Why Schools Shouldn’t Reward Attendance

I saw something on Twitter the other day. Somebody had created a nifty bulletin board. It listed the names of all the kids with outstanding attendance for each grade level in the school. The board’s creator had obviously spent a lot of time on it. On its face, it seemed like an awesome idea. Lots of Twitter people hit the heart. I commented, but sort of lied because I don’t like criticizing teachers on social media. Teaching is hard, and most of the things I now disagree with I used to do. I said I struggled with the idea of publicly acknowledging kids for attendance. In reality, there’s no struggle.

I’ve evolved from a teacher who used to create fancy certificates to present to those with two or fewer absences during an award ceremony on the last day of school to one who hardly mentions attendance to his students at all. Here’s why my thinking changed, and why I think bulletin boards like the one I saw on Twitter are well-intentioned but ultimately misguided.

It’s Not The Kids

If you want to get on your high school students about dragging themselves into your class ten minutes late on a regular basis, then go for it (although you may want to consider that your school’s start time and adolescents’ circadian rhythms are unaligned). But I teach third graders and the bulletin board referenced above was for a K-5 elementary school. Third graders don’t decide to stay home from school. They don’t drive to McDonald’s five minutes before the day starts. They don’t roll in late because they hit the snooze bar too many times.

I have a student this year who is almost always late. I know why. It’s not her fault. It does no good for me to get on her case about it. There’s nothing she can do.

There are lots of reasons a student might be absent or late. Some of those reasons are good ones, like they’re sick or had a dental appointment. Some are bad, like they pretended to be sick or they stayed up too late playing Minecraft. No matter the reason, it’s almost always on the parents.

I was a kid. I pretended to be sick because I didn’t want to go to school. My mom wouldn’t let me get away with it. If I wanted to sleep in– and believe me, I did–my mom got me out of bed. That’s what parents do.  That’s their job, and when they don’t do it, it isn’t their kid’s fault.

When elementary students are absent or late, it’s almost always either for a good reason or a parent fail. And for that reason, students shouldn’t be awarded or criticized. They’ve done nothing to deserve either.

Sometimes, Kids Should Stay Home

I used to offer a class party when we hit attendance milestones. For every 20 days of perfect class attendance, I’d throw a party. I hoped it would encourage kids to show up. If they weren’t feeling 100% before school, I thought the incentive would make them think twice before asking to stay home. If they got a stomachache after lunch, I wanted them to gut it out for the team.

That was dumb. Sometimes, kids should stay home or leave school early.

I don’t want them in class if they’re sick. Not only will they not learn much if they’re genuinely ill, but they’ll tell me about it all day, which is really annoying. There’s also a decent chance they’ll make other kids (or worse, me) sick. With the flu being what it is this winter, I pray every day when I send my child out the door that her classmates’ parents are keeping their sick kids home.

One year, I had a student who lost his father in a terrible accident. In May of that year, I was scrolling through the attendance numbers of my class. I congratulated a couple of kids on how few days they had missed. A lot of them wanted to know their number of absences. So I told them. When this boy asked me and I told him ten, he was shocked. I gave him a few seconds to figure it out. When he didn’t, I said, “You missed a week in March.” Thankfully, he remembered and I didn’t have to say anymore.

But I felt like a jerk for even talking about attendance. What you reward, you get. And if you reward attendance, you’ll get it. That might not be a good thing. If they’re sick, I want students at home. If there is a tragedy in their family, I want them with their family. They shouldn’t be made to feel like they’re letting people down about either.

There’s More to Life

School is often referred to as kids’ jobs. It’s a crappy comparison, but even if we go along with it, do we really want to be responsible for perpetuating Americans’ obsession with work? I’ve never understood people’s pride in never missing a day on the job. It’s like bragging that you prioritized working for others over your family and yourself. There’s so much more to life.

I never have a problem with students missing a week to go on a family vacation. I’m cool with Take Your Child To Work day. If a parent wants to pull their kid out of school for the first day of deer season, or to celebrate the child’s birthday, or to sign them out early for gymnastics class, or to get down to the stadium early so they can watch batting practice with dad, I’m fine with it. Learning happens outside of school, too. And we should send the message that school, like work, shouldn’t take priority over our families or our passions.

Kids who are in school every day haven’t done anything to deserve our praise. And they certainly haven’t done anything to earn a reward. They’re lucky. They’ve won lotteries. They have responsible parents who value education (maybe too much?), and they were fortunate to not get sick or have life happen to them for ten months out of the year.

Those kids have already won.

The Dumbest Argument Against Independent Reading

I’m in my eighteenth year of teaching and I’ve set aside time for student self-selected reading every day for every one of those years. It is the most sacred item on my agenda. On one of those days where we have an assembly and a fire drill and a bee gets in the room and blows a ten-minute hole in my science lesson and I have to cut something, I never cut independent reading.

