• Alan David Pritchard

THE PRAISE MODEL PART 1: Promoting the Positive

Updated: Oct 6

We live in a society that is, by and large, unashamedly negative. News reports tend to deal with bad news, for that is what sells. The “fascination with the abomination” is something well documented by sociologists and even our weather reports embed the trend for negativity with comments like: “There will be a 70% chance of rain tomorrow,” – as opposed to a “30% chance of sunshine”. Computer games which glorify violence are bestsellers and most things on television revolve around the need for “drama” – something bad has to happen in order to keep our interest.

So how can we reverse this trend in our classrooms?

Here are a few simple techniques which you might find useful:

a) Smiley Meet ‘n Greet: Acting as a gatekeeper, smile at pupils with your eyes, and try, as they pass into the classroom to provide an uplifting comment / comment of recognition.

Whenever you see the pupils you teach, whether in the corridors or outside in the parking lot or as they enter your room, smile at them with your eyes. Yes, I know we smile with our mouths, but students are quick to spot false-smiles, smiles that are forced. Smiling with your eyes is a way of making eye contact so that you appear naturally happy to see someone.

When you smile using your eyes, your mouth automatically follows and the impression you give is one of sincerity and positivity. This requires a conscious effort not to smile with your mouth first, but rather to let your eyes “do the talking”. Your mouth will follow. Your eyes should “light up” when you see your students – no matter how you feel about them and no matter how poorly behaved they might have been the previous day.

This means that students, when they see you (even if you are not their favourite person in the world), know that – despite their behaviour – your approach to them begins anew each day ... that the slate is wiped clean.

Acting as the gatekeeper to your classroom and greeting students enthusiastically as they enter goes a long way towards creating a positive climate / atmosphere and often sets the tone for the lesson to follow. I found that by smiling at them with my eyes as soon as I saw them, and then saying something positive and uplifting as they walked past me to go to their seats, often meant that behavioural issues could be avoided.

It takes some practice, this, and you need to be resourceful finding something positive to say to each pupil, but the more you do it, the easier it becomes.

“Ah, great to see you! I marked your work last night and was well-impressed! Looking sharp and mighty intellectual today, Mary! Ah – the mighty Mike has arrived – greetings, fellow me lad!” – things like this create a playful tone, and students enjoy being greeted personally.

Aim to make the first thing you say to each pupil something positive. Compare this to the tone that is created when pupils see you as they enter the room and the first thing they hear is, “Tuck in your shirt, John,” or “Spit out that gum, Glen.”

A negative command at the start of the lesson – often even before the student has had a chance to sit down, creates a negative atmosphere, and can lead to confrontation later in the lesson.

b) Positive phone calls home: Parents expect bad news when you call – buck the trend by phoning home regularly, just to praise the little things the pupil is doing right.

If you are a parent, you will know this scenario only too well: you’re at home and the phone rings. It’s your child’s teacher. Are your first thoughts: Great! I am going to hear good news! Or are they Oh, no – what has my child done again? What’s it this time?

For most parents, receiving a call from their child’s teacher, or head of year, means only one thing – bad news. So try reversing this trend. I found that by calling four parents each day (not the same four parents, obviously), just to tell them about something positive their child had done helped build a constructive relationship with both the parents and the pupils.

Pupils would say to me the next morning – “You called my mum last night” – to which I would usually reply, with a smile, “Yes, I know. I was there when it happened!” And add, “Well, she deserved to hear about the good thing/s you did.”

This was an effective way of praising boys who found it uncomfortable to receive praise in front of their peers.

I also found that if I did nothing else for the first term – i.e. just called home to praise even the smallest things, then when I called in the second term to ask for help with behaviour – they would eat of my hand, as it were. It’s amazing to think that many teachers only call home to complain about the behaviour of kids and then wonder why some parents are so unhelpful and unresponsive.

Also, regular positive calls home meant that students would often seek me out the next morning, and they would be the ones saying something positive as they entered the classroom!

c) Use positive peripherals: When students face the board, what do they see? Is there a list of sanctions and names for detention? How many positive, affirming things can be seen when the student faces the front?

