Use Meaningful Incentives

Use Meaningful IncentivesMany years ago, on a whim, I wrote a short note to a student named Joanna to let her know how much I appreciated her leadership qualities. I wrote the note before school one day and left it folded over and taped to her desk.

When the students entered the room that morning, I watched her as she discovered the note and then sat down to read it silently. After she finished, a broad smile spread across her faced. She was delighted. She looked over at me, and from across the room, we shared a special moment. I smiled and nodded my head, and she did the same.

Later that morning, shortly after I released the class for recess, Joanna approached me to thank me for the note. I smiled and said, “You’re welcome,” and then turned to walk to my desk. As I did, she grabbed me and hugged tightly around the waist.

I was a bit surprised because, up until that moment, I had made it a priority to offer an assortment of incentives in support of my classroom management plan, including stickers, stamps, pencils, colored beads, and other rewards for positive behavior, and nothing had elicited such a heartfelt response.

I’ve since learned that stickers, stamps, and the like are mostly ineffective. They’re fun to give out and students like them, but I don’t believe they make much difference; they don’t have any real meaning attached to them.

More than two years later, Joanna called me over to her desk (I kept the same students for three years as we moved up in grade levels together). She pulled out a pencil box to show me where she had kept every note I had ever given her. They were stacked from oldest to newest, and at the bottom of the stack was my first note to her.

She said to me, “I’m going to keep these forever.”

I was glad my notes had made an impression on her, but by then, I wasn’t surprised. These little gems, taking just minutes to compose, had proven their weight in gold long before. Her reaction was typical. I could tell story after story of similar interactions with students.

Personal notes from you can be a powerful incentive.

I was hired for my first teaching assignment at a job fair. I met with several principals from schools located in wildly divergent neighborhoods, but one principal stood out among the others. Her name was Judy and she had been a teacher and administrator for 35 years.

Judy was the principal of an inner-city school and was on a mission to create the best possible educational environment for her students. She greeted me with warmth and spoke passionately about her school. Within minutes, I knew I wanted to be part of it. Despite the school being located over 100 miles from my home, I moved into a neighborhood closeby and began my career. It was a perfect choice for me.

Although the students were challenging at first, Judy was remarkably supportive, open to new ideas, and willing to let her teachers do what they did best. She did one thing in particular that was a great motivator for me. She left wonderful and eloquent notes in my mailbox, praising my work. They were private, handwritten transcriptions on various styles of stationery, folded over and taped to the side of my mailbox.

As a new teacher, shaky on confidence, her notes meant the world to me. There was no earthly way I was going to let her down or prove her positive words wrong.

Do you get notes of genuine thanks or praise in your mailbox? They mean so much more than a candy cane attached to a computer-generated holiday card and more than 10 teacher appreciation lunches. Don’t you agree? Yet it seems that such lovely dispatch is a dying art.

Because of the reliance on email, text messaging, and other forms of communication, the old-fashioned handwritten letter has become a relic of the past. But the emergence of such technologies has also made letter writing that much more poignant and meaningful.

How would your students feel if they received a personally written note from you? How much more leverage and influence do you think you would have?

Over the years and through experimentation, I’ve discovered a few tricks that make these personal notes more impactful, and I want to share them with you.

  • Use stationery that will communicate the specialness of your missive. It doesn’t have to be high-quality paper, but a variety of colorful, fun, and interesting themes is a must. Post-its are a no-no.
  • Always handwrite the note. A computer-printed note is cold and lacks heart.
  • Write about something you noticed in the student that went beyond what is commonly expected.
  • Make it private. Put it in an envelope or fold it over and seal it with tape. Leave it just inside a desk, on a chair, or in the student’s mailbox.
  • Be authentic. False or empty praise is dishonest and does nothing to improve long-term behavior.
  • Have the note waiting for them when they arrive in the morning. And unlike how I first handled it, don’t watch them as they open and read it.
  • Don’t mention the note to them or speak to them about it unless they approach you. Most teachers talk too much. Actions speak louder and more profoundly. Let your note speak for itself.

The most influential incentives are those that aren’t connected to a particular behavior, as in “do this and you’ll get that.” The best incentives are those that arrive out of the blue.

None of us are immune to the wonderful feeling of receiving a handwritten letter or note from someone we admire. Follow the guidelines above and you’ll discover your influence with students, as well as their intrinsic motivation, growing immeasurably.

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7 Responses to Use Meaningful Incentives

  1. Karen August 18, 2009 at 3:59 pm #

    Last year I had a boy in my third grade class that was incredibly smart and he had a special, one of kind thirst for learning. He soaked information up like a sponge soaks up water. Everyday he would enthusiastically share tidbits of information with me that he had discovered while reading or watching a documentary on the National Geographic channel. Unfortunately, it was twenty, thirty times a day and he often interrupted me because he just couldn’t wait a minute longer to share what he had just learned. I loved his enthusiasm but sometimes I felt like I was impatient with him.

    So, one day I decided to write him a note because I wanted him to know how much I appreciated his love of learning and sharing with me what he had learned since I often couldn’t do it in the moment. It only took a minute to write that note but it had a lasting impression. His mom came to me at the end of the year and said that he had shown her the letter when he first got it, and how much it meant to her son…and that he was going to save it forever.

    When I’m having a bad day and stressed out over poor behavior, I find writing these kinds of notes helps me focus on the positive attributes in my students. I feel better after writing them, appreciate my students more, and I know the student certainly love getting them.


    • Michael Linsin August 18, 2009 at 4:39 pm #

      Hi Karen,

      You’re so right. Thoughtful notes from the teacher can mean so much to students, as well as their families.


  2. Alison Henken September 13, 2010 at 8:08 am #


    I’d like to use your story to encourage staff and tutors in my after school programs to start using hand-written praise regularly. I’ve encouraged them to do so in the past, but it hasn’t caught on. I think your story may be the ticket to helping them understand the deep impact this can have.

    Is it okay with you if I use it?

    Alison Henken
    For Love of Children

    • Michael Linsin September 13, 2010 at 5:03 pm #

      Hi Alison,

      Thank you for asking. Of course you can use it. No problem.


  3. Jennifer December 2, 2010 at 8:47 pm #

    My son is enrolled in homeschool. As a mother/learning coach I have found that many teachers don’t teach with love. This article is proof that teachers who actually love their jobs really do exist. Unfortunately, my son has never known what that is like. I just wanted to say thank you. Keep it up.

  4. Vijay Chelliah December 1, 2012 at 8:02 pm #

    Hi Mike,
    As always your articles are excellent and extremely beneficial to teachers. However I have a question for you. What would be the incentives that need to be given to teachers (by the management of schools) to enhance their performances.
    Vijay Chelliah

    • Michael Linsin December 2, 2012 at 10:30 am #

      Hi Vijay,

      I don’t think teachers need incentives beyond their salary and the rewards of working with children. However, it’s important for administrators to privately recognize or acknowledge those who are exceptional or improving and encourage and get help to those struggling.


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