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Bribery: Confessions of a middle school teacher

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Mesa_verde_2006I lie. I cheat. And yeah, I steal.

At least when it comes to my students.

I admit, when my Teach for America program director comes to check my teaching, I tell the kids that she's there to observe their behavior. And sure, I drag my kids in after school to finish their assignments for general ed classes. And when I'm low on supplies, I'm not above nabbing a ream of white paper from the front office when no one is watching.

So is it so bad that I bribe children? I had never been one for extrinsic rewards, believing that students must learn and appreciate the intrinsic value of education. But lately, as I've come to work with students with more severe negative behavior issues, I have found myself adding bribery to my list of sins.

With Corey, I began bartering fruit for appropriate behaviors. With my English class, I've agreed to serve hot cocoa on Fridays if they work properly until the end of the week. And now, I find myself setting up a new mini math goal for our students that ultimately revolves around bribery.

After analyzing their mid-year assessment results, I noticed that while most of my students had made considerable gains in reading, writing and math computation, we still had major difficulty in making improvements in math word problems. I needed to refocus our class. We need to raise these skills and scores. I was especially troubled because math problem solving skills are at the cornerstone of everyday life skills. These deficits are the primary reasons why my students are cheated out of their change at Wal-Mart and why they are afraid to order food at McDonald's.

So what's my strategy for solving this problem? Bribe 'em. This is our new mini math goal: Students who improve by at least one grade level in math problem solving by the next quarter will earn the opportunity to eat out in Gallup. It'll be a restaurant voted on by the class. We'll spend an afternoon in town eating out on the school's dime. Not too shabby. They bought into it. We're revved up once again to practice word problems. Bribery works. (At least to a certain extent.)

But you know what? As guilty as I feel about bribing my students to do work they need to do to begin with, I still sleep just fine at night. Because little do they realize, menu ordering, restaurant budgeting and tip calculating are all part of life skills. And life skills are really about being able to solve problems.

24 Comments

Just so you feel better, I bribe myself every day to do things I don't want to do. About 15 minutes ago I bribed myself to get up, promising myself a glass of wonderful orange juice and a half hour on the Internet. That's what it took. Now that I'm up, I don't need more bribes, but getting up required some immediate gratification. Suggesting by this that your kids are normal and that you aren't ruining them!

I love your blog! I look forward to reading it every week. And yes bribery works in the classroom. I like to proposition my bribes in a "deal or no deal way"...it makes it seem a little less criminal :)

Don't worry. I was with TFA,too, and I know they emphasize that you can't "bribe" students. But, think about it--isn't that what work is?

Everyday after they graduate, your students will (hopefully) have to get up and go to work. Most of them will not be like "O, I intrinsically WANT to do this." No, they'll be like, "I'm here and doing this because I want to get paid." AND THAT IS NOT A BAD THING.

You aren't bribing them to do basic things. You're only using the rewards as a way of getting ever greater than average results. Be proud of yourself. You're doing a great job.

You sound like a fine teacher. As adults we respond to economic incentives, why should we expect less from little kids? They are quite astute in figuring out what works for them.

Jessica,
I started reading your blog because I am an evaluator on several projects to improve math and science instruction with Native Americans. My interest is "being in touch" with the realities of day to day teaching. Thanks for providing me a valuable window into the life of a teacher that informs my own work. I am writing because like you I have a strong value supporting the use of intrinsic motivation.

However my value was tested in 1999 when our only child was identified with central auditory processing deficit, dyslexia, and slight ADHD. It has been an interesting journey and one that required our daughter to expend lots of energy and do extra work outside of school with targeted interventions (Fast Forward, Step Forward, Interactive Metronome, Wilson Reading, Special Summer Camps, etc). Most of these provide rewards for meeting goals, which really bothered my husband and myself. However I found peace when I framed it differently. I thought it might be helpful for you.

The frame goes like this. You (substitute name of learner) are interested in putting the time and energy into doing something difficult. Reaching you goal (mini goals) deserves a celebration. Given certain parameters (set up in conjunction with the adult) think of a reward for yourself to celebrate when you reach the agreed upon goal.

My husband and I were comfortable with this, the 3 of us determined the criteria but Emma (our daughter) was able to select the reward as long as it met the criteria. To me it was like how I reward myself (dinner out, 1 hour of reading, facial) after a great class or successfully dealing with a classroom issue, etc. Anyway Emma is now 14 reading like a champ and loving books (which is more important). Celebrating the milestones helped all of us in this journey. Anyway I thought it might help. Keep up the great work.

