A Sticker As A Surprise Vs. A Sticker As An Expectation

We all like to hear “good job.” I think that we all want to be appreciated for what we do. We get a happy feeling when people share kind words and meaningful compliments. I’ve been teaching for 14 years now. I’ve received many lovely notes, emails, and sweet words said over that time, but I still beam when I hear a new one.

As much as I love these nice words, hearing them or not hearing them does not change the effort that I put into my job. I do what I do because of the kids. I want to see them meet with success. I want to see growth. I want to see that joy that comes from learning more. And I want to know that I helped make a difference. While it might sound cliche, what inspires me on the difficult days to go back and try again is that group of 17 students that I’m lucky enough to call my own!

I say all of this because last week, I read a blog post by Kristi Keery-Bishop: a wonderful blogger who also happens to be my previous vice principal. Kristi taught me just about everything I know about descriptive feedback, but her post was on how in her current role, she seems to be handing out more stickers than feedback. I struggle with this. I almost never put stickers on work. (I say “almost never” because I think that there can be exceptions to every rule (just see this blog post by Dean Shareski), but stickers for me are a rarity.) While I think that my reasons for doing so can be tied up in many things — stickers don’t align with providing next steps, stickers don’t help students think deeply about their learning, and stickers aren’t conducive to providing feedback — my biggest reason of all is that I don’t want students just working for the sticker. This ties into the debate one often hears about awards.

  • An unexpected award — or a random sticker — may be a wonderful thing, but should it inspire students to work?
  • Why are we giving out these stickers, and what would happen if we chose not to do so?
  • Just like in the case of kind words that may come my way, not receiving them is not going to change the effort that I put into teaching. Will not receiving stickers, change the effort that students put into learning?

If the stickers are driving the learning, then I wonder about how they can be used differently. How do you use stickers in the classroom, and why do you make the choices that you do? I can’t help but think of my previous principal‘s comment in a Twitter conversation about stickers.

2014-12-01_19-45-23No, I’m not quite ready to eliminate all of the fun things in life, 🙂 but maybe it’s about moderation and the thrill in the surprise (of a sticker) versus the expectation of receiving one. What do you think?


10 thoughts on “A Sticker As A Surprise Vs. A Sticker As An Expectation

  1. Another great read (love your blog!) and some interesting and important questions posed!

    Myself, I don’t give out stickers – not because I’m against praise (students deserve this, genuinely – daily!) but because the lack of descriptive feedback involved in “sticker giving”. I ask myself – what serves the student better: a “great job” sticker, or an honest and specific compliment about WHAT they did to make it a “great job”? Students do deserve to know their work is great, but more importantly, why it’s great and what they can continue to do in the future.

    • Thanks for the comment, Joel! This is such an important point. A sticker may say that a student has done a “great job,” but does not explain the “why.” Meaningful feedback does both, while also getting the student to think about what he/she can do the next time. In the long run, I would think that students would appreciate this the most: this feedback shows you care about the students and their learning. I’d be curious to hear some “student voice” on this topic. I wonder how much stickers really do mean to them, and how they compare to genuine feedback from teachers.


  2. Thanks for your thoughts, Aviva. I feel like I wrote my post on a discouraging day. It kind of feels like confession now. Oh well. Since then, I still have lots of students racing down to my office looking for my fancy stickers, but I am getting better at holding them off a little longer in order to question them some more, suggest next steps and dig a little deeper into their thinking first. I have also been documenting the learning that gets shared with me so that I can share it with a wider audience. I enjoy celebrating learning with students. For some, I am recognizing that some concrete representation of “good job” is of value to them. For others, the attention of questioning and showing interest in their learning will be enough reward. If I keep my eye on the learning, celebrating it, furthering it, and encouraging it, and the stickers help me do that, I’ll still keep them around. But you get a side order of feedback with every sticker 🙂
    Just for the record, I think I like stickers more than sliding on the snow hills. I’ll leave Paul to give feedback to the snow sliders. I’ll stick to my methods but be more intentional in my efforts. 🙂

    • Thanks for the comment, Kristi! As I read about your current approach to stickers, I can’t help but think more about Dean’s earlier blog post. It’s not quite as easy as saying that no students get stickers, as some maybe really do need them, but as you mentioned, they may not be necessary for all. I love how you give them the great feedback and hard questions as well. You’re helping all of these students develop their thinking skills, and that’s a wonderful thing! It’s fantastic that you’re also documenting this learning — I can only imagine the spread of learning that you see, and how looking closely at this documentation would help as the school is planning ahead.

      And yes, while I may not hand out stickers very often, I also like stickers more than snow hills! As far as I know, no stickers resulted in trips to the hospital, accident forms, or broken bones. 🙂 But I may choose ice cream as the best option of all (even if it doesn’t align with our nutrition policy 🙂 ).


  3. This isn’t a zero sum game. I think there’s room for both. Feedback can come in a variety of forms and we don’t know what form is most encouraging. We do know that descriptive feedback is best for learning but small doses of encouragement in sticker form or whatever doesn’t have to be seen as a negative. Some people don’t give out stickers, that’s fine. Some people do, that’s okay too. These are small ways we remind both ourselves and our students that their work and actions are worth noting. We all work for both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards. Otherwise we’d teach for free. If intrinsic rewards didn’t matter, you wouldn’t be blogging and constantly trying to be a better teacher.

    • Thanks for the comment, Dean! I can see your point, but I guess that I worry if the sticker is what’s driving the student to work (or want to work)? Will this be enough in the long run? Yes, I agree with you that life is full of intrinsic and extrinsic rewards — no matter what debates there are out there about awards — but how do we ensure that extrinsic rewards are not the only things that motivate students? I think that this is what makes me reconsider the sticker, or at least re-think it as an everyday occurrence. Maybe Kristi’s idea of pairing the sticker with feedback is another good option. Then the sticker is the reminder of the “good job,” and the feedback helps students move forward. So much to think about …


  4. Hi Aviva,

    Further to my facetious comment about “sliding on snow hills”. As you will recall from your days at Ancaster Meadow, sometimes adults get lost in the details and over-complicate life. There is something magical in the happiness of children doing what comes naturally to them (eg – ice cream and snow hills… and stickers). I would definitely agree with Dean. As in most things, balance is the key… but I know that there is also something magical for a child when the Principal or Vice-Principal gives them a sticker. It is visible recognition that they get to share with their friends and family all day. Perhaps the more effective practice would be for us (P and VP) to figure how to use them throughout the day in classrooms (combined with other feedback) so that students are not rushing to the office… although I guess there is something special about showing your work in “the office” too.

    • Thanks for the comment, Paul! I can totally see what you’re saying about how “adults can overcomplicate things.” It’s true! I just wonder why students need the sticker? Is it an expectation that they get one? When they come to see you in the office, are they doing so to celebrate their work or receive a reward? Does it matter? I love that students want to share their work with admin. I think that it speaks to the fact that teaching and learning is a community affair: celebrated by students, teachers, admin, and parents. I just wonder if the celebration alone can be reward enough … with maybe a sticker for those that need it! 🙂

      Thanks for always making me think more (even after changing schools)! 🙂

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