Only a handful of days in, and I was already struggling with one of my classes. Even if the rest of my day went well, I would leave in the afternoon feeling frustrated and pretty powerless. I have dealt with a number of behavior issues before, but this was something different. These kids were capable but completely disinterested. I would stand at the front of the room doing everything to entertain them, but it did nothing. At one point, I was literally running up and down the rows of the classroom to demonstrate how using the verb "tore through the store" implied a different emotion than "run through the store." I told jokes and changed the volume and tone of my voice. I tried small group work and trivia-style questioning, but I was met with nothing but blank stares and a blunt refusal to do any kind of work. I said the phrase "This is when we take out pencils and copy what is on the board," so many times it ceased to have any meaning. I was at a loss.
I consulted a number of colleagues. One suggested that I create a class contract with my students, but I had already done that to a certain extent. Another said that I might have to change my curriculum. Perhaps this particular group couldn't handle four or five week units and instead needed shorter units based around engaging reads like Scope Magazine articles. I was willing to do anything, but I felt like making such a drastic change, in addition to being A LOT of work, was also giving up too early, and I wasn't quite ready to throw in the towel.
So, I did things my way, which may or may not have involved a form of bribery. I was direct and told my students that things were not working--not for me, and not for them. I admitted that I was frustrated with them and that I wasn't sure what would solve the problem. I listed the three biggest things I needed from them--more participation, more focus on the task at hand, and more control of negative behaviors. I told them that if they could do those three things for me every day, I would give them three things that they needed from me. I fielded a number of ridiculous requests--most having to do with food, but there were also things I felt I could do. They wanted more movement, especially when taking notes, so I said I would get some clipboards and they could take notes standing up or sitting on the floor. They wanted incentives for doing homework and participating, so I bought tickets that could be entered in weekly drawings for school-related prizes. Now, this system has not been fully tested, but in the few days after this conversation, the entire attitude of my class changed. I saw them actively trying to be better, and when they struggled, I had a common and quick language to get them back on track.
I was proud of myself for doing what was right for me and for creating a perceptible change for my students, but I still have to wonder if it was, in fact, the right thing to do. I know other teachers do it--use stickers or prizes or even candy if they are lucky enough to be in a district that allows food in class, but does it really work? Is bribery an effective teaching tool, or is it a cop-out? Are we helping our students or corrupting them?
It looks like bribery has its pros and cons. What do you think?