When I came to China as an inexperienced new teacher, I was ready for an adventure. I’d completed all the modules in my TEFL courses and felt like I had learned a lot, but I was worried about classroom management. The thought buzzed around my head like a fly as I sat on the plane, and it felt like I was staring at me in the mirror as I brushed my teeth before my first day at school. I was determined to get this one aspect of teaching “right” because good classroom management can greatly enrich your experience as a teacher, and a well-functioning classroom increases the amount of information the children can learn from you.
Designing the Reward System: Finding Your Style
During my first week, I watched my Chinese coworkers during their classes and realized that I wanted to have a more relaxed style than they did in the classroom. I wanted students to take risks and feel like we were working toward English mastery as a common goal. I spoke to experienced foreign teachers in the area and many suggested using a reward system in the classroom.
As with all teaching related advice, it’s best to tailor any strategy to your own teaching style. You’ll quickly develop the way you like to do things and the level of authoritarianism in your classroom when you begin teaching. I decided to go with a star and sticker system, but many people use methods such as stamps, candy or “movie day” rewards. Be sure to check with your school to see if the method you prefer is acceptable (for example: some schools frown on the practice of giving candy).
Important things to consider while creating your system are cost and time. You don’t want to begin a rewards system and realize you can’t afford to continue it, or that it takes up too much productive class time. Keeping a consistent and simple system is the best option, and kids are relatively easy to impress. For example: my students sit in four rows and earn stars corresponding to those rows, on the chalkboard during class. The row of children with the highest number of reward stars at the end of class are publicly acknowledged and are each able to pick a sticker out of a bag. Though I have approximately 50 students in my class, I only need to give out between 12-15 stickers per lesson (and I can purchase a package of about 400 Disney stickers for a little over $1 USD).
Implementing Your System: Praising Good Behavior
When beginning to implement your system, you may want to call attention to students receiving a reward to highlight why they are being selected. For example: “Cherry is the first student who is ready for class, so she will get one star on the board!” This will signal to other students that if they model this same desirable behavior, they too will be rewarded.
This approach can also work to curb bad behavior. For example: if a student is talking out of turn, I can reward a nearby student who is modeling good classroom behavior and praise them for their good work. In extreme cases you can also remove access to rewards (such as stars from the board) so that students try to earn them back with good behavior. This is especially helpful when students are a team. If a student is misbehaving and losing stars for their row, surrounding students often encourage them to behave. After a short period of exploring the rules of the system, children will know what to expect and how to tailor their behavior toward being rewarded.
I have found that involving the reward system in my classroom routine is very helpful (especially with younger students). When children know what to expect in a “regular” class, they’ll begin to prepare themselves for the upcoming activities. I make the reward system the first and the last thing that we do in class, so that the children are focused on it as a major event during our time together. For example: as we begin each class I ask each row of students if they are ready to learn. They say “Yes!” loudly in unison and are rewarded with one star if they have their desks clear and are sitting nicely. At the end of class we tally the number of stars together as a class and congratulate the winners.
Using a reward system has proven to be a cost and time effective way for me to motivate students and encourage them to engage in the classroom, but even more importantly, students feel validated for their efforts and appreciated when their good behavior is noted by a teacher. Remember to tailor your system for what works best with your teaching style, the expectations of your school and what works best for your students and you have a winning idea waiting to be implemented!