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January 1, 2019
Vol. 61
No. 1

Confessions of a Recovering Praise Manipulator

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Classroom Management
Equity
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I'm standing in front of a group of 4th, 5th, and 6th graders who are late for lunch, again. Learners are hastily stowing away assignments, a few girls run to the bathroom, and a small clique of boys are trying to solve a Rubik's Cube. Half of the students are lined up, quietly waiting for the rest of the class. I'm on my third plea for order when I instinctively start saying, "I really like how quietly Tiara lined up. Thank you, Tiara."
Early in my teaching career, I learned how to manipulate my learners through praise. I would single out one child who was doing what I wanted, announce what I liked, and then slyly watch the rest of the class follow suit. Praise became another way of conditioning my students' observable behavior, and along with it came a whole host of undesirable effects (see "The Perils of Praise" for more).

The Perils of Praise

Praise feeds insecurity. Students need approval to know where they stand with the teacher.
Praise seeds divisiveness among learners. Some learners will act out as a way to reject praise; others will crave praise for the sense of power it imparts.
Praise encourages learners to submit to authority rather than empowering their critical thinking skills.
Praise conditions learners to be motivated extrinsically rather than intrinsically.
Praise narrowly defines learners by what the teacher sees (or doesn't see) in the student, rather than everything they have to offer.

A Student-Led Classroom

Now, I work to create a healthy, intentional balance that doesn't rely on praise to achieve results. Praise isn't always bad, but it can become manipulative when it has an ulterior motive to influence student behavior versus expressing genuine heartfelt feelings. Manipulative praise can hinder a learner's ability to reach their fullest potential. I became familiar with a praise-free approach while working in a Montessori school, where we would guide learners to develop soft skills such as independence, teamwork, time management, and critical thinking. We helped students and staff develop and practice those skills through organic success and failure.
Some teacher education programs spend an entire semester on classroom management, studying how to control learner's bodies through tips and tricks; Montessori teachers, however, spend a few hours on this type of preparation. For them, classroom management means managing the physical environment of the classroom. If a child is stabbing an eraser with a pencil to create a hole, I simply take away the eraser and say, "This eraser is not helping you erase today. I will restore the eraser and you can try again tomorrow if you need to erase something." This was quite a paradigm shift for me—from a controlled environment to one that cultivates independence and appropriate risk taking.
The Montessori methods of teaching value learner agency over teacher control and student compliance. Before I trained in these methods, my instruction was driven by a need for recognition, power, and control, and praise manipulation was just another tool in my classroom management toolbox. I may have prided myself on quiet straight lines and obedient students—seen as hallmarks of a good classroom—but my focus on compliance was ultimately harmful to my students' development. My methods may have been expected, and even commended by my peers, but I did not become an educator to get students to walk in straight lines.
What I truly want is to create opportunities for learners to explore and discuss ideas and then make their own choices based on the new knowledge they construct. Although I've managed to (mostly) eliminate praise manipulation from my teacher lexicon, the road to recovery isn't easy.
So how can we set expectations but avoid conditioning students through praise? How do I signal to the class that I want them to line up for lunch, without singling out (and creating a codependent relationship with) Tiara? You can shake the praise habit by empowering learner voice, reminding your learners of shared goals, and most important, noticing without evaluating (see "Alternatives to Praise" for more).

Alternatives to Praise

INSTEAD OF THIS

SAY THIS

"I really like how quietly Tiara lined up. Thank you, Tiara.""Join me in lining up so we can enjoy lunch."
"Yes, I love your self-portrait." "Do you love your self-portrait? Tell me what you love about it."
"I am so proud of you." "You should be so proud of yourself."
"Great job on the science fair.""What part was the most challenging?"
"That's a pretty drawing.""You are creative."
"You were the best kid out there.""I watched your whole game/performance."
Just because praise can be problematic doesn't mean you have to throw out all praise with last week's lasagna. Even in Montessori classrooms, where we strive for a praise-free environment, you will occasionally hear compliments like, "You all surprised me with how quiet you were during the fire drill. Thank you." It's when we depend on praise to get something from our students—and they, in turn, to get approval from us—that it becomes manipulative. So, before you praise, ask yourself: What's the intention behind this appreciation? Is it because I want something in return? If so, be upfront and transparent, just as you would wish of your learners. Transparent talk builds trust and mutual respect in the classroom.
Finally, shallow praise is not a replacement for familial love. I often hear, "But they don't get enough praise at home." Praise is not a fundamental need; love is. Love and praise are not the same. Telling a child you are proud of her or that she did a great job running fast in P.E. will not heal or save her from a lack of love. If you find yourself in this situation, try using intentional, meaningful words of affirmation like "You belong here, too," or "You are inspiring." Then work to give the child the tools to love themselves through self-affirmations: "I belong here." "I am inspiring."
If you're unsure whether you're addicted to manipulative praise or how to change, take some time to reflect on your classroom practices.

Reflection Questions

  • What would happen if the learner didn't receive my praise? What would happen if I stopped the praise today? What would happen if I didn't stop the praise?
  • Who is being affirmed by my praise? Am I praising the same learners? Why?
  • Why am I praising the learner? How do I feel after I have praised the learner? How do they feel after I have praised them?
  • What am I hoping to gain/change/effect by praising?
  • Who is being silenced by my praise?
With reflection and practice, we can shift the classroom culture from one where students depend on praise to one where they depend on themselves.

Britt Hawthorne is a racial justice educator and former Montessori public school teacher in Houston, Texas.



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