Classroom Management Strategies: Praise Publicly, Criticize Privately

Upon reading the title of this blog post, I’m sure your first thought was “Duh.” It’s a relatively simple and well known concept: make your praises public and your criticisms private. I searched Google and found this advice attributed to every great thinker from around the world. So okay, we’ve heard it before. But how many people do you know that actually follow this rule?

Praise Publicly

Can you remember the last time someone crafted a sincere compliment for you? Was it so dear to your heart that you saved it in a box or took a screenshot of the email? (If you don’t already, I advise that you create an archive like this. I have an album on my phone full of images of notes from students, parents, other teachers, and admin. Anything and everything that makes me feel like I’m doing a good job.) Recognition keep me going. I’m not the only one, either.

Teachers and students alike want to be recognized. When we take time to praise each other, everyone benefits. Upon being recognized, our students are reaffirmed that they are doing something worth being proud of. This positive feedback will reinforce all the expectations you’ve worked so hard to drill down. Additionally, it’s likely they will feel warm feelings towards you for noticing, strengthening your relationship at the same time.

To make things even better, when you praise you get to enjoy the second hand effects of making someone’s day. Don’t knock it til you try it! Pick a couple students or colleagues and tell them how much you admire their efforts. Enjoy the smiles and beams of pride that you create.

When it comes to classroom management, I like to make my praises very direct in order to reinforce my expectations while also keeping the focus on students who are behaving appropriately. Here are some examples of phrases you would hear from me during an average class period:

  • Everyone look at Sung! He came in, got his pencil out, and now he’s waiting quietly. I wish we had more students just like Sung! *cue everyone now trying to get my attention to show that they are, in fact, just as good as Sung*
  • I’m noticing people who want my attention, but I really like it when people follow expectations by raising their hand. Look at how Sara is nailing it! Her hand is raised and she’s sitting patiently and quietly waiting to be called on.
  • I see a lot of hands raised, but I’m going to call on Omar because he was also sitting quietly in his seat without waving his hand everywhere. Thanks Omar!

As much as it’s possible, (and I do acknowledge that this takes a lot of time) I also try to embed a little recognition into my every day classroom procedures. One that the kids really like is reverently known as The Blue Line of Excellence. I make a big deal about this. We keep a running excel spreadsheet of assignments (classwork, homework, anything that isn’t an assessment) that have been submitted throughout the unit. Anyone who submits everything receives “The Blue Line of Excellence” meaning I highlight their row blue and I rave about it. We use a standards based grading model which means I can’t give any actual “credit” for homework. Instead, I just laminate the names of people who earned The Blue Line and hang them on the wall at the end of each unit. Surprisingly, or perhaps unsurprisingly, this works.

As you can see, I even post about the assignment checklist on my social media, making praise as public as possible.

If you’re still unconvinced, just ask yourself. Would you be more motivated by a boss who constantly criticizes your work, publicly shames you, and constantly demands more OR would you like to work for someone who sees your strengths, makes a big deal out of success, and takes the time to compliment you? I think the answer is obvious.

Criticize Privately

On the other hand, let’s try to make sure we keep our criticisms as private as possible. Again, I know this takes time. When a student is constantly interrupting me, more than anything I just want to scream, “Hey Jeremiah, COULD YOU STOP BEING SO RUDE DURING MY LESSON!?? Ok thanks!” Ahhhh. In those two seconds I released some stress and I feel good now. Got him back, didn’t I? Success. Right? Wrong!

Unwittingly, I just created a new problem for myself. I have now embarrassed Jeremiah in front of his friends. Jeremiah has a lot less to lose than I do. He’s going to get me back, and most likely he’s going to get me better than I’ll ever get him. He might remember the slight for weeks or years and even tell students coming up to my class next year that I’m a rude b-word. All this grief for one little moment of retaliation simply isn’t worth it. Especially when there’s another, more adult solution.

When it comes to correcting misbehaviors, I try my absolute best to simply ignore the offending student. I review my expectations with the entire class. Everyone knows who I’m doing it for, and the students will often take on the job of scolding Jeremiah for me. I try really hard not to make the student obviously the center of my attention, especially if it’s negative attention. I direct my positive attention to students who are doing the opposite of Jeremiah, stating (without so much as a glance in his direction) to the next student who raises his hand, “Thank you, Fred. I really appreciate you waiting to be called on to share.” Hopefully these tactics will get the message across.

When the subtle steps don’t produce results, I try to look as unassuming as possible as I make my way to Jeremiah’s seat. I don’t stomp or yell. Hopefully I’ve already got him positioned on the outer edges of the classroom in anticipation of these little chats. When I get there, I crouch down. I’m not trying to intimidate him or shame him. I speak quietly and calmly. “Hey, I noticed you’re calling out a lot in class today. Is there anything you need that could help you follow expectations?” Perhaps I give him a choice: Two options that are both completely acceptable. Tomorrow I most likely follow up with him using my entering the classroom strategy. I keep him outside long enough that I can have a chat with him alone so he doesn’t need to posture for his friends. I ask him for a favor: Can you raise your hand today, for me?

In my interactions with the offending student, I do not seek to shame him or to release any of my own stress. I approach the situation in an emotionally neutral state. If I can’t do these things, I ask for time. I’m not looking to enter into a power struggle with the student, and I acknowledge that the situation involves only him and me. I keep it that way.

Conclusion

In conclusion, public praise and private criticism is definitely a habit that I believe is worth cultivating not only in the classroom, but throughout all areas of life. Taking the time to notice people and their efforts will continue to build warm feelings between you and everyone you meet. Similarly, keeping the corrective remarks subtle and respectful will greatly increase your chances of receiving a positive response.

Using this strategy in the classroom is critical to maintain your image as a fair and friendly teacher whom everyone wants to impress. Behavior management is a part of our job, and I believe that we can do it primarily with positive feedback. When corrections are necessary, we can handle them with grace that does not go unnoticed by students.

Laney Lee
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Published by Laney Lee

I'm an American expat in Abu Dhabi seeking new ways to support teachers. I currently teach grade 7 science, run a Teacher Pay Teachers store, and am writing a book on classroom management.

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