“We Used To Throw Candy At The Kids.”

When I was in my credential program, we often had in service teachers, ranging anywhere from year one to year ten, come and speak to our cohort about their experiences in the classroom. It was usually set up panel-style, with a few prompts and questions to guide discussion.

(As an aside, I think it’s good to note that in-service teachers who go into prep programs to speak about their experiences are usually teachers who the university has tried to maintain relationships with (and usually field that university’s pre-service teacher placements) — OR, they are teachers who have actively maintained a relationship with their alma mater. From my perspective, this holds no bearing on quality of teacher, but rather speaks to the fact that most perspectives / opinions shared on these panels will generally be in alignment with the championed and tacit values of the program — unless a concerted effort is made by professors to actively recruit a variety of teacher perspectives).

OK. So anyway. I don’t even remember what the panel was about, but somehow the topic of rewards got brought up, as a segue / riff on a bigger and broader discussion about classroom management.

A classmate asked one of the panelists what they thought about rewards. If I remember correctly, the teacher who decided to take the question was a veteran, in the classroom for about 10 years.

She got bright red — and I remembered this so clearly — she got bright red, clasped her face in her hands, and said “We used to throw candy at the kids.” It was painful to hear, but seemingly even more painful for her to say. She proceeded. “Yeah, isn’t it awful? We used to have them sit on the carpet, and when they said the right answer we would throw them a Jolly Rancher! I can’t believe we used to do that.”

Now, the fact that she seemed embarrassed to be sharing this aspect of her pedagogical past was not particularly noteworthy. What did leave a lasting impression on me was the question it inspired — and has continued to inspire me to ask of my own practice: “What am I doing in the classroom today, that in ten years, is going to be like ‘We used to throw candy at the kids’”? What are we, as educators (and I feel like I can lump myself into this category now) doing, that in 10 years is going to be like “OH-EM-GEE-I-Can’t-Believe-That-Was-Common-Practice!”; What are we doing big-picture-wise? And what am I doing in my own practice, that I might regard as such ten years down the line? It’s a good question to consider, I think.

The use of rewards in education is a complex and contentious topic — it’s an area of pedagogy that runs deep with people. I personally don’t know how I feel about them myself. From a practical stand point, I work with way too many students, in too active a way, to be able to monitor any of that; The activity has to be reward enough (at least for a majority / critical mass). I also don’t really care about rewards — so monitoring for them doesn’t make sense to me. From a theoretical stand point however, there seem to be a lot of different perspectives. Personally, I think it’s one thing to train a seal, and quite another to try and help cultivate a human being; From my perspective, the most creative, ambitious, diligent, driven, doers & creators don’t seem to be extrinsically motivated. They seem to be intrinsically motivated. However, there is the very real importance & necessity of making school work, now. Like, as in, right now! Regardless of outside circumstance, classrooms have to be managed, so that 1) everyone stays safe and 2) students have the opportunity to learn in a relatively calm environment.

But it’s complicated. I remember watching a Geoffrey Canada interview years ago in which he was like (and I’m totally paraphrasing here..)“I don’t care why they do it, I just want them to do it.” I think this followed a question he was asked about paying kids for grades; The rational behind this, I believe, is something along the lines of ‘while extrinsic motivation isn’t ideal, not doing the work of school, when it needs to be done, is too detrimental to a student’s future — it doesn’t matter; If they don’t do it now, if they don’t learn to read NOW, if they don’t buy into the system of schooling NOW, the train’s gonna leave without them; Regardless of what might motivate a student, we don’t have the time or resources to find out. And for waaaaaaay too many students, school, and the game of school, is the only ticket out of poverty there is.’

There’s also this whole KIPP idea of INTENSITY — Let’s do everything public education is doing — better, faster, harder, and stronger. Without stopping to ask whether or not public education is doing the right things.

There’s also this idea of the crazy-supplemental-supports charter school — which basically extends the curricular day, and has a TON of supports in place, so that students can’t fall behind even if they want to, let alone stand up on their own; Some of these students get into big name schools, but are then left to fend for themselves — support-less — and end up floundering. Or, in worst case scenarios, dropping out.

I guess, in the end, it comes down to this question: What is the purpose of public education? Is it to socially reproduce the status quo? Is it a tool for social justice / a mechanism to promote social mobility, and ‘level the playing field’ so to speak? Is it to produce a more informed electorate? Is it to prepare students for the world that exists? Is it to prepare students for the world we think should exist? Is it to supply the current demands of the labor market? Or is it to provide every single student, regardless of their background and socioeconomic status, an opportunity to ‘choose their own path in life’? And if so, what exactly does that mean and look like? These are important and complex questions people are thinking about, even at the elementary level. Which, by the way, is extremely consequential — it’s where it all begins.

On a personal note — because, well, this is my blog, and sometimes I get personal — one of the main & many reasons I decided that going into classroom teaching wasn’t right for me, was because — in addition to feeling like I wouldn’t be very good at it — I just couldn’t stomach, let alone implement, a lot of the teaching & strategies I saw being used on kids — teaching & strategies widely regarded as excellent. I used to think: “If school is supposed to serve the purpose of “turning things around”, then instead of using low-level manipulative managerial strategies on kids in the classroom, we should — at the very least — be using high-level manipulative managerial strategies! Then at least students will be attracted to higher level, higher paying jobs.” But wait, what happens at the highest levels of effectiveness, and often, subsequently, employment? People stop telling you what to do, because only you can do it. Do I want to generate a class (double entendre intended) of kids that have gotten so used to order-taking and direction following that that’s what they naturally gravitate toward upon graduation? Or do I want to cultivate a group of discerning, independent-thinking human beings, who are learning to stand up for themselves, follow their intuition, respectfully disobey, and harness their own inherently-creative potential? Personally, I think we should be doing the latter. Even though I don’t know exactly what that looks like, or how one begins to go about implementation & measurement….. That — in my crazy-“out-of-the-box”-artist-opinion — is what it seems like we should be working toward; We should not — for the sake of short-term effectiveness & manageability — be throwing candy at the kids.

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*I was trying to find a place in this post to address a related theatre concept: The internal and external approach to characterization.

In a nut shell, the idea is that when you’re trying to develop a character, you can approach the task in one of two ways. You can start with the external — you can dress the part, walk the part, take on the physicality, the mannerisms, put yourself in the setting & world of the character etc., and then let that inform how you speak / feel / think / act. OR, you can do the exact opposite. You can start with the internal; You go there emotionally & psychologically, and then see what happens…. When you think and feel a certain way, what kind of clothing do you choose to put on? How do you feel compelled to speak? And think? And act? And walk? And be? The outside informs the inside. Or the inside informs the outside.

This is just a simple explanation of a highly individual & artistic process for the actor. But applicable, I think, to motivation & behavior. What makes us act the way we do? And what are the effects of the intrinsic & extrinsic on one another? I dunno. But I find it interesting to think about. Especially in school settings, and especially with regard to behavior, management, and expectations.

I dance, write, choreograph, educate, research, and document — with an emphasis in elementary arts education. | www.jakeytoor.com

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