Music Teacher Tip #43 - Incentives

Music Teacher Tip #43:

Incentives or not?


During my second year of teaching I taught a classroom-management workshop to a group of college students at UNC-G that included a bit about incentives. (Spoiler: I'm for them.) I distinctly remember one of the students saying that she didn't believe in incentives because the students should be intrinsically motivated and we shouldn't have to bribe them. I've heard something similar from others who have most likely not spent any time teaching in the real world. 🤦🏼‍♀️


Kids may or may not come to you with intrinsic motivation. They may even dislike music (or so they say). Many choral directors in particular find themselves in situations where students who haven't signed up for anything in middle or high school, but who need an elective, will be dumped into a chorus class because our caps are higher and there tend to be no prerequisites. My first year of teaching in an inner city middle school, I had an 8th grade class of 48. One day I asked them to raise their hand if they had signed up for the class. Only 3 did. 😫


Even teaching private music lessons, I have students whose parents make them come. Trust me, I make it as fun as possible, but that doesn't mean the student will be naturally motivated.


Until the student learns the joy of making music for themselves, they may need a little more. Here are some ideas to help motivate the unmotivated student:

📌 The first one was mentioned in a previous post. It's called Secret Student and it works great! (See post #3 for more information.)

📌 Consider doing group incentives. I started doing mine my first year of teaching in October when I thought I might die if something didn't change soon. Group incentives are great for creating unity in your class. They help students work together toward a common goal and they also keep you, the teacher, focused on looking for the positive instead of the negative.

📌 I'll never forget my first experience using incentives. I had been battling with all of my classes trying to get them to simply bring pencils and be in their seats by the time the bell rings. EVERY DAY someone failed at these simple tasks EVERY CLASS. It was exhausting and disappointing.

📌 Then I told my students about my incentive program. Basically I said that for each class the goal was to get 10 points daily. Once they hit 1,000 points, we would have a class reward where they could vote on how we would celebrate. I told them as long as the principal approved that I would do it. They seemed very excited by that.

📌 I also told them that they could earn points as a group or if one individual did something extraordinary, they could earn a point for the entire class. (I found out later that this is a great way to get your most cynical kids to buy in to your class. Imagine you catch them doing something well and then the whole class gets a point because of them!)

📌 I made a chart where they could see the progress of each class including a thermometer-like image on a large poster where each class had a star with their name that would move up the thermometer based on how many points they had earned to date.

📌 I also told them that they could lose a point if the class behavior was inappropriate. I told them I would never take away a point for one person's mistake, but that the person would still get a consequence according to my discipline plan.

📌 Magically, the first day I did this, things got DRAMATICALLY better. Students who had not tried previously started trying. They started earning points right away, but then about midway through that first class they started talking out of turn. I simply picked up the eraser and moved toward the points and ... silence! It was a miracle! (I kicked myself for waiting until October to try this.)

📌 The second week I started telling students that there were procedures that if everyone followed them, they would automatically earn points at the start of the bell. Two were the ones I'd been trying to get them to do all year: be in their seats by the bell and have pencils ready.

📌 The very next day I noticed my room was unusually quiet as I monitored from the hall. Concerned, I poked my head in to see ALL students in their chairs early and one of my kids who had been quite the pain before that day was going around the room with a handful of pencils saying, "You need a pencil? You need a pencil? You need a pencil?" I almost cried I was so happy!!!! I felt like Helen Keller's teacher in "The Miracle Worker." This class went from unruly, disinterested and uncooperative to obedient, interested, and helpful!

📌 When the classes had earned about 950 points I told them we needed to start brainstorming ideas to celebrate since they would probably hit 1,000 soon. Basically, I had them raise their hands to share any idea they wanted. I wrote them ALL down - no matter how outrageous. Once all of the ideas were on the board, I had them close their eyes and vote for their favorite one. I marked those and erased the ones with no votes while their eyes were still closed. Then we voted again. Once it was obvious which were the favorites, I would tell them I had to run their ideas by the principal and that I would let them know which ones were approved. Keep in mind that these were 6th, 7th, and 8th graders. In case you're curious, these things won and were ultimately approved by my principal:

• Popcorn party and watch a movie (7th grade) • Trip to Chuck E. Cheese (This was an 8th-grade idea.) We met there on a Saturday • I had to dance on the roof of the school to loud music during a class change. (7th-grade idea - I actually did this. I used to teach dance too.) • A lock-in at the school with chaperones (8th grade - Trust me when I say I only did this once.) • My 6th graders were on a cultural arts wheel and I cannot remember what they did... probably because they didn't make me miserable prior to the incentive program.

📌 Here are the things I noticed (other than the stories I've shared) after using class-based incentives:

1. I was sooo much less stressed. Instead of trying to catch misbehavior, I was busy looking for what they were doing well. 2. Their behavior was also exponentially better! I was less tired because keeping them on task wasn't such an effort. 3. My students were trying! Even the ones who hadn't before started to try! 4. My challenging students had fewer discipline issues. 5. My classes started functioning like a team. When one student earned points for the group, they would cheer for them. 6. I spent little to no time on things that used to exhaust me like checking for pencils and getting students to follow other procedures. 7. Students actually helped each other do better so they could earn more points. 8. The students loved seeing how their points compared with the other classes. Even though every class would win when they hit 1,000, they still wanted to be the first and the best. This really motivated them too! 9. The music we were working on started sounding amazing. Once the behavior improved I was giving points for things like getting all the notes in the 3-part harmony, one person knowing the term crescendo, all students nailing the sightreading, etc. 10. And the biggest shocker of all... Once they got in the habit of doing all of these positive things, they no longer needed me to give frequent points to stay on track. In the early stages, I would intentionally look for reasons to award a point about every 4-5 minutes. They needed that much reinforcement! By the second month, it was about every 10 minutes, I just gave them several points at once. By the third month, things were going so well that I would realize halfway through the class that I should give points again so we'd have 10 by the end of class. That was my sign that they were becoming intrinsically motivated! Even THEY were forgetting about the points.


I didn't have a great answer for the cynical student at UNC-G those many years ago, but I do now. Students can become intrinsically motivated, but you have to start somewhere if they don't come to you that way. Once they develop good habits with behavior and improve musically due to those improvements, they will find that the music IS its own reward.


Happy teaching! ❤️🎶

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