Education Opinion

Bribery: Confessions of a middle school teacher

By Jessica Shyu — February 06, 2007 2 min read
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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 sure, I drag my kids in after school to finish their assignments for general ed classes. And when I’m low on supplies, 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 had never been one for extrinsic rewards, believing that students must learn and appreciate the intrinsic value of education. But lately, as I’ve come to work with students with more severe negative behavior issues, I have found myself adding bribery to my list of sins.

With Corey, I began bartering fruit for appropriate behaviors. With my English class, I’ve agreed to serve hot cocoa on Fridays if they work properly until the end of the week. And now, I find myself setting up a new mini math goal for our students that ultimately revolves around bribery.

After analyzing their mid-year assessment results, I noticed that while most of my students had made considerable gains in reading, writing and math computation, we still had major difficulty in making improvements in math word problems. I needed to refocus our class. We need to raise these skills and scores. I was especially troubled because math problem solving skills are at the cornerstone of everyday life skills. These deficits are the primary reasons why my students are cheated out of their change at Wal-Mart and why they are afraid to order food at McDonald’s.

So what’s my strategy for solving this problem? Bribe ‘em. This is our new mini math goal: Students who improve by at least one grade level in math problem solving by the next quarter will earn the opportunity to eat out in Gallup. It’ll be a restaurant voted on by the class. We’ll spend an afternoon in town eating out on the school’s dime. Not too shabby. 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 to do work they need to do to begin with, I still sleep just fine at night. Because little do they realize, menu ordering, restaurant budgeting and tip calculating are all part of life skills. And life skills are really about being able to solve problems.

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