In primary school, there was an award given every month for kindness. Sponsored in the name of a young man who lost his life tragically young, it was a Big Deal. Given out to one student in the school every month, a 3 form entry primary school ensured that it wasn’t one of those prizes that everyone got by the time they left school.
I was pretty quiet in primary school, and people who know me now would be surprised to hear that I used to be quite shy and reserved. I always tried to be nice, I wanted my teachers and my small circle of friends to like me. And I wanted that prize. I wanted it badly.
I don’t remember many specific episodes from primary school. But I do remember one month, sitting in the hall waiting to hear who would win the prize. A little butterfly fluttered across my insides. Maybe my niceness had been noticed. The way I helped my teacher put up her display in lunch, or gave a friend a hand with their homework. A little tension, a little pause, and the deputy head announced the winner, and up stood a boy in my class: a boy who had bullied me relentlessly for two years.
A decade and a half passed, and at the end of my first year of teaching we had an awards afternoon for the year group. Attended by all ten forms, a local dignitary and the full senior leadership team, ’twas quite an occasion. After all the subject achievement awards came the grand finale: the award for the student with the most achievement points in the year. The head looked up from the lectern and called out Declan and, against the backdrop of a stifled cheer from his mates, Declan ascended the stage and took his certificate.
Declan: worst behaved student in the year.
After receiving the certificate he looked out over the crowd towards his friends and gave them a look. He stopped short of actually winking, but the smile was a smirk, and the eyes told all. Declan, worst behaved student of the year, hadn’t just got away with it, he had beat the system. Because the school’s strategy with someone like Declan, worst behaved student in the year, was to take every opportunity to praise him. To give him tasks, roles and responsibilities. To shower him with all the rewards a school can possibly offer because, perhaps, he would get a taste for the Good Life and abandon his willful and churlish ways. Declan, worst behaved student in the year, did indeed get an incredible amount of achievement points but he did it with less effort and fewer good deeds than anyone else. Indeed, he was rewarded because he was the worst behaved student in the year.
When I saw that grin he sent across the hall, my mind flashed back to primary school. I remembered that day, and I realised why my bully had won the award for kindness. Perhaps, they must have thought, we can encourage him to do good. Perhaps, if we show him how rewarding even a small good act can be, he will turn his back on his nasty and brutish habits. Perhaps.
Let me tell you: my bully with the award for kindness was the same bully who bullied me the day before. The reward was rotten, poisoned by being clenched by the undeserving. Declan too – his behaviour changed not one jot that year; perhaps even the opposite was true. He revelled in the misdemeanours that brought him so much reward, so much rotten reward.
The ending: I wrote this blog in October 2018. It is now December 2020 and I work at The Totteridge Academy. At TTA, we do not use “if-then” rewards, i.e. “if you do x then you will get y.” There are no positive points as a reward for compliant behaviour. Instead, each week every teacher in the school issues one “recognition.” This is something that is read out at assembly and is awarded for someone who has gone above and beyond your expectations. We also have “now that” rewards, surprise rewards for students who we think have done a particularly good job. This philosophy of reward completely mitigates against the possibility of a rotten reward. They do not happen, and we try to foster an intrinsic motivation in our students – over the long term we aim to develop students who do the right thing because it is the right thing, not because they will get a reward or because it will effectively nullify a wrong thing they have already done.
If you are interested in working in a school like that, we are hiring in the science department and will no doubt be hiring in other departments over the coming months – click here for more.