Last week, I published a little vignette on my poor decision-making skills. The story starts with me in total ignorance of an impending Lord of the Flies moment and ends with a saccharine and original reflection that the rules actually work! 

It’s nice they worked, but it left me with a reckoning: Why do the rules work, even though I don’t have the student prizes I had before?

Every other Friday before dismissal, the Room 305 store opened for business. Any third grader with enough tokens to make a purchase could come up, consult the inventory, and pay me off (see last week’s blog entry for an explanation on tokens). Prizes were exactly what you’d think: Stickers, erasers, and little plastic doo-dads that came in packs of 50 or 100 from Oriental Trading. When I was really on my game, seasonal trinkets would be in limited supply. It cost a very small fraction of my teacher salary to buy off a bunch of 8-year-olds and get them to act nicely from 8:00 to 2:30.

My students’ excitement for these prizes was directly proportional to my ability to market them attractively. Halloween bookmarks that were a limited edition, partner to the independent reading book of your choosing, and a perfect match to the costume you’d planned were worth saving for – a square of yellow plastic with a maze in it was not. A green fish eraser that would complete your set of aquatic-themed school supplies was worth earning tokens for – a dinky old pencil sharpener was not. 

It was all in the sales pitch. The kids got enthusiastic about prizes that I was enthusiastic about. They’re like puppies that way. 

I did this outside of material marketing, too. Students were reticent every year when we started a historical fiction book on Omakayas and her mid-19th century Native American tribe. So every year,  I pulled up a map on the SMARTboard and we explored modern-day Michigan and Lake Superior, finding relevance in our lives to Omakayas’s. When we were studying Chinese geography, I drew a really bad version of the Great Wall of China and told them all about the historical account I was reading. When we could no longer procrastinate on the much-dreaded unit of fractions, I brought in pie. 

When you give them a reason to care, kids will care about just about anything. Fractions. Chinese history. Fish erasers. 

So each year when we wrote our classroom rules, I used the same brand of teacher marketing. “Okay guys, rule #4 is to try your best,” was not the origin of rule #4. Instead, it was something like: “I could turn in a worksheet where I whoosh through the problems (cue the pantomiming), and give it to Ms. Head, and whew I can go draw Minecraft stuff! But, I could take my time, not rush, hmmm – think about my answers, and nice-and-neatly turn in a worksheet. Then, when I’m done prim and proper, I can go off and do my drawings then.” 

Just like I did when marketing for the school store or starting a new social studies unit, I used a presentation that evoked in my students a desire for something that they didn’t forcibly or inherently want. With a little help of some empathetic think-alouds, my kids became vested in trying to honor the classroom rules. 

After that, anytime that I anemically referred to the classroom rules, my kids responded with equal apathy. Anytime we sat down to reflect on feelings, our autonomy, and our role in the classroom, the impending threat of a Purge faded back into fiction. 

When you give them a reason to care, kids will care about just about anything. Kids don’t follow rules because they want prizes, they follow rules that they feel matter. Prizes are just the cheap plastic cherry on top. 

As a final note, I want to acknowledge that my reflections are the result of my own unique teaching experiences. I don’t contend that my own experiences are those of other educators, and I’m not of the mind that herein lies a panacea of answers. I invite you to share your opinions and challenge what I believe to be true!