Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

All that glitters...

Gold stars

The new DfES behaviour guidelines came in for criticism for recommending a five-to-one praise to reprimand ratio. According to ASCL member Andy Buck, it's how, not how much, that counts. And, he says, the wrong kind of praise can be dangerous.

Discussion of how teachers use praise inevitably leads to heated debate. Various 'reprimand to praise ratios' have been mentioned in behaviour management manuals - long before the DfES issued its guidance - and there is no doubt that praise is an essential part of creating a positive climate for learning.

I believe strongly that, where teachers are struggling to manage behaviour in the classroom, one of the key elements usually missing is the effective use of praise.

However, I think the real issue is how praise is used - the wrong type of praise can be useless and even have the opposite effect to what was intended.

It is tempting for some teachers to over-praise students' responses during questioning by using words such as 'fantastic' or 'excellent' to describe work that is barely adequate. The teacher's use of such a vocabulary becomes almost second nature and over time these words lose their meaning.

Very often students are quite aware of the quality of an answer that they or one of their peers may have given. They will generally know whether the answer they just heard was outstanding, and if the response from the teacher is overly-positive, what tends to happen is that the level of expectation about what the class is striving to achieve will inevitably fall.

It is also important to consider how students like to receive praise. For many, public praise is difficult. For these students, the quiet word later in the lesson or on the way out of the room is much more valuable.

Even stronger is the use of 'secondary praise', where a teacher passes on a good comment to a colleague who then delivers the message back to the student. Clearly, in a large organisation such an approach cannot be used systematically, but it does offer an additional way forward with particularly challenging individuals.

But when discussing how praise is used in schools and colleges, students are only part of the picture. The same theory can be applied to staff, and the same approaches just as effective in motivating and encouraging excellence.

All staff value praise. Yet so often school and college leaders fail to take, or fail to create, the opportunities to show staff they are aware of and appreciate the contribution that staff are making.

On a day-to-day basis, whenever a leader is walking around the school/college, he or she can be looking for genuine things to praise, both with students and staff. The odd passing comment can mean a great deal to the individual concerned and they have a better day as a result. It also reinforces to anyone else that may be there what it is that matters or is expected.

As with students, sometimes it is the quiet word to one side that is most effective, particularly if one knows that the person isn't very good at receiving praise. In other occasions it is the public thanks at a weekly briefing that is most appropriate. Again, this not only motivates the individual concerned but sends a message to other colleagues about what is important and valued.

However I believe the most powerful way to praise is through writing to colleagues. The handwritten note to someone, a copy to go on that member of staff's personnel file, shows that someone has taken the time and seen it as important to sit down and make a point of doing something personal.

In terms of motivating staff and gaining their loyalty, I have found the use of personal notes probably the most effective way of using praise.

With all of the demands and pressures vying for leaders' attention, the need to make time to praise staff may seem way down the list. But often it is the simple things that can make the most difference to setting the ethos and culture.

To retain good staff, it is important to make sure achievements are recognised, that working conditions are good, that staff can see progression in their career and that staffing structures are flexible enough to allow this to happen.

More generally, there is no substitute for making sure that everything that comes together to create the ethos is a school is positive and energetic. People like to work in a place that feels good about itself - and that means staff and students have to feel good about themselves.

Andy Buck is Head of the Jo Richardson Community School in Barking and Dagenham. He recently published Making School Work: A practical approach to secondary school leadership, available from www.greenex.co.uk

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