What you are doing, in my mind isn't bribery. It's implementing a system of rewards (going out to eat) with reinforcements along the way (grading their papers and - I assume - praising good grades and encouraging when grades seem stuck). Reinforcements and rewards are the backbone of special education. Bribes are sneaky and under the table and illegal. You aren't trying to get the kids to do anything illegal. I think you're a good teacher - trying to figure out what motivates students.

Jessica,
I would "ditto" all of the previous comments. In the "real" world, adults work for "rewards" (that sounds better than bribes). Paychecks, promotions, bonuses, good evaluations,offices with windows, etc. Why shouldn't your students start practicing those work skills now? The part that you, the teacher, may have trouble with may come if some of your students don't meet the goal. Will you have the strength to not include them in the dinner in Gallup? That might be the hard part...
Keep up the the good work! You are the future of education!

As the aforementioned program director, I'm still pretty impressed with your students even if they've gotten a little extra encouragement to behave during my visits. :-)
As for bribery, I've been thinking about your hesitations since our conversations about having a rewards system to get kids to behave. I completely understand the hesitation. We want students to see learning as it's own reward. We want students to be so invested in their goals that they don't need prizes along the way, but there is also the reality of your classroom. You have students with years of failure behind them. Many of them don't see learning as a reward, because it hasn't been. This is where positive reinforcement comes in.
Honestly, I think positive reinforcement, such as working towards a field trip or a piece of fruit can be a very good thing. It gives students a chance to celebrate their successes and feel good about what they are accomplishing.
The difference between this and bribery is in the presentation. Are you telling a kid you better behave or you won't get that piece of fruit? or are you always tying it back to learning? Keep the focus on the goals and on learning and remind them that the "bribes" are celebrations of them doing what you know they can do.
This reminds me of a friend of mine whose students worked for peanuts, literally. He celebrated succeses in his class by giving out a peanut. Did his kids care that much about getting peanuts? No. But, it was the highlight of the fact that they were doing something right that made those nuts mean something.
Your kids really want to go on a field trip and it's going to help them develop some real life skills and see the application of what they are learning(and hopefully build them up to the point where learning can be the reward) so focus on the fact that they need to be able to calculate percentage so that they can calculate tip or read a menu at restaurants and when they can do that you'll go to a restaurant to celebrate. (And of course remind them that it's going to take good behavior on their part to truly learn the material)
Keep up the good work!

If school gets our students ready for the "real world", why shouldn't we bribe them? Adults deal with the concept of bribes on a daily basis. Whether it's the little self motivational ones (if I finish grading all of these assignments tonight, I will buy myself a fancy coffee drink before work) or larger (if I stick to my workout schedule and drop 20 lbs, I'm spring vacationing in Mexico), we bribe ourselves all of the time. Externalizing a reward system, especially for unmotivated students, seems like a creative way of problem solving. Besides, if your students are getting the skill set, you've done your job. Anyone who sticks to the same teaching methods and finds that they aren't getting the same results needs to take a page from your book.

Jessica, I have also struggled with this issue for most of my years as an educator. I would agree with the idea that "bribes" are for negative behaviors. I worked with a student whose father told him to steal money and he could keep part of what he stole. That's a bribe, and a terrible parent. I now think of my "bribes" to encourage students to stretch to reach difficult goals as celebrations. Once those achievable goals are met, celebrate their hard work and successes.

Hmm, this whole discussion is interesting to me. I am in my first year of a teacher training program, and just finished an Ed Psych class in which we learned (among many other things) about reward systems and behavior management techniques. I also have many reservations about them, but it sounds to me like you are using them in the best possible way. As always, thanks for sharing your experiences!

"Bribe" is the wrong terminology. People, including middle school students, do things because they value the rewards that they receive as a consequence. Recognizing and providing rewards that your students value is a gesture of respect. Dictating what they should value ("satisfaction", " accomplishment", etcetera) is disrespectful.

Respect demands that we give students rewards that they value -- not that WE value. We should also teach them, by modelling and providing the right kind of experience, to learn to value other types of rewards.

I believe that you will find that it is not the cocoa the students care about so much as what it represents: that you have paid attention to them, considered what they think is important, and valued their desires. They themselves may think that they are valuing the cocoa rather than the respect, but if you articulate this interpretation, my bet is that they will recognize it as the truth. Then, in time, you can eliminate the cocoa and consider together other ways that you can demonstrate respect for their values.

