Incentivizing With Swagger

I still remember my first year of teaching like it was yesterday. I thought I knew what I was up against. Heck, so many teachers who came before me warned me not to smile before Christmas. But I couldn’t imagine entering a classroom every day where the teacher was purposefully miserable, shut off, flat. Not my thing. And wouldn’t the kids react similarly? 

And I definitely did not want to be the teacher that students feared. I had plenty of those teachers — more than my share — and I wanted to be the antidote, not a furtherance of the problem. But I also knew I couldn’t get too friendly or casual with the kids. The stories that warned of that approach all end the same. All the respect they would come to gain for me — well, it’d fly out the window in a heartbeat the second they felt I was just “one of them.” 

The reality is that so much of this job is walking a tightrope.

You teter between too open and too closed-off; between too strict and too chill; between doing what’s right and doing it the way it’s always been done. That last bit is especially hard for folks like me. So, I struggled for much of my first year in teaching, and classroom management took front stage in those challenges for me, like it has for so many others I’ve talked to since. But that’s the message that needs to get out there. It ain’t easy. Heck, it’s incredibly hard. And it doesn’t come overnight. 

It has taken me almost four years to get even remotely good at managing a group of 94 preteens, and I’m darn proud of how far I’ve come so fast. Teaching, for me and most of my peers, is a long process of unlearning what we’ve been taught, and relearning what works best for us: each individual teacher. The sooner a young teacher can grapple with that, accept it, and open their minds to learning from failure … well, the sooner they’ll see real success. And, while there isn’t a silver bullet solution (that’s the whole point), there is one classroom strategy that sets the teacher up to get the most of that try-fail-learn-repeat cycle you’ll come to love: an incentive structure. 

It’s the one thing that has held constant throughout all four years of my teaching career and one of the strategies to which I owe most of my success. It’s a simple tool called positive reinforcement. It works because — well, science and stuff — but believe me … it works. 

I wasn’t a great teacher when I was 21, but I knew that in order to have a successful year, I was going to have to create a way for my students to love coming to my class while also understanding expectations and boundaries. That’s when I first dreamt up the idea of “Swag Bucks.” I created a simple currency to translate perceived value (when kids are bringing their unique value to any activity or project) to real-world value (the things kids really want right now). 

Swag Bucks are simple. At the beginning of every year, I explain to my students the breakdown of the system:

  • Every Swag Buck is worth “$1”
  • Swag Bucks can be earned at any time. Some examples include participating in class, receiving a good grade, helping a classmate, bringing individual value to an activity or discussion, or showing off one of my important class values.
  • I create my Swag Bucks on Canva and print them out on neon paper — easy to see, and easy for everyone to remember exactly who was rewarded with the esteemed prize.

Once we go over all the ways to earn Swag Bucks, we then cover the rewards. This is what really gets kids interested in generating value. Each reward is priced just like it would be in any market, with different amounts  for each piece of swag.  For example, a note of praise can be sent to a parent for one Swag Buck. A free ticket to any sporting event can be bought with four Swag Bucks. An extra five points on any assignment is worth two Swag Bucks. And the list goes on. The better the reward, the more Swag Bucks it costs the students. 

At the beginning of the year, I strategically give out the currency like air, and I make a huge deal out of it when a student gets one. I do this to set the stage for kids. They figure out very early on what flies with me and what doesn’t, because I focus all of my time and energy on positive reinforcement rather than negative punishment. The negative behaviors dwindle down quickly to almost nothing. But maybe more importantly, as the semester progresses, I can get more stingy with my currency because students quickly shift from an extrinsic reward to an intrinsic one. Simply put, they learn that it’s pretty darn fun to bring value to class and, while a bag of Doritos is important, it’s not the most important thing they do.

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