Rewards

I could not stop smiling yesterday during my crazy class, the one packed with noisy third grade boys who like to fight with each other and test the limits of my patience. I was outright grinning from ear to ear. Because those kids were behaving SO WELL! At the end of class, I faced them all in their line and started clapping in excitement. “You guys did such a good job today!” In true Korean fashion, the ones in the front started clapping with me.

This amazing behavior was no coincidence. It was because of a new system I started implementing last Thursday. A point system. I initially resisted creating such a system, because I knew it would be more work for me and wasn’t sure it was needed, but after things took a recent turn towards chaos, I decided I should give it a try.

I pretty much made it up as I went along.

I wrote all their names on the (tiny) whiteboard and informed them in my broken Korean that if they did something good, I would give them points, and if they got 100 points, I would give them a My Chew (the chewy fruit candy that sits in a huge tub under my desk and which they are constantly pestering me about). Immediately, groans. “100 points?? That’s so many!” “Don’t worry, I’ll give you like 10 points, 20 points, 30 points, like that,” I told them, making that determination mid-sentence. (Ended up giving them points five at a time. They didn’t complain.)

Immediately everyone sat up straighter in their chairs and three of them rushed over to my desk to voluntarily surrender their cellphones. When I asked if they were all ready to for song time (which most of them usually do not enjoy), I heard a roar of response, “Yes, Teacher, we are ready!” It was all I could do not to burst into laughter out of pure glee. (They received points for none of those things, but they didn’t seem to notice.)

The second day, there was a setback. One boy––the one with a temper––got angry when I took away some of his points for hitting another kid, and he threw a fit and refused to look at me or acknowledge anything I said to him. He shoved his desk against the wall, left the room in a huff, and threw off the hand I tried to place on his shoulder when I followed him outside. So I announced I was taking away more of his points and left him.

When he returned to class, he muttered under his breath that he didn’t care about points (the whole class watching and reporting to me what he was saying), and I, restraining myself from ripping his worksheet into tiny little pieces like I wanted to, said that was fine. The points don’t care about you either! I wanted to retort. I almost erased all 80 of his points right then and there.

But I didn’t. I just let out a few explosive sounds under my breath and then went home and cried out my frustration.

I knew why he had reacted like that. I knew he had felt betrayed when some of his hard-earned points were erased. But I just wanted so desperately for him to know that I was on his side! If only he knew how much I had wanted to give him more points, enough to maybe even push him over the 100-point mark (which most of his classmates passed)! But I knew I couldn’t just give him the points, he had to earn them.

Well, when he came to class on Monday, he came in a super-good mood––said he was doing “great!”––seemed to have completely forgotten about the whole incident, and promptly earned the 20 additional points that pushed him over the 100-point mark to earn his first My Chew.

I was so happy seeing the smile on his face as he saw those points go up on the board, so happy watching him not only continue to participate with enthusiasm but even use his strong personality to stick up for his classmates, telling me when I forgot to jot down one boy’s points on the board. (Seeing my kids defend each other to me always makes me feel warm inside..)

And it wasn’t just him. Other kids who used to obnoxiously yell, “Teacher, Teacher!” every time they raised their hand were magically quiet. (Confirming my suspicion that they did know better!) Kids who used to randomly slide under their desks and hide or throw their books on the floor and then yell to me that they didn’t have books started paying attention.

It’s been this strange, unfamiliar experience the past few days, actually having everyone listening, actually feeling like we are all working together toward a common goal instead of struggling against each other for control. Class has basically turned into this big game. A game we are all winning together.

Because as much fun as they seem to be having earning their points, I’m having just as much giving them out. Every time I see them eagerly raising their hands and quietly waiting for me to call on them (which happens every other second now), I feel so proud and full of joy. This is why I do what I do. This is it, right here.

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Elizabeth is an American living in South Korea who believes in destiny, miracles, and living life intentionally. She holds to simple faith in a complex world, values the beauty of the everyday, and strives for vulnerability with other imperfect humans. She is always learning, laughing, and finding herself in awe of grace.

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