I faced the same situation about 10 years ago. Now I am called, "the brownie man". The most interesting aspect occured by accident. One day I only had a flimsy plastic knife to cut the brownies. Some came out bigger than others. Those students who came first chose the bigger ones. The last one to choose was ridiculed by the others about the size of his brownie. This was the start of a great social experiment. The brownie was a reward for good work but there was also competition involved. The students were in 6 cooperative groups. If your group accumulated the most points, you could choose the biggest brownies. I heard groups motivating each othere so they could get bigger brownies next time. Bullies even threatened there groups with dire consequences if someone caused the group to get a small brownie. The whole idea of a homemade future treat was able to improve behavior, quality of work and whatever else was linked to the point system. Maybe I wil write a book about all that I learned about human behavior but the most important lesson was that to motivate people,even little people, starts with valuing them as individuals .

I was so disappointed to read The Art of Bribery. As a teacher who taught for ten years in poor urban schools, and who is now a teacher educator who teaches classroom management, I thought that others would share my view, but as a read the blog comments I became even more saddened. I had just passed this magazine out to my teacher candidates, and I now wish I could take it back. I assume the belief is that students aren’t learning because they are lazy and with bribes they will be motivated, which on the upside means that you have a belief that all children can learn. On the downside, I think it can damage intrinsic motivation, self-regulation, and it unnecessary. In the case of this article, I wonder if it was the bribe or the teacher’s enthusiasm and concentration on the math problem-solving skills that made the difference in the students’ learning. Unfortunately, with this system a student that puts in a real effort, maybe more than his or her peers, but has learning difficulties cannot go on the fieldtrip because he or she fell short of the goal. If the field trip is so educational (which I believe it could be), would not this student gain the most from the experience.

Dear Ms. Shyu,
I am a student at California State University of Northridge and I am taking a Special Education class. Our profesor teaches us how to include all children in all activies done in the classroom and he also showed us how to do modify the lesson plans in a way that children get the support and rewards of learning. He read us your article and I think the technique you use I would not call it bribrery but instead you used rewards and relieve the stress on children and the anxiety that sometimes children face. My grandmother used to say that every teacher has his(her) own little book of instruction. I really think that a teacher knows the children in the classroom and the management tha one uses to teach is the one that fits at that moment. I like your blogs and I think you are a great teacher.
Sincerely,
Alicia

Hello Ms. Shyu,
I am a student at California State University of Northridge and I am currently enrolled in a wonderful class called SPED 401C. This class entails including students with special needs. Just last week our professor read your article on bribery to us in class, I thought it was an interesting article because as teachers we need to do whatever it takes to get our students motivated and learning at the same time. As a future educator I would like to think that instead of using the word bribe, I will be using what I learned in this class, a BIP (Behavioral Intervention Plan). It is a wonderful tool to use and it has worked with the students I work with. In response to your statement "As guilty as I feel about bribing my students to do work they need to do to begin with, I still sleep just fine at night," and you should because you sound like a wonderful teacher who cares about her students.
Sincerely,
Hourig S.

Hi,
I am a student at Cal State Northridge, and I am currently taking a class on including children with disabilities in the classroom. After reading your blog, I was saddened that you felt as though you were “bribing” the children and was secretly doing something that you should not. Bribing is not the term to use for this situation, but a BIP (Behavioral Intervention Plan). You are teaching the children that if they want something, they have to work hard to get it. You are motivating them, and improving their self confidence in the long run, because after, they are going to see that they are capable of getting good grades. I hope you continue using the BIP in class and continue to feel proud at what you are accomplishing. I hope to hear more about your BIP’s and the success it brings.
Rebecca Walton

Dear Ms. Shyu,
I am currently taking a Special Education class at California State University, Northridge. Our professor read your article to us, and I was surprised at the word you use to motivate your students and get them interested in the material you teach. I have been taught throughout my life that bribing is one of the negative outcomes of our society. The strategy that you use with your students, is not a bribe, but rather a positive reinforcement technique that is so necessary for many students to succeed. It is a wonderful Behavioral Intervention Plan (BIP) which many experienced teachers use to motivate their students and help them achieve academic success. After all, even we, as adults, do a lot of things in our lives because we expect a reward, because we believe we deserve a reward.
From your blog I can see that you are a very caring teacher, and I wish you success in educating the younger generations.
Siincerely,
Lilit Davoyan

