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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