Although this is an extreme example consider the following scenario: imagine your classroom walls were covered in graphic pictures from horror movies, full of gore, violence, blood and disturbing images. Would this be an environment you would like to teach in? Do you think you could happily teach with an optimistic spirit with those images staring back at you? How long would it be before they would seriously disturb you?

Yes, as I said, this is an extreme example, but I have visited classrooms where lists of the “named and shamed” are displayed for all to see – yet, no positive lists or indicators of visible praise can be seen to counterbalance the negativity. In other rooms, the field of vision is filled with classroom rules and administrative procedures, which, important as these may be, do not create an atmosphere that uplifts the spirit.

So think of ways to enliven the students’ peripheral field of vision. Perhaps you could have all the classroom rules displayed at the back of the room so that they are immediately visible when students enter the room. When students are seated and facing the board, maybe you could have things that are positive placed on the walls to their left and right field of vision.

These can be examples of exemplary work neatly displayed, with positive phrases between them. I have seen some rooms where teachers photocopy cartoons and humorous pictures onto A3 and regularly change them so they don’t become stale placed here too. Then, directly around the whiteboard why not create a “celebration spaces” which you can use to fill with posters that “sing the praises” of the students you teach. These can be photos which celebrate the extra-curricular achievements of students in drama, sport or cultural affairs. Or you can make place for positive and uplifting posters with words of wisdom and arresting visuals.

I have met teachers who, in schools which use detention still, get the students to create fun and bright posters that support the learning objectives of the next day’s lessons. So essentially, the students’ “punishment” consists of making colourful displays which are used the next day to complement the learning content of the class. It’s an idea that I have seen work in a school in Newcastle, but it isn’t a method I have tried myself.

d) Use positive feedback models: When you mark students’ work – what is it you are looking for – things they have done right, or things they have done wrong?

One of the turning points in my career as a teacher happened when a Year 10 student stormed into my classroom at the end of the day and literally threw her coursework at me. “What is this?” she demanded, with a fury that unnerved me. “It’s your essay,” I replied somewhat defensively, “the one that took me over an hour to mark last night.” (I had a way of marking that involved my writing a number for each mistake I saw, and then writing a lengthy explanation at the end of the essay next to the relevant numbers. I used to think that this was a thorough way of doing things, and often wrote more than what the students did in the mistaken belief that I was being thorough!)

“That may be so,” she retorted, “but you haven’t indicated a single thing I did right.”

She was absolutely correct. There wasn’t anything in my marking to celebrate or notice the things that were commendable about her work. This changed things for me. It made me realise that whenever I marked work, I had my pen poised to ring/ underline the mistakes or errors.

While this is part of the marking process, I suppose, what it highlighted for me was my mental attitude to marking. I was marking with the purpose of showing students where they were going wrong. That was my mindset.

It took me a while to break out of this mindset, and I did it by deliberately changing the way I thought. After that, whenever I marked an essay (this is in the days before formative assessment) I deliberately told myself to be on the lookout first for what was good about the work I was marking.

When I mentioned this to a colleague of mine, she provided me with a simple feedback model to use which I and the students found very beneficial. It’s called the PIPS model.

Basically, the acronym is a way of approaching marking with the following steps:

i) Praise something specific – look for something that is worthy of praise and mention it.

ii) Indicate ways to improve – make suggestions for how the work can be made better. iii) Praise the overall effort of the work – this is a comment that praises the piece in its entirety iv) Supply an uplifting comment – mention the student’s name and say something uplifting.

Often teachers rely on the old standby of “Well done”, which while being encouraging, if used too often, can become meaningless. For instance, just saying “well done” next to a grade does not provide the student with advice on how to achieve the same next time.

Also, another nifty tip: when saying something positive about a student’s work, mention that student’s name. “Well done, Mary!” is better than just “well done.” If you do this repeatedly, you help the student to associate his/her name with positivity. At the same time, if you have to say something negative, do not use the student’s name.

Another feedback model which is useful is:

This is what/why you have done well, and this is what you can do to make it even better.

In my next post, I will discuss ways to reduce negative stress in the classroom. In the meanwhile, if you would like to share good practice or respond to this post, feel free to comment below.

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