When was the last time you got a bit of praise?
Worthy praise makes you smile and feel fuzzy inside. It can motivate you and increase your discretionary effort. Being on the receiving end of positive feedback can make you feel taller.
Great teaching requires us to keep an eye out for excellence, effort and achievement. But giving praise is a science and difficult to use correctly.
Leadership expert Gordon Tredgold says that if we want to create a culture of continuous improvement, then create a culture of recognition. He suggests a Praise Model and I think we can apply this to both staff and pupils. It’s easy enough to remember too because it spells out the word ‘praise’.
When we criticise then we should do this in private but when we praise this needs to be done out in the open for all to see and hear. Praising in public shows the recipient how much we appreciate them and this shows the learning community around them what’s valued. Make it visible.
Caution: people respond differently to recognition. Many appreciate public praise but others cringe if they’re made the centre of attention. You know your pupils so tailor your recognition so it produces the greatest impact for each individual.
When we recognise what someone or a group do, we send a clear message to them that we like what we see. What gets recognised gets repeated and so it fuels further effort.
Any praise that we dish out has to be served with a genuine heartfelt appreciation. If your words and body language don’t match then this will easily be spotted as fake news. Those on the receiving end of praise have to see it and feel it in order to accept it as the real deal. Verbal reinforcement has to be natural but be careful your body doesn’t betray you.
If you see it, say it. Praise can be delayed and belated in some cases as you can’t always give it straight away. But where possible, give feedback in the moment, catch them doing something as it happens as a timely tribute can boost the impact of recognition.
Giving positive feedback involves clarification. We need to spell out exactly what we have noticed and what we liked about it. The more specific we can be, the more likely it is to be repeated.
Forget saying “Well done!” because it doesn’t really mean much by itself. Sustained professional learning is more likely to come about through feedback that is related to clear, specific and challenging goals.
Praise without passion is like flat lemonade. We need the fizz so that means pouring plenty of energy, expression and excitement into our message in order to engage and get our message across. Praise said with purpose and power can fire someone up and this done publicly can motivate everyone else too.
And there’s more
Another Praise Model that you could follow lists these 6 elements as Positive, Real, Accurate, Immediate, Substantive and Encouraging.
This advice is all good but what else can we do? Let’s continue the list:
Praise The Process, Not The Person
Not all praise is created equal. The way we praise pupils can affect their mindset and their inclination to take on challenges. Telling children they're clever can actually lead children to lose self-confidence, not gain it. We get a far better result if we praise children for challenging themselves, and for effort because it builds resilience.
A growth mindset approach avoids ‘person praise’ (e.g., "You are so artistic")but uses ‘process praise’, e.g. praise the strategy (e.g., "You found a really good method to tackle that problem.")
Teachers can be scared stiff of physical contact with pupils but let’s not underestimate the power of a ‘Prue pat’ on the back, a fist bump, a hi-five or just an extra special Hollywood handshake. A touch of praise needs a golden touch of humanity too so make sure to add in some applause. Sometimes praise can be as subtle as a single nod of the head, winks, a beaming smile or bright-eyed eye contact across the room.
Sub-Contract The Praise
We can give praise to but we can also ask someone else to deliver the goods. If someone has deserved the recognition then send them straight to the Head and super-size the praise and reinforce the message.
In a culture of recognition, advertising the efforts of others is important. Make a meal of someone’s achievements by having a ‘Stars of the Day/Week’ board in class. It’s important to single people out but we need to make room for more than one star on the board. Use certificates, stickers, trophies, pretend Oscars but use them sparingly. Your school newsletter and websites should be full of praise and showcasing plenty of proud as punch pupils.
Praise needs to go home because pupils don’t always share it. You could pick up the phone or send a text but another way is to use Praise Postcards. These can be hand written physical postcards or digital ones. Digital might save you money but the physical post cards are so much better received and mean more. You can't beat getting some post and the postcards can be displayed at home on the fridge!
Some teachers like to deliver a feedback sandwich of positive, negative, positive or the classic Two Stars and a Wish. But positive feedback and praise needs to stand alone in the sunshine of recognition without any clouds. Save the constructive criticism for another time.
Some teachers might abuse the praise process in order to placate, subdue or manipulate behaviour. That’s never a good thing.
Then there are those who say that we need to ensure praise outweighs anything negative by at least 5:1 ratio. Perhaps but lavish praise is white noise after a while so less really is more.
Too much praise can backfire because it becomes routine, sounds disingenuous and can actually be demotivating. Hold back and be strategic with your praise because too much of it means children can develop an immunity to it.
For praise to really mean anything, it’s got to be worthy.
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About the author
John is an ex-primary school teacher and Ofsted inspector who has spent the last 20 years working in the education industry as a teacher, writer and editor. John’s specialist area is primary maths but he also loves teaching science and English. John has written a number of educational and children’s books, and contributed over 1,000 articles and features to various educational bodies. John is Eteach’s school leadership and Ofsted advice guru, sharing insights on best practice for motivating and enriching a school team, as well as sharing savvy career steps for headteachers and SLT.