Ms. Shyu,
I am a current student at Cal State Northridge and taking a Spec. Edu. class. Through out the semester the class has been discussing various forms of Behavioral Intervention Plans(BIP). In the article you described that you began bartering fruit for proper behavior and served hot cocoa if the class worked properly until the end of the week, and you got positive results. The word bribe is used as your intention of motivating behavior. To me, your intentions are more of an implemination of rewards for your students, not bribery. You are not bribing your students, you are rewarding them for their proper behavior and success in the classroom. Your math intervention plan also brought you results. You rewarded your students with a restaurant dinner to the students that improved by one letter grade, your intention is not to bribe your students, it is to reward them for their motivation and success in the classroom.

Ms. Shyu,
I am currently working towards getting my teaching credential at Cal State Northridge (CSUN). The professor of my Special Education class has been teaching us to implement Behavior Intervention Plans (BIP) in our own classrooms as a way to reinforce positive behaviors. Your "bribes" are perfect examples of a BIP. You have found a way to encourage your students to be better, and it works! Think of your bribes as more of an incentive-rewards system. In the end, you have implemented something in your classroom that is helping the students learn, and that is the most important part. I really enjoy reading your blog, as I will be a new teacher soon. Keep up the great work!

Good luck,
Summer

I'm a student at Cal State University Northridge studying to become a teacher. We were just talking about your blog in class. In a way I guess you could call it bribery. In class we call it a Behavioral Intervention Plan (BIP) and it works. Our professor has read many of these to us and even given us some of his own. As a teacher our job is to motivate children to learn and I think a BIP is an excelent way to do that. We as adults also work for rewards. I really enjoyed reading your blog. I wish you all the success in teaching.

RESPONSE:
Thank you, Joanna!

Dear Ms. Shyu,
You should be happy to hear, that what you’re doing with your students isn’t bribery, it is a sound, proven educational practice called a Behavioral Intervention Plan or a BIP. I am currently a student at California State University Northridge and have learned about encouraging students to demonstrate a desired behavior through the use of rewards. Similarly, we as adults are motivated with the use of rewards (i.e. a paycheck). What you’re doing is a good thing. Remember that using rewards to get greater than average results keeps the teacher, students and parents happy. Keep up the good work.

In reading through this blog I am amazed. As a teacher of 33 years I am saddened to read that a teacher would "confess" to taking school property. It doesn't matter what it is or that she "needs" it. What happend when 75 teachers believe that they need that extra package of paper and take it?The paper is not hers or theirs to take. THE END.

That is the problem with our entire society, we make up the rules as we go along because of what we want or what we think is a priority or because we think we need it. Would this teacher take a computer because she knew it would help her to do a better job of preparing materials for her students? Probably not yet where is the line? I believe that stealing a pack of gum is the same as stealing a bicycle. And when it gets to be an extrememly valuable item it is considered grand theft. If you own a store it doesn't matter if 100 people steal one item worth $1 each or if one person steals one item worth $100. You are still out the merchandize and all have stolen from you.

And the last item I want to comment on is...my paycheck is NOT a reward. I earn my pay by coming to work, writing lesson plans, disciplining students, contacting parents and so on. When I go above and beyond for my students I don't get a bonus in my paycheck. I get the reward of feeling good that I have accomplished something that has helped a child learn or feel good about him/her self which is the only reason I chose to make a living (get a paycheck) by teaching. One of the best lines I have ever heard about this issue is from a student during an elongated contract negotiations in our district. A student said, "My father said you wouldn't even come to work if you didn't get paid for it." And the teacher's reply was..."No, he is right I would not come to work every day if I did not get paid, would your father?"

So please do not equate adults being paid for their jobs to students getting rewards for accomplishing school work or good behavior.

It appears that most agree with this concept. My concern is this: What happens when children expect you to reward them all the time? What if they begin to negotiate with you (Sure, I'll do my homework if you buy me lunch?; sure I'll take that test if you give me a dollar?) Isn't it a concern when they begin to ask "what's in it for me" and I am not doing it unless you give me something for doing so?

I get rewarding and positive reinforcement. I know that most of us use the adults go to work because they know they will get paid. But I think its more the alternative, if I don't work, I wont' eat, have shelter, or get anything else I need. There is a value that we can see, not just the pay check, but what that pay check can provide to help us sustain our lives. There is more to being motivated to work than just getting a pay check.

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