We all want attention. Psychologists tell us it is the number-one payoff for the human creature. Attention confirms our very existence. In many cases, it tells us we are needed. The need to be needed is one of the distinctions between humans and other animals; in fact, for many it is more important than survival itself. Even those people who say they don’t really want attention often say so because it gets them attention. Whether we receive approval or reprimand, we seek the acknowledgment of those around us, and we guide our behavior according to the attention-rewards issued by those in our environment.
During class, a test, or an extra-curricular activity, from the student’s perspective, what is the quickest way to gain your attention? By doing something positively or negatively? Which students are extended the most communication? Let’s look one step beyond: How does this exchange influence the entire group? Does it motivate the group to move forward, or does it deter the positive flow and hopeful expectations of the all-too-short class period?
For the sake of example, let’s say that the quickest way to gain attention in most cases would be to do something wrong. Misbehaving, talking during class, being rude, interfering with another student’s performance, not paying attention, and a host of other choices are almost certain attention-getters. Teachers with every good intention of clearing up the problem may bring the entire group to a standstill while explaining the inappropriateness of the behavior of the guilty party.
Haven’t we all walked out of the classroom in a state of frustration, trying to justify our actions (or reactions) to a situation, not only preventing any improvement, but setting the class back three periods? Of course, we then have to deal with the emotional residue that is certain to soil all of those in the class. When all is said and done, our actions are usually based on where we as educators focus our attention.
Logic would suggest that we ignore the students’ negative behaviors and acknowledge their positive contributions. However, any accomplished teacher is well aware of the fact that the job is to “correct what is wrong.” How is this possible if we ignore what is wrong? The skeptic immediately visualizes one of those shallow classes in which the students are given a false impression of their achievements and contributions by a flood of undeserved compliments. Rest assured, this kind of teaching technique would guarantee the demise of any organization. It would be analogous to watering weeds in a garden. Eventually the weeds would consume the flowers.
The other end of the spectrum is the all-too-familiar environment based on fear. The conditions are as restrictive as the personal resistance to the confining demands. The students are programmed and conditioned to do only what they have been told to do—no more, no less. Research indicates that these students have difficulties progressing without the detailed instruction of the teacher and are hesitant to take any initiative or venture outside the “safety zone” because of the possible repercussions.
Both of these scenarios create a less-than-ideal growth experience for the teacher and the students. We all desire the value of group discipline, yet we encourage our young people to reach beyond their present limits and explore their growth potential and talents. Is there some way to have the best of both worlds? Can we guide the students to take risks and investigate new realms of expression without losing control of the group’s ultimate goal? Emphatically, yes!
Behavior modification is nothing more than a stimulus-response process. We repeat any behavior for which we are rewarded. In this case, the reward would be your attention. The students who are given the greatest amount of your attention literally determine the dominant attitude of the group. They are the ones receiving the greatest rewards for their behavior—and others will modify their actions to be in line for their fair share of the bounty. Add this proven truth to the next bit of leadership understanding, and new horizons appear: criticize in private, praise in public.
Criticize in private
If there is a need for an adjustment in the behavior or attitude of a student, meet with the pupil privately. Privacy will afford a candid exchange without the entire class serving as a judgmental audience.
One of the healthy byproducts of this scenario is the respect the students gain for you and the professionalism of your teaching methods. When we can avoid the emotionalism often associated with critical admonishment, everyone benefits. Developing this habit may take some strict personal control, but the advantages are beyond measure.
This approach does not preclude those times when we simply need to have everyone put their books down to have a good old-fashioned heart-to-heart. Such times can be some of the most inspiring and focusing learning adventures in our growth. However, they must be used sparingly, or they will lose their impact and become one of those “here we go again” lectures. (How many times did the young boy cry wolf?)
Praise in public
This could well be the key ingredient. How often do we stop a group and publicly praise a student or a group’s fine work? Do we ever simply thank them for being on time and having their homework ready? Have we ever made a “big deal” out of the students who took it upon themselves to form an outside study group? Is there much taken for granted and little attention given to the faithful majority who go the extra mile to be on our bandwagon? Are there many opportunities to reward various students for positive contributions, or are our energies always directed to the negative few? These are difficult questions, but the answers can lead us to optimistic and profitable behavior modification, fostering a new path to better classes, performances, and the improved overall attitude of everyone involved.
As educators, we have the wherewithal to determine which behaviors to appropriately recognize and reward— and this is probably the single most important contribution we make to the child. When we choose to criticize in private and praise in public, we are opting to water the flowers while hoeing the weeds, a guaranteed technique for a superior classroom environment.
This article is adapted from the book “Everyday Wisdom for Inspired Teaching” by GIA Publications, and reproduced with permission from Tim Lautzenheiser.