If you happen to be reading through teacher evaluation rubrics for different school districts, (I mean, doesn’t everyone do that regularly) and you navigate to the section on classroom management/student behavior, you will likely notice the description of top-level teachers is nearly the same. In some states these teachers are called highly effective, in others they’re distinguished or superior. No matter the adjective, when reading the description of a top-notch classroom manager, you will see that they are encouragers, praisers, and facilitators of self-discipline. I had a conversation recently with a young teacher on the rise about classroom management, and I was reminded of my journey into the realm of positive feedback.
In the Fall of 2010, after teaching two years of High School Anatomy & Physiology, Biology, and Physical Science, I found myself teaching 7th grade science. The traditional model of negative consequences for undesirable behaviors never really worked well for me teaching high school, but I chalked that up to just being young and new to the profession (I went to school to be a doctor, not a teacher). When I began teaching in middle school, however, I thought the larger age-gap and my two whole years of experience would surely change things. [Insert eye roll here] I realized quickly I needed a different way of managing the behavior of my 12- and 13-year-old budding scientists! So, I turned to the internet and Goggled “classroom management strategies” and was bombarded with information that I began to sift through. As I was reading through the articles, I noticed many of them revolved around the concept of positive feedback, which was not “my style” at the time, but as I read, I was reminded of something a former assistant principal told me after one of my official observations. He told me I needed to praise my students more for doing ordinary things correctly like answering questions, keeping their feet on the floor, and returning supplies, etc. At the time I thought he’d lost his mind, but as I sat there in my classroom, on a weekend, reading post after post about the benefits of positive feedback, I thought, “Well, nothing else is working.”
I stumbled upon an article about a classroom management model for use at the elementary level that involved a class versus class competition in which students earned points based on desired behaviors. Each class’ progress was indicated by a racecar on a track headed toward the Friday Finish Line. Students could easily see how their class was faring for the week and, according to the article, would encourage each other to be on their best behavior in order to win a special treat or activity the next week. Well, I definitely wasn’t going to use race cars with 7th graders, but I did devise a plan to pit my 6 classes against each other to compete for a day of “alternate learning” which generally included using some type of outdoor activity to teach the lesson. My students were able to earn points based on my classroom expectations, and I eventually added quiz and test scores into the mix. To my amazement, my students began redirecting each other and I became more of a behavior facilitator than a dictator. I did reserve the right to take a point or two away when I saw it was needed, but overall, I saw my students take pride in their score and encourage each other to do the best they could both behaviorally and academically. Picking out the positives not only changed the atmosphere of my classroom, it also changed my attitude as a teacher and allowed me to enjoy my profession rather than feeling like the instructor from “The Wall” by Pink Floyd!
As I moved along in my educational career into administration, my next big step in my positive feedback journey came when I was introduced to a web application called Performance Scoring which allowed me to digitally track the positive feedback and see trends over time. I was able to use Performance Scoring to bring my classroom model of a class vs class competition to larger areas like the lunch room. Within Performance Scoring I set up a grading system that rated each grade’s performance at lunch each day. If a grade level finished the week with a B, they got to use technology during lunch. If they scored an A, they would receive a special recess or a coupon for ice cream. It was amazing to see the results in just one week. Students were encouraging each other to clean up their messes and push back their chairs. I even had students stay after and make sure the cafeteria was left in perfect condition. It was then that my mind started turning, and I began to see how using an application like Performance Scoring could be used in multiple areas of my school, but I was specifically bought in with the positive feedback aspect of it. As an administrator I could not only help my staff with classroom management strategies, I could now give them a tool to use to engage their students in the moment and see successes then and over time.
If you are a new teacher or even a veteran, and you’re having a hard time with classroom management or discipline, I would simply encourage you to just start… encouraging. Using positive feedback in a classroom management plan opens the door to so many other great classroom events like increased time on task, facilitating deeper thought-provoking discussions, and an increased sense of belonging by students, to name a few. There are lots of great sites out there on positive feedback in the classroom, but this article from The University of Kansas, and this article from Positive Psychology.com. are great places to start.