. Regurgitated Alpha Bits: Why Does This Feel So Icky?

Monday, February 18, 2008

Why Does This Feel So Icky?

Isn't positive reinforcement great? We teachers use it all the time with great success. Some examples:

"I love how you are all walking in a quiet line" - When said to a wriggling, snake-like, mob of screaming children, it will often charm them into a semi-quiet but shushing (they all feel compelled to SSSHHHHHHH until they collapse from lack of oxygen), but still wriggling row of kids.

"I like how Mabel is waiting with her hands folded, sitting like a student" - If we were honest with ourselves, "sitting like a student" would mean half in/half out of your seat, feet dancing like a marionette, hands simultaneosly tapping a pencil/digging in a backpack/drawing a picture of a warrior (boys) or hearts (girls)/tearing an eraser into unusable bits that will be saved in your desk for months/and picking your nose with one hand while hiding behind the other. Thank God the kids still think that "students" sit squarely in their seats, feet rested quietly on the floor (or as near to the floor as they can get them), and hands folded on the desk. Phew!

"I like how Bobby raises his hand to answer a question" - Timing is of the essence with this one. The first time you ask for volunteers to answer a question, 99% of your class will scream out the answer. If you use this line right away, that number falls to a stunning 97% the next time you ask for volunteers. Amazing, I know! With time though, a majority of students will learn to raise their hands (while stage whispering the answer to anyone within earshot.)

"I really enjoyed how Sally read that paragraph with expression" - Anyone who has listened to elementary students read knows that it sounds a lot like hearing one of those sythesized voice machines used by people like Stephen Hawking. On the rare occasion you come across a student who reads with expression, you want that to be the model for the rest of your readers. The result though, often resembles something akin to bad acting. "The BIIIIG dog rraannn QUICKLY across the LAAAAWN!" The reading is often accompanied by some grand, fist-shaking, Shakespearean hand movement. Bless their little hearts for trying...

Here's where positive reinforcement gets icky: when it's used on me. Recently, my principal had to ask the teachers to make some dramatic changes in our classrooms and our lessons because inspectors are coming to ensure we are implementing NCLB regulations to their fullest. I won't go into boring detail, but let's suffice it to say that everything (including the colors we write things in) had to meet the inspectors approval. These changes were not my principal's bright idea but the brainchild of the federal government so I don't fault him. He's no dummy and anticipated that we would become riotous with the news, so he reached deep into his "I'm still a teacher at heart" pockets and slathered us with positive reinforcement.

"I am proud of what the teachers are doing at this school" - And despite the fact that your test scores increase each year, you still pale in comparison with Japan.

"Every day I see endless examples of good teaching" - Which is why the federal government wants to come in and change it.

"Your room environments are warm, inviting, child-friendly, and educational" - So go ahead and rip it all down before March 27th, when the inspectors arrive.

After that meeting, I felt like I had just been touched where my bathing suit covers. Did he really think that peppering this announcement with warm-fuzzies would make us more accepting? How could something meant to be positive turn out to feel so dirty? And how is it that my students fall for it every time? Instead of teaching them reading and writing, maybe we'd be wise to teach them how to recognize a snake-oil salesman when they see one.

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