As a student teacher, I was fortunate enough to be placed with a mentor teacher who valued independent reading time as much as I do. But even back then, her principal looked at this 30 minutes as wasteful. When the administration adopted a new program and my mentor teacher was wondering where she would fit it in, the principal suggested she just get rid of that student reading time.

It’s been that way ever since. I have never had an administrator who offered a full-throated endorsement of independent reading. More often, it’s the opposite. I’ve sat in meetings where principals presented research showing independent reading wasn’t effective. (Not true, by the way. Read more here.) I’ve known teachers who were flat out told to end the practice. I’ve sat in meetings where an administrator’s minion (a “coach,” she was rather hilariously called) questioned its efficacy.

An aside: My sneaking suspicion is that administrators don’t like independent reading because teachers aren’t doing enough. This is where the criticism of Drop Everything And Read came from. Teachers, those valuable professionals who eat up the lion’s share of district budgets, shouldn’t be getting paid to sit around reading with their students when they could be teaching. It’s a belief that permeates the entire day. Although providing students feedback is a critical part of the learning process, most teachers I know wouldn’t be caught dead grading student work while students are in the room. Teachers are supposed to teach, every second of every day. And they’re supposed to do all that other teachery stuff during their prep time (good luck with that).

In fairness, some data does suggest that independent reading isn’t effective for our lowest readers. The reason independent reading doesn’t work for the lowest readers, the research has concluded, is because those students — wait for it — don’t use the time to read (or they attempt to read stuff that’s too hard, which is just another way of saying they don’t read). Those students, we are told, should be engaged with the teacher in direct instruction.

This is quite possibly the dumbest reason to stop doing something I have ever heard. I can think of no other thing we do inside the classroom or out of it where we would apply the same logic.

–Students who don’t pay attention to our lessons don’t learn as much, so we should stop teaching lessons.

— Students who don’t do their math assignments don’t learn as much math, so we should stop assigning math.

— Basketball players who refuse to try hard in practice don’t get any better, so we should pull them off to the side and coach them separately.

— Your daughter refuses to practice piano when you ask her to, so you should stop giving her time to practice.

Of course the kids who don’t read during independent reading time don’t get better at reading. That doesn’t mean we should stop doing it. It means we should figure out how to get kids to do it, just like we would for anything else we believe is beneficial.

–We don’t stop making our kids take baths because they don’t like them.

–We don’t tell our daughters, “Ah, the hell with it, just leave your room filthy,” because they don’t want to clean it.

–We don’t allow our sons to eat pancakes and pizza for dinner every night because they don’t like fruits and vegetables.

And we shouldn’t just shrug our shoulders when students don’t want to read. Nor should we pull them back and make them read to us. Reading to oneself is a life skill that has the potential to change futures.

Yes, we should teach reading lessons. We should intervene with kids who struggle. But we should also provide the time for kids to read whatever they want to themselves. We shouldn’t give up just because a handful would rather not.

–My mom got me to eat celery by slathering it with peanut butter.

–My dad got me to clean my room by threatening consequences if I didn’t.

–My third grade teacher got me to turn in my homework by announcing to the class which kids didn’t turn theirs in.

Get creative. Pull out all the stops. Get kids to read to themselves.

For some, that might mean helping them find books they’re interested in or guiding them toward books they can actually read. It might mean establishing a culture where kids don’t feel self-conscious about reading books at a lower level than their peers. It could even mean —gasp — consequences for not reading, just as there would be for kids who refuse to do their math, try hard at basketball practice, or clean their rooms. Experiment. Get creative. But don’t just give up. Independent reading is too important.

 

 

 

In Defense of Public Consequences

My ten-year-old daughter played softball this past summer, and I could not believe how she was publicly humiliated. In one game, she hit the ball down the third base line. As she hustled to first base, the throw came in off line. The girl caught it in front of the bag and tried to tag my daughter, but my kid dodged out of the way! She was safe!

But the umpire called her out for leaving the baseline.

Right in front of everyone!

My daughter had to walk back to the dugout in shame because of that umpire’s call!

It’s not just softball. This public humiliating of kids happens in almost every sport. When a kid commits a foul on the basketball court, the referee blows a whistle — a whistle! — and everyone stops and waits. Then this awful excuse for a human being points right at the kid who broke the rule and announces to literally everyone in the gym that the kid screwed up.

But he doesn’t stop there!

Because then he goes over to the scoring table and signals the kid’s number and explains exactly what the kid did wrong. Then he takes the ball away –again, with everyone watching — and gives it to the other team.

In football, the referees throw a bright yellow flag on the ground. They then punish the ENTIRE TEAM for the infraction of just one kid. How is that fair? It’s like the referees are trying to destroy the team ‘s culture. How can anyone expect the guilty kid’s teammates to feel anything other than resentment toward him?

