We all love to hear how great we are. It does not matter if we are 5 or 95. Unfortunately, positive feedback seems to be a forgotten tool in education. According to an article by Thomas McCarthy, “Positive feedback is so powerful and yet so rare. People crave it and when they receive it, it can change their performance and their life.”
Students are no different. It is easy to tell good students that they are doing a good job. However, it is really difficult to give difficult students positive feedback. And as every teacher knows, it is the difficult child that needs the most positive reinforcement.
I work for a virtual school, Wyoming Virtual Academy, which means I do not see my students. Our middle school program has instituted ABC calls to make sure that every student gets a call from a teacher each week. ABC calls means that we split up the alphabet among the teachers and make calls from those students with the last name. For example, if I am assigned A-C, then I call all of the students with the last names that starts with A-C, while other teachers take different parts of the alphabet. Make no mistake – this takes time. And in a time when teachers are already overwhelmed with practically EVERYTHING, it is difficult to make time for ONE MORE thing. But since we rotate the alphabet among the teachers, we are able to attempt to make the personal contact with each student every week, and we try to focus on at least one thing that the student is doing well.
Even though it can be very difficult, we try to find at least one positive aspect for each student. And students and parents like it. For example, I had a low-performing student that I called one day. When his mom answered the phone and I identified myself, her response was, “What did he do now?” I told her that he did a great job participating in class. I also told her that I was calling to thank him for his help with another student. There was silence for a minute and then she started crying. She said that she had never had a good report from any teacher about her student. The next time I called and had to talk about grades, she was much less defensive and more willing to work with me and her student. Although this is an extreme example, most of the time I get a similar response – “I wasn’t expecting to hear good news from school” – from the difficult or struggling students and their parents.
As previously stated, the difficult child is the most difficult to give positive feedback. However, there are other aspects of the students besides academics. We teachers sometimes spend more time with our students than their parents do. It is our responsibility to find something good in every child. “Perhaps you recognize a kind deed or word they offered to someone…Or maybe you’re touched by their kind smile or a helpful comment they made,” Dr. John Amodeo wrote in a 2014 article on Psychology Today. Sometimes the positive feedback is only “I noticed you tried really hard on this assignment. I appreciate your hard work,” or “I see that you logged into class this week. Thank-you for coming to class.”
One of the teachers at WYVA shared that she spends 15 minutes a week giving only positive feedback to students. I try to do this as well. I do my positive feedback via email on Fridays. I have a form letter that I send that just says, “You did an outstanding job this week in Language Arts. I appreciate how hard you are working. Keep up the great work.” I don’t think it’s anything special, just an acknowledgement of the work the student is doing. Most students and parents don’t respond, but I usually get one or two students or parents that do. Mostly it is a thank-you. Last week, I got a response from a student who stated that he struggled in Language Arts, never really liked Language Arts, but really appreciated the encouragement. It was one of the best emails I got that day.
Never underestimate the power of positive reinforcement!
Dr. Rachel Kerr is a middle school lead teacher who teaches language arts at Wyoming Virtual Academy. She has been a teacher for more than 20 years.