Discreet praise helps motivate worldly classes

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TWO boys who were not well-known for their academic enthusiasm came privately to ask Julie Grant, their teacher, for help with a GCSE geography project.

Miss Grant, who showed them how to find material in the library and on the computer, understood. 'They didn't want to be seen to be swotting in front of their peers. But after that, word spread, and there was a steady stream of pupils coming at lunchtime to use the library.'

Miss Grant, head of geography at Howard Grammar/High School in Gillingham, Kent, believes getting on with children is vital if you want to motivate them.

'They probably came because they know I support the same football team.' She also tries to make them laugh and performs a few 'tricks' to attract their attention. 'As a teacher your role is that of an actor or entertainer. It's the only way to compete with television and computer games. Children don't have any sense of wonder. They've seen it all on TV.'

Alan Deacon, deputy head at City of Portsmouth Boys School, also uses humour to capture his audience, sometimes by drawing cartoons on the blackboard to illustrate his point. He, too, speaks of the need to withstand peer pressure. 'This is an urban school and the macho thing is to say you are going to get a job and school isn't relevant. You have somehow to create a culture where work and performance in school is as valued as the uncouth culture outside.'

Public praise, teachers agree, is not always the best way to do that. As Judith Rowley, who teaches English at Morton School, a comprehensive in Carlisle, points out: 'Praise for good work from the teacher isn't fashionable. For some, it is just embarrassing.'

Mr Deacon's school has developed ways of rewarding effort and achievement privately. Younger pupils, he said, liked to go up in assembly to receive merit awards, but by year nine they are self conscious. So the school sends letters of thanks and commendation home to their parents which some pupils keep secret and others show to their friends. All pupils carry a book in which teachers in each subject record commendations and causes of concern. After four or five commendations, they get an interview with the head and a letter to parents.

Howard School is using records of achievement in which pupils help to set their own targets and describe their own progress. The records are sent home. Both systems aim to involve parents as much as possible.

Mr Deacon said: 'We need to do this so that pupils are not receiving different messages at home and school. A version of our GCSE study guide for pupils is sent home to parents.'

In school, teachers agree about the importance of positive written comments on pupils' work. Mr Deacon always begins with praise before he embarks on criticism.

They try to start from a point of contact with individual pupils though Miss Rowley said this was becoming more difficult because of the demands of the national curriculum.

She said: 'In reading, if necessary, I start with comics and I let them bring in horror books, though I tell them I don't like them. I use television and video a bit. We watch some of Macbeth and I pick the gory bits.'

Motivating the disaffected, she adds, is difficult in an area where most of the least able have little prospect of a job when they leave. 'I'm not sure I know how I motivate them. I'm just very well aware when I haven't'

(Photograph omitted)