Praise Where It’s Due

At my school we have a behaviour system built around merits and demerits. I’ve never been keen on these systems. In lots of schools horrible kids tend to get bucket loads of merits just for sitting in a chair and being slightly less abusive than usual. Lots of nice kids tend to get ignored. The basics of good manners seem to be praised to a ridiculous extent when really they should just be part of the fabric of normal human interactions.

Some teachers hand out merits like dolly mixtures. Some just can’t be bothered. Then of course there are those schools that tell you for every negative comment you must give four positives. How on earth anyone is supposed to track that stuff I’ll never know. Also logging merits on the computer is a pain. And of course, give it a few month into Year 7 and the appeal of merits soon starts to wane. So no, I’ve never been a fan of merits.

As for demerits – what actually happens to these kids who are a real pain in your lessons?

‘Demerit!’, ‘That’s your second warning!’

‘Big deal! Tell someone who gives a monkey’s!’

The same kids keep getting demerits. Nothing really happens to the kids. Teachers get sick of logging stuff only to find nothing’s ever done and so demerits crumble away too. And of course there are the schools where the teacher who gives the most demerits or detentions or uses ‘on call’ most is under the microscope. There are always those schools where the awkward, lazy, mouthy kid encounters the determined, focused, perhaps a bit naive, teacher who actually thinks the behaviour system is meant to be applied to the letter.

This teacher gives merits when deserved and demerits when warranted. This teacher uses ‘on call’ liberally because the kid’s behaviour is bang out of order. This teacher complains to the HOY and SLT because the system isn’t being applied. This teacher soon becomes known as awkward, out of step, unrealistic, too demanding. He can’t cope. That’s why he uses ‘on call’ so much. Or else he’s just too old school. If he did a bit more group work, you know a bit more ‘kinaesthetic’, like on your pgce, he’d be ok. The kids wouldn’t kick off. And, of course, in lots of schools there’s that insidious climate of, ‘Don’t use ‘on call’ too much! They keep a log. They’ll use it against you when looking at performance management.’

So, yeah, on balance, I’ve never been a fan of merits and demerits and prizes and…

For goodness sake! Is it too much to ask that a kid brings a pen, shuts up for five minutes and then makes a decent stab at some work that I can actually read?

It is very early days at Michaela, we only have 120 Year 7s, 7 teachers and 4 TA’s – so we’re a tiny school. But merits & demerits actually do seem to be working very, very well. And, to be honest, it blows out of the water everything  I’ve seen visiting hundreds of school and training thousands of teachers during a career of around eighteen years.

With us, much to my surprise, kids value merits, kids come up to you at break and spell 48 word medical conditions they’ve found on the net, using the French alphabet. They do that, partially, for a merit. Kids do extra homework without being asked – for a merit. They’ll reply to the most banal question like, ‘Comment dit-on, the weekend last?’ , with ‘Mais c’est évident M. Forgeron, ça crève les yeux en fait, c’est: le week-end dernier’, they’ll do all that for a merit.

It’s not purely for the merit of course, though they are competitive and they do remind you if they find you haven’t logged a merit when you should have. They like showing off, feeling clever, stretching themselves, standing out from the crowd.

We can give merits for kids who SLANT beautifully – sit up straight, arms folded, no fiddling, listening attentively, asking and answering questions, kids who ‘track’ the teacher and don’t let their eyes wander.

We can give merits to kids who use STEPS beautifully – sir, thank you, excuse me, please and smile!

We can give merits for kids who go to town on HEAPS – hands away from your mouth when you speak, good eye contact, don’t mumble – articulate! And of course, project! Everyone needs to hear your answer. And yes! Of course you’ll repy in extended full sentences.

There are loads and loads of rules. And because there are loads of rules there are loads of reminders about what ‘Being Michaela’ really means. There are loads of opportunities to receive praise, to receive positive recognition.

The kids like the league tables for IXL completion, they like the 100% badges for perfect attendance and punctuality across the half term. They like  the bronze, silver, gold badges denoting the number of merits gained and your ranking in the year. They like the reward event where, at the end of half term, if your attendance, punctuality and merit/demerit balance are good, you get to watch a film with the rest of your form – you have popcorn too. Our last couple of films have been Invictus and Long Walk to Freedom – they all know the poem by heart and they’ve all read the book in class.They like the subject prizes given twice year. This year maths gave out 4 Rubic cubes and humanities gave out rulers covered in hieroglyphs. Every kid in the school can spell ‘hieroglyph’. The vast majority can spell it using the French alphabet.

We shake hands a lot. We give them responsibilities a lot. We give them opportunities to demonstrate, as I always tell them, that they’re ‘top of the pyramid’ people. There are squillions of people at the bottom of the pyramid, taking the easy choices, developing bad habits, searching for lame excuses.  There are millions that resolve to change but never really commit. There are thousands and thousands who do have a go, who do try to make the right choices but fall by the way side pretty soon. There are only a handful of people who know what they really believe in, who constantly keep their commitments, who always get back up and refocus when things go wrong. They’re the top of the pyramid people. Elitist? No. You get to the top of the pyramid and you stay at the top of the pyramid, because of  the millions of choices you make every day.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, merits are really working for us. It’s early days. There’ll be ups and downs. Merits are  just part of the jigsaw.

Are the kids ‘intrinsically motivated’? There’ll always be the early adopters and the laggards but, yes, I think, very largely, our kids ‘get it’.

Merits aren’t the whole story, doing stuff you can be proud of when no one is looking, doing stuff you can be proud of even though nobody else but you may ever know – that’s getting through.

Next time I’ll maybe talk about the demerits.

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