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Staff Room Spy: To Praise or Not To Praise?

To Praise or Not To Praise?

A story on the BBC website caught my wandering half-term eye this week; the headline read “Lavish praise from teachers ‘does not help pupils’”. Normally, I try to restrict the amount of extra-curricular education-based activity at home, so you won’t catch me watching Waterloo Road or discussing Educating The East End, because quite frankly I get enough teacher/student/textbook/door-slamming interaction whilst at work. I don’t need it when I’m at home.

A bit of educational research however, is sometimes hard to resist. The article was based on a report, produced by the charity the Sutton Trust, entitled “What Makes Great Teaching?”. However, it was not the concept that made me look twice, but the vocabulary (English teacher alert) used in the headline. The use of the adjective “lavish” made me feel more than a little bit uncomfortable. Just to clarify, I’m a teacher, not an actress. In fact, there’s not much in my life that I do lavishly. Can you drink excessive amounts of coffee lavishly? Plan lessons lavishly? Watch The X Factor lavishly? So why would I be heaping praise on my students lavishly? I have a variety of strategies which I use in the classroom to recognise the achievement of my students. It could be a positive comment during a class discussion, a sticker on a homework or even photocopying a good piece of work for others to see. But I wouldn’t class any of these as lavish. Let’s face it, I don’t have time to be gushy. And what would be the point of me heaping praise on a mediocre piece of work? There’s a reason I didn’t get into RADA.

The report also cites research which suggests that praise which is meant to be encouraging to low-attaining students actually conveys a message of low expectations. Ofsted keep telling me that I should have high expectations of what my students can achieve. I’m more than happy to let my students know when I am disappointed by their performance. How am I supposed to convey high expectations to them if they are given no indication of when they have fallen short? I’m not a fan of public humiliation (it’s 2014 after all) but the power of a quick one-to-one chat can be phenomenally effective in getting students to pull their socks up a bit. They like to know that you’re keeping an eye on them and a reminder of this is often no bad thing. And when those socks are pulled up, students can be praised for it.

My heart was warmed at the end of the article by a comment from Christine Blower, leader of the NUT, who stated “The fact is that teachers themselves are the professionals who best know their children and their students.” Thank you! Isn’t that an incredible thought? That I might be in a position to know what my students need? You might come into my classroom and witness a child who is sulky and unresponsive when questioned who is praised for writing a paragraph in their book. But if I have taught this child for 12 weeks and this is the first time they have managed more than a sentence and a half then this is grounds for praise. Or if I know that this child’s parents are getting divorced and the reason for the sulk is sadness and the burden of staying cheerful in front of younger siblings, rather than a genuine dislike for me or my subject, then why isn’t an encouraging word the right thing to offer? The study says that the quality of teaching and strong subject knowledge are the most important components in improving student progress. But I’m not a teaching robot. Maybe adjectives wouldn’t bother me so much if I was.

Oh and by the way, the trip went brilliantly. The students were inspiring, they were exquisite, they were engaged, they were wonderful, they were…

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