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Acknowledgement. Praise. Reward.


I live on the mountains. Being a Cultura Inglesa branch manager, I sometimes have to go down to Rio de Janeiro for meetings, and they usually start at 9 AM. This means I have to drive down to sea level very early in the morning, and it’s a pleasure. The amazing view I had this Tuesday was of a typical Autumn day, with patches of bluish sky showing timidly here and there among wisps of clouds thin as cotton candy. The tops of the mountains along the road were still lazily asleep, with thick blankets of cloud wrapped around them. An occasional shower woke up the flowers and blurred my perfect vision of the city of Rio, seen from up above. This is what was on my mind when I went down, but different thoughts occupied my brain twelve hours later, on my way back home.

Acknowledgement. Praise. Reward.

These words punctuated the meeting in various moments. In fact, my day kind of started with them, when one of my fellow managers unexpectedly paid me a generous compliment on my writing, which she said she’d come to enjoy after reading my blog. I was flattered, but most of all I was touched. And I enjoyed it. And I smiled to myself, rejoicing in her words, thinking “well, so it’s worth it after all – someone likes my writing. Hooray!” Then the meeting went on, and the words above kept popping up at various moments, diverse situations. Again. And again. And once more.

On the drive home, while my eyes concentrated on the road, my brains revisited moments of my day and my teacher psyche drifted to the classroom plus its universe of students, still with the words acknowledgement, praise, reward ringing in my ears. (…) More often than not a teacher comes to me saying “her students can’t see their progress no matter how much STT they have”. (…) After a few more bends, I make the connection and decide to write a post.

Acknowledgement. Praise. Reward.

This is the missing link in this case. Students can see how much work they do in class, they know how many words they’ve learnt, but they absolutely can’t acknowledge how much progress they’ve made since they started studying, or from one class to the next. They miss it because no one points it out to them! That’s where the teacher MUST step in, clearly showing students they CAN use what they’ve learnt in real life situations, in short, they can produce. If the teacher manages to make students ‘see’ how far they’ve gone, the learner will take stock of his status in learning the language and will probably feel more confident, thus encouraging himself to produce more.

A few ways to do that:

– If a student uses a word he’s recently learnt in a spontaneous sentence, acknowledge that. Not with a nod, or a smile, but make it big, praise him and say how smart he is, to use a recently learnt word in a perfect sentence! Use impact words, like ‘Bravo!’ or ‘Great!’;

– After a speaking activity, signal to the group how much they’ve talked (this can be measured in minutes or length of sentences, for example) and compare their production now to what it was last week. Show them their progress;

– Teach students simple everyday sentences (build a sentence bank) they can use whenever they need during the class, such as ‘Can you lend me a pencil’, ‘May I drink some water’ or ‘Do I have to copy that?’ Then, praise students EVERY TIME they use the sentences, for they will be communicating and using what they’ve learnt;

– Why not develop a rewards system, where students would get one point, or star, or anything that suits you and them every time they made good and real use of the language? At the end of the month you could count the points and have the big class champion and give him a reward, like a new pencil or pen. The secret here is never forget to reward every student, for they may not be ‘the big class champion’, but they also made an effort to try and get there. I bet next month they’ll try even harder.

Ok. Students it is. How about your teachers? A very significant portion of the secret of a good language learner comes from the teacher. Teachers inspire, and in order to do that, teachers must have high self-esteem and self-confidence. Knowing that, teacher trainers and/or managers have to do their share. Teachers have to acknowledge, praise and reward, but they also deserve it and enjoy it, like any human being. (Like I enjoyed my co-worker’s sincere words this morning.) So, read these simple ways to boost your teachers’ confidence:

– If a teacher has developed an activity that worked well, ask him to demonstrate to his colleagues in a meeting or share it in a poster in the Teachers’ Room, saying how much you appreciate his work;
– Try and identify the stronger qualities of teachers, and organize a workshop where 2 or 3 of them give the others ‘hints’ on how to do improve their performance on that specific quality;

– Celebrate victories – small and big – with simple gestures such as a thank-you/congratulations note left on the teacher’s desk or with a cake to share the success with the whole staff;

– Praise your teachers in public, and criticize in private, if it’s really necessary.

Small actions have big consequences. Happier teachers have shiny eyes and we all know that a sparkle in the eye is what makes the world go round. Let’s make the difference for our teachers and students with a little acknowledgement, praise and reward. They deserve it, we deserve it too.

A big thanks to Aline, who inspired me to write this post with her kind words this morning.

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