Hockey is even worse. The cruel adults in this sport blow their whistles, report the offenders, and then they actually make kids sit in a BOX! They don’t even try to sugarcoat what they’re doing. They don’t call it the Think Box or the Second Chance Box or the Stop and Reflect Box. They call it the Penalty Box! They lock them in a cage where everyone can see them!

It seems to me that if an athlete breaks a rule in any sport, the officials ought to be able to tell them without shaming them in front of everybody. These referees should find a way to quietly whisper to the players, encourage them to do the right thing, and stop embarrassing them!

What I can’t understand is why these kids keep playing these sports. Do they want to be publicly shamed? Do they like being embarrassed?

And why do parents allow this to happen? Where’s the outrage?

No, For Real

If the above sounds a bit ridiculous, then you will understand my feelings about those who criticize teachers for giving students public consequences when they break a rule in the classroom.

There is a large contingent of teachers and education thought leaders who say there is no place for public discipline in the classroom. These critics say that teachers who call out bad behavior are humiliating kids and robbing them of their dignity.

But public consequences exist for important reasons, and shaming kids isn’t one of them.

They Let Everyone Know What’s Actually Acceptable

I played high school basketball. I quickly learned that there were two types of referees: those who would “let you play,” and those who nailed you for even slight infractions. The written rules of the game were the same, of course. A rulebook existed that spelled out exactly what was allowed and what wasn’t on a basketball court.

But there was room for interpretation. Put a hand on a guy’s hip with one ref and get an automatic whistle, while other refs let the small stuff slide. If basketball isn’t your game, then the same can be said for the strike zone in baseball or pass interference in football.

The same is true in every classroom. Teachers have their posted rules and expectations. But until those rules are enforced, no one really knows what’s acceptable and what isn’t. Many classrooms have the rule, “Raise your hand to speak.” But teachers vary greatly in how strictly they enforce it. It’s through public consequences that the line is quickly understood by everyone in the room.

Words are just that. Words, whether gentle or firm, don’t always convey our seriousness. Asking a student to stop interrupting a lesson doesn’t always work. Asking them again is more of the same. Like referees in sports, teachers need to take action to show they actually mean it, and the whole class deserves to understand what’s acceptable and what isn’t.

They Allow for More Efficient Teaching

Critics of public discipline will say that the teacher should praise publicly and criticize privately. They should stop teaching their lesson (or allow it to be sabotaged and then talk to the saboteur afterward) in order to avoid embarrassing a student with a public reprimand. They should surreptitiously walk over and have a quiet word to redirect the wayward student.

Going over to a kid and telling them what you expect is fine, maybe even preferable, but it’s sometimes impractical.

The teacher and the students who are doing what’s expected shouldn’t be inconvenienced by those who aren’t.

Every kid in the room already knows what’s going on. They know who is breaking the rules and they want it stopped, just as any kid who plays in a basketball game wants the referees to do something about the kid who fouls his opponents every time down the court.

Those kids are messing up the game. They can’t be allowed to continue to do so. Public consequences keep the lesson moving so everyone else can do their job.

They Allow for Easier Parent Communication and Support

When I was in elementary school, my teachers used star charts. Many teachers in my school (including this one) use a clip chart to track daily behavior. Other teachers write names on the board and add check marks for each rule infraction. Technology allows teachers to keep track of behavior with apps like Class Dojo. But why keep track at all?

For the same reason they do in sports. Fouls and penalties are recorded (and often displayed on a huge scoreboard for everyone to see) because failing to learn from your mistakes is a problem. You can’t continue to go on messing up the game and keep playing. Eventually, the consequences get more severe. Players foul out. They’re red-carded. They’re removed from the field. Screwing up is fine. Continuing to screw up isn’t. This is a message all kids should learn early.

Tracking behavior also makes it easier to communicate. When a parent wants regular updates of her child’s behavior, it’s much easier to say “She had three strikes,” than it is to recall and report on each broken rule. “Dave committed five fouls in six minutes,” says plenty about how Dave played the game, just as, “Dante was on red before lunch” lets everyone know that Dante had a really bad day.

So why do public consequences like behavior charts receive so much scorn, when public consequences in sports go unremarked upon? I think it’s mostly out of fear and a lack of trust. There is the potential for abuse, and unlike in an arena or on a field, teachers work behind closed doors. Parents (and other teachers) have to trust that teachers won’t use public consequences to shame kids.

Like everything in the classroom, it’s not so much what you do but how you do it.

Lectures can be boring or illuminating. Group work can provide important collaboration time or can be a hot mess of conflict. And public consequences can be used to shame kids or to reinforce the rules and keep things moving efficiently, as they do in sports.

Note: My favorite article on how to enforce consequences was written by Michael Linsin. It shouldn’t surprise you that he recommends teachers act just like referees.