Refocus on Learning, Not Earning

By Jamie Dicks and Julianna Traxler

It was two weeks before the school year began, and we were making about 1,248 decisions about how the school year would go and what preparations we would need to make for the upcoming year. We were fortunate enough to be in a room with personalized learning cohort members from our district, sharing and planning how we would work towards personalizing our classrooms. The topic of reward dollars came up, and we were asked if we were going to use them again this year.

“Of course! The kids love our Team Store!” was our initial response. After all, we want our kids to be happy, to feel loved, and to be appreciated!

But then we were asked to reflect.

“What is our goal for students? When you have the team store, who walks away with the huge bag full of treats and prizes and who walks away with just a small piece of candy or one reward? Think about the students who always do the right thing and the ones that worked so hard all week to get that one dollar. Is this equitable?”

An image of that one student came to mind…you know the one, whom we worked with all year and who made such great strides. The one who doesn’t have a great home life and who experiences things we have never had to go through. That student who we feel deserves the rewards just as much as anyone else. The student that has a single dollar to spend because it took a lot of work to get to that point.

As soon as that image came into our minds, we decided we wouldn’t be using reward dollars any more.

Since that time, we have realized a couple of things. First, we were spending a lot of our time organizing the team store and giving out the dollars. Time that we desperately need and could be putting into lesson planning or checking off a task on any of the other seemingly endless lists of priorities. Second, students were doing the right things for the wrong reasons. They were doing the right things so that they could earn that dollar instead of doing the right thing because they are a part of their team and it’s the right thing to do.

By removing rewards and classroom dollars, it has created a better environment for personalized learning. Instead of the learners comparing themselves to others or competing, they are focused on bettering themselves, their work, and their goals. This refocus has created an environment safe for risk taking and has strengthened our classroom community as we support each other in this environment. We are engaged in learning, not earning.

We have noticed through our personalized learning journey that our 4th graders are capable of so much more than we sometimes give them credit for. We have seen a side of them that was not always clear to us because sometimes it was overshadowed by extrinsic motivations or rewards. We have seen our students do the right thing because it’s the right thing. They feel empowered by this, and it was also validated when they completed the kid-friendly survey of their love languages. Almost NONE of them said that gifts were their love language. Instead, words of affirmation and quality time were the dominant traits.

We have not seen a negative trend in behaviors either. In fact, we have seen an increase in positive behaviors and a decrease in negative behaviors. This works out well for us, because another decision we made two weeks before school was to use only logical consequences for behaviors this year. But that’s a whole other story!

Teacher Tips:

  • Think about the goal of your reward system. Is your reward system working for the students that you’re hoping to reach?
  • Think about how much of your time you are investing in your reward system. Do you feel that this is time well spent?
  • What is the goal of the reward system for the students through the lens of the students? Do they know the “why” behind the reward system? Is there a way to promote growth in behaviors? Or is it just punitive?

About Jamie Dicks

Jamie Dicks is in her 12th year of teaching. She has taught 7th and 8th grade math and is currently teaching 4th grade math and science at Mason Elementary in Mason, Ohio. She is a member of the Personalized Learning Cohort in Mason City Schools and has her Masters in Middle Childhood Education.

About Julianna Traxler

Julianna TraxlerJulianna Traxler is in her 6th year of teaching. She has taught 4th grade Language Arts and Social Studies all six years. She is a member of the Personalized Learning Cohort at Mason City Schools.
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