Heartfelt praise based on true accomplishment is powerful stuff.
It feeds your students’ internal motivational engines.
It spurs them to greater success.
It reinforces the slow-to-grow belief that hard work matters, that it really is more than worth the sweat and toil.
Certainly they can see the proof of its fruits without your acknowledgement—sharper skills, higher competence, deeper confidence.
But shining a light on their accomplishments can heighten the experience, making it lasting and more impressionable.
Good teaching requires you to keep an eye out for excellence, effort, or achievement beyond what is commonly expected. It calls for you to praise artfully, choosing the right tone, timing, and mode to match the student and the situation.
Although a thoughtful, subtle response is often best, there are times when a spontaneous reaction is just right—one bursting with joyous pride in your students and their successes.
Too many teachers, though, praise not out of genuineness, not out of a pure motive to highlight hard-earned achievement or excellence . . .
But out of their own desires.
What follows are three ways you should never praise students. For not only are they ineffective beyond several minutes, but they’re more about the teacher and his or her wants and needs than they are about the student.
1. For personal gain.
In this scenario, the teacher praises an individual student for the sole purpose of placating or subduing his or her behavior. It’s done proactively and dishonestly. You see this over and over again, often all day long, with difficult students.
“Great job so far today, Anthony. Keep it up, partner!”
The student is praised not in response to any valid improvement, success, or accomplishment, but rather in an effort to mollify, satisfy, appease, and otherwise keep in check for as long as possible. In other words, the purpose of the praise is to benefit the teacher.
2. In order to manipulate.
This form of praise is used to manipulate an entire group of students into compliant behavior. The way it works is that the teacher will choose one student to praise for expected behavior with the hope that it will cause others to do the same.
“Wow, I sure like how David is sitting. Way to go!”
Often called “caught being good,” this too is disingenuous. The teacher isn’t really impressed with David. After all, sitting appropriately is an expectation and not in any way an accomplishment. The teacher is using David as a pawn to get what he or she wants.
Note: An honest way to influence other students would be to simply thank David for sitting appropriately.
3. Out of obligation.
Most teachers have been told time and again that they can’t praise students too much or too enthusiastically. So they let ‘em have it every chance they get. Upon seeing behavior that isn’t poor, they pounce.
“Good job, Karla! You found a library book just like I showed you!”
They keep at it because they think that that’s what good teachers do. And along the while, true and beautiful accomplishment passes beneath their noses either unnoticed or praised with the same insincerity one receives after finding a library book.
Worthy Praise Only
All three examples above are forms of false praise. That is, they’re ways of praising students based on something other than true accomplishment.
The problem with false praise is that it lowers the standard of what is good. It gives students an inflated sense of their own abilities. And it communicates unmistakably that fulfilling the barest minimum is not only good enough . . .
But somehow special.
It places what is good and lovely and exceptional on the same local theatre marquee of what is commonly expected—instead of where it belongs . . . in lights on Broadway.
A deeply moving poem, then, chiseled and shaped through hours of dedicated work, gets the same reaction from the teacher as does sitting up straight in one’s chair.
For praise to mean something, for it to help change behavior, inspire excellence, and fuel a dream of becoming the next E.E. Cummings or Emily Dickinson, it must be worthy.
It must be genuine and real and come from the stirrings in your heart.
It must be a moment in time, a shared recognition, a soulful celebration of a step beyond where your students have been before.
Note: True accomplishment varies from student to student and can only be discerned through the keen eyes of an observant teacher.
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