward" those who are based on things that are not really in their control, then there is a much bigger problem school-wide and it is not a reflection of the teachers. That being said, it is amazing to me how loud money talks and how blind people can be to the big picture. Last year a few colleagues and I put forth the idea that the bonus should be cut, and everyone should just get paid a little more. It did not go over well.

    • BillIvey

      I admire you.

      What you and your colleagues did, in this climate, was brave. It was also exactly what schools should, in my own opinion, be doing with bonus money. I’d like to think, if my school ever inflicted that on us (which fortunately is extremely unlikely), I would have the courage to go to the administration and tell them I do not want any part of that bonus system.

    • marsharatzel

      How can we change things?

      Dear Melissa,

      I couldn’t agree with you more.  But I also feel like the incentives (beyond one’s personal pride and sense of professionalism) for being exceptional aren’t there.  The way we are paid now, where everyone gets exactly the same raise regardless of their effort, their performance or how well they relate to students, is a real dis-incentive to go above and beyond.

      For me what’s been disheartening is to work long hours tutoring, lesson planning and writing individualized feedback on student work while the teacher next door coaches.  We spend the same number of hours working with students.  Except that teacher makes almost $15,000 a year more than I do because coaching is considered extra pay….in order to devote that much time to coaching, the teacher has students grade their own papers and call out their scores and only offers tutoring once a week for 30 minutes before school.

      How is that fair?  

      I agree that what happens in your school is terrible.  But isn’t this just as terrible where we are all treated “equally”?  What can we do?

  • Deborah Tasker-Brady


    I wonder how educators would feel if thier over all education status of the grades they received as an educator and while students in college were posted on that very same wall.  They should realize that if Average is the highest achievement that they can garner from their pupils they have a really big problem. These kids wont have the skill set to even be hired by a fast food restaurant. Low skill sets are wrong.