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Published in Print: March 1, 2007, as The Art of Bribery

The Art of Bribery

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Jessica Shyu, a second-year special education teacher at a Navajo Nation K-8 school in New Mexico, blogs about her experiences for teachermagazine.org. In a recent entry, she wrote about discovering a new motivational tactic.

I lie. I cheat. And yeah, I steal. At least when it comes to my students.

I admit, when my Teach for America program director comes to check my teaching, I tell the kids that she’s there to observe their behavior. And I’m not above nabbing a ream of white paper from the front office when no one is watching.

So is it so bad that I bribe children? I’ve always believed that students must learn to appreciate the intrinsic value of education. But lately, as I’ve come to work with students with more severe behavioral issues, I’ve found myself adding bribery to my list of sins.

With one struggling student, I began bartering fruit for appropriate behaviors. With my English class, I agreed to serve hot cocoa on Fridays if they worked through the week. And now, I find myself setting up a new math goal for my students that essentially amounts to a payoff.

After analyzing their mid-year test results, I noticed that while most of my students made considerable gains in reading, writing, and math computation, they still had major difficulties with math word problems. I was troubled, since math problem-solving skills are at the cornerstone of life skills. We needed to raise these scores.

So what’s my strategy? Bribe ‘em. This is our new math goal: Students who improve by at least one grade level in math problem-solving by the next quarter will spend an afternoon in town eating out on the school’s dime. Not too shabby. And they bought into it. We’re revved up once again to practice word problems. Bribery works. (At least to a certain extent.)

But you know what? As guilty as I feel about bribing my students, I still sleep just fine at night. Because, while my students may not know it, ordering from menus, budgeting for restaurants, and calculating tips are all life skills.

Vol. 18, Issue 05, Page 21

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