Drinking the Kool-Aid

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Apr 09 2011

Three stories about bribing kids

On Tuesday, I gave my fake ESL kid a King Size Reese’s and a pack of fruity Trident gum (I was really proud I knew it was his favorite) because he did such great work the day before.

I’m almost afraid to say it—but I think he really is making a turnaround. (And guess what? My transformers worksheet helped!) He didn’t skip class all week, worked steadily through the period on the days he wasn’t pulled out for writing samples, and yesterday he walked right up to me and asked for his missing assignments (I had to swallow to make myself think before I spoke; he’s basically missing every single assignment I’ve given). Then while he was working, he called me over to ask a question. Even Toothpik, who has been doing better and better and now attempts his work about half the time, has never deliberately sought my attention. But there it was, the most natural little beckoning gesture, as if he asked for my help every day.

For some reason, my instinct was to try and act like nothing was different, and act like he asked for my help every day, too. But, let’s face it; that just means I tried not to leap over too many chairs and tables in my eagerness to see what he wanted.

I hope you understand the significance of this event. Every day, head down on his leather jacket, turning his face away from me no matter how I twist and turn to get him to look at me. Absolutely non-responsive. So many referrals just because I didn’t know what else to do. Hundreds of phone calls to a line I knew was disconnected before I finally found his brother’s number. So much pleading and cajoling and, yes, often, ignoring. It is SO EASY to let yourself give up on someone so determined to see if you’ll give up on them. And I did I gave up and un-gave up a thousand times.

On Wednesday, I promised Webbie a Honey Bun if he did the first page of his packet, and then a Reese’s if he did the first two. He’s a little bit of a different story—he used to be a great student, and then he realized he doesn’t get a credit for Math Intervention. Since then, he’s been about as productive as a rock—but slightly more belligerent. He picks fights with everyone he can, simply because he’s bored and because the other kids in my first period are so hot-headed. But he’s certainly a bargainer—he did the first page of his work, no more and no less. At lunch when he came to pick it up, he just took it and peaced out without a thanks or even a nod.

However, he did leave me with a very patronizing “See? If you give me candy, I do my work” as if this was a kernel of wisdom he was graciuosly allowing me to discover. THAT is my favorite part:  he thinks he’s taking advantage of me. He thinks it was his idea, that I’m the one being manipulated. Whatever, buddy. “Play the system” all you want—but you’re going to the 11th grade.

On Thursday, I gave my Brat a cookie on the condition that she finish her worksheet in OCI (ISS). I made it a point to visit her when I heard she would be in there for two days—the rest of my students were really starting to understand dilations, and I wanted to make sure she knew enough to finish the work I sent down to her. When I sneaked up behind her and put the little subway cookie on her desk, her soft “… thanks, miss” was truly surprised and genuine and grateful. She was then in a good enough mood to not shout at me as I gave her a quick explanation of the worksheet.


My roommate and I used to have conversations about bribing kids. She teaches second grade, and found it crude and animalistic to reward her students’ good behavior with marshmallows, like she would a dog doing tricks. I’ve had conversations about whether encouraging extrinsic motivation is a good idea, and I know some people have a lot to say about the importance of encouraging healthy eating habits. Personally, I wonder if learning to motivate yourself is a longer learning process than we think, and if you don’t experience external good things after hard work at first, you’ll never get a chance to experience the more salient benefits. Also, though bribery isn’t as cool as kids doing things for their own sake and gluttony isn’t as cool as enlightening kids about the importance of preventative health, my first priority is that they learn to think mathematically; things like personal health and intrinsic motivation have to come second.

Also, really interesting: the sweets had such a different effect on each of my students. My Fake ESL kid, I think, realized that someone noticed and liked it when he worked in class. Webbie hit upon a sweet deal and wants to continue to profit as if we’re on his terms. For my Brat, it was simply a sign that we were on good terms—because I had done something nice, I think she genuinely felt less inclined to act like she hated me.

4 Responses

  1. G

    It’s amazing how much power a simple ticket has. I give them to my students as rewards when I catch them being good. There’s a “store” where they can buy “things” (such as time on the computer, time to draw, etc). Having a treasure box was getting to be too expensive and I don’t reward with food (again, that would eventually get too expensive), except for class popcorn parties and such.

    The funny thing is that competition is what drives my 2nd graders…no one ever wants to “buy” anything. They’re just competing to see who can accumulate the most tickets by the end of the year. I say: whatever works to get them from A to B. Bribe on!!

  2. Sorry to have been so absent. My guesses on what your kids were thinking/feeling (more likely feeling).

    Fake ESL – “She’s real. After all this time, she’s STILL trying to get me to do this stuff. She’s STILL being nice to me. She’s STILL trying. She doesn’t rub people’s face in stuff they’ve done before/I’ve never seen her do that so I know she won’t put me on blast or say something smart about how the sky must be falling or something if I ask her for help or try to do my work for once. And she appreciates when people try – she must know it’s not easy because sometimes she gives people stuff when they do good.”

    Webbie- “She’s real. I can’t push her buttons and make her quit me.” He knows he’s not getting over on you but pretending he is lets him save face and still do his work. He too, thinks you are really cool for not “putting him on blast”. Once kids have publicly established that they don’t do work or get along with teachers who want them to, changing their behavior is very tricky because they feel like they’ll lose face with their peers if they admit to changing their mind (even though in most cases their peers couldn’t care less).

    Flipping kids is very tough to do, especially for new teachers because it requires you to be exceeding generous… to be a big enough person to let them save face and remove the power struggle… to recognize that you’ve got to be able to reach them to teach them and you can’t do that until you tame them first… and taming kids is a selfless, taxing proposition.

    Brat: “She brought me a cookie in suspension. And math sheets. She cares about me even when I’m in trouble, even when I’m being a jerk.

    She’s the nicest teacher ever and it bugs me sometimes… a lot of times. I’m not used to people being nice to me. It makes me feel a little sick some times. Like I’m going to cry or throw up or something. Because she still thinks I’m good and smart and I like it better when people think I’m bad or don’t think of me at all… because then they don’t look all hurt and disappointed when I mess up. And when THEY quit ME (which they always do sooner or later), I don’t feel all hurt or disappointed either. So she bugs me… but she brought me a cookie in suspension.

  3. Jeesh – “exceedingly generous”. Missing end quotes etc… good grief.

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