Should a teacher publicly praise or shame their students?

By Caitlin Kelly

Pratt's library -- with one of the many sculptures dotting the campus
Pratt’s library — with one of the many sculptures dotting the campus

In a few short weeks, I’ll finish the first semester teaching college at Pratt Institute, a highly-regarded private college in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

I’ve loved it, but I’m pooped!

“Teaching” is really a one-word shorthand for describing the multitude of feelings, behaviors and interactions that happen in each classroom, ranging from pride, joy and satisfaction to shame, frustration, even anger — those of the students’ and the teacher’s!

I really enjoy teaching — I teach writing to freshmen and blogging to four seniors — but was taken aback by how much emotion also swirls around my classrooms. I knew that adolescents like, and need, to push back against authority figures, especially in college as they start to discover their own intellectual abilities, and their limits, in a tougher setting filled with strangers.

I didn’t anticipate how challenging it would be to manage those emotions publicly, making snap decisions in the moment how to respond to pushback or rudeness while knowing the wrong choice could destroy whatever classroom environment of trust and enjoyment I had been able to create.

One of the many challenges I’ve faced as a teacher is when, how, where and if to chastise a student for their laziness or poor work and when to praise them.

Publicly or privately? Face to face or in an email?

I remember all too well what both feel like as a student.

So I was intrigued, and a little horrified to read this New York Times story about the ClassDojo app now being used by many American teachers:

ClassDojo, a behavior-tracking app that lets teachers award points or subtract them based on a student’s conduct. On the board was a virtual classroom showing each student’s name, a cartoon avatar and the student’s scores so far that week.

“I’m going to have to take a point for no math homework,” Mr. Fletcher said to a blond boy in a striped shirt and then clicked on the boy’s avatar, a googly-eyed green monster, and subtracted a point.

The program emitted a disappointed pong sound, audible to the whole class — and sent a notice to the child’s parents if they had signed up for an account on the service.

ClassDojo is used by at least one teacher in roughly one out of three schools in the United States, according to its developer. The app is among the innovations to emerge from the estimated $7.9 billion education software market aimed at students from prekindergarten through high school.

I was badly bullied in my Toronto high school, and every day meant listening to the taunts and jeers of a small group of nasty boys. Praise and kindness, from any source there, meant the world to me in contrast.

One day — and thank god for Mr. Stickney’s compassion — I lost my shit. The redheaded asshole, whose nickname (yes, really) was Moose, kept droning onandonandonandon, a litany of the same old insults toward me, as he sat in front of me in 12th Grade math class.

Our textbook that year was hardcover, thick and heavy. I raised it, and whacked him, hard, on the back of his head.

Finally, blessed silence. All I wanted was to be left in peace, to learn.

“Caitlin, can you please sit at the back of the classroom?” Stick asked.

I could, and did.

Being a student, whether you’re four, 14 or 20, means making yourself deeply and publicly vulnerable to the judgments about you made by fellow students, your teachers and school administrators.

If they’re kind and sensitive, (and it’s usually a mixed bag), school can be a place you look forward to and thrive in — or a special daily sort of hell.

In my early teens, I had become something of a troublemaker in my Toronto boarding school, miserable and frustrated to be parked there while my parents were….elsewhere. By the end of Grade Nine, I was asked to leave.

An app like ClassDojo would have made my life even more nightmarish, making clear to every class how much trouble I was in and dragging them down with me. It would have further concretized the alienating and shaming consensus that I was something annoying to be gotten rid of — instead of the deeply unhappy and smart little girl that I was.

It was bad enough that our area’s neatness, and our behavior, was graded every single day on a chart by the door of our shared bedroom. Public shaming is not an effective way to motivate!

No one simply bothered to sit me down and ask: “How are you? What’s going on with you these days?”

There’s no app for compassion.

There’s no app for sensitivity.

Teacher — students — what do you think of this sort of thing?

Would you use it? Are you using it?


49 thoughts on “Should a teacher publicly praise or shame their students?

  1. I hope no teacher of mine is using such an app. Granted, for me they wouldn’t have much to praise or shame me with besides the fact that I’m talkative (which I am), but using such apps could seriously screw up some poor kid’s self-esteem and guide how they behave and how they feel about themselves for the rest of their lives. It seems somewhat sadistic to use such an app, especially since it doesn’t sound like there’s much keeping random people from staring at a student’s profile on it.

  2. betternotbroken

    I gave you a “Like” because I always appreciate your candor when I read your work and I feel for you due to your story but as a parent I say NO to Dojo. I do not find the ability to monitor my child’s academic progress 24/7 online a plus and teachers monitor parents and suggest we are not doing our job by monitoring their glasswork online and now this? What good comes from watching an eight year olds marks going up and down online? “Pressure for college,” say the teachers. “You must stay on top of them.” Good grief. By the time my children get to be college aged, it will be so expensive I may home school them and their prospects of getting a job will be the same with a degree I print on my Hewlett Packard. Where is the emphasis on humanity, compassion and leading by example? Can we get an app where we shame the teacher for failing to meet the needs of all the students and their individuality? Of course not, then in return we should not get one for the students or anyone else. Shame devastates people’s lives, this will create a PERMANENT record of their immaturity that can be used against them even after they mature. I can just see future teachers asking to see their DOJO records. NO WAY to DOJO.

    1. Thanks….and thanks for weighing in. I wonder how many parents feel as (strongly) as you do about this…and if they even know this system is being used.

      Very good point about the teacher and what they’re doing as well. I know we’ve all suffered some cruel and thoughtless teachers as well as great ones.

  3. In response to the stress induced by Common Core, our new principal has set in motion Common Care. We, as a staff, are encouraged to connect with our students in meaningful ways: “Great game!” “Looking forward to the slopes opening up.” Or even simply saying “hi” to a student even if he or she is not in our classes. The results are that when students know WE care, THEY begin to care more about their work. I work with 130 high school seniors–yup, there’s drama. Humor is my best and most used tool. That app should be flung in a hole.

    1. Well said!

      One of the aspects of teaching at Pratt that I enjoy the most is its very small campus and size (3500 students)…I am always running into my students in the cafeteria or cafe and it’s great to have a chance to say hello or even chat with them. About half of them come to our classroom early (we start at 10:00 am and I’m there by 9:30) and we visit until class starts. I love that. I felt totally disconnected emotionally from my profs and university (U of Toronto, excellent school, but huge) and I have never wanted another second of formal education as a result.

  4. I think I would reprimand and praise in private. Reprimanding publicly is a dangerous move. You don’t know the mental state of your students. Praising in public brings up the potential issue of “brown nosing” by the other students. It is important to give praise when praise is due, but I feel it is better done in private.

    1. I do totally agree. Words have a terrific power. As a Yoga teacher I’m engaged in giving the right time and attention to everyone. This is crucial in Yoga because everyone does his/her best according to his degree of freedom (in the body, in the mind). The consequence of a public praise or reprimand can be an obstacle on the learning path, any path. Furthermore teachers are human beings they might be wrong ! whereas the student might live a long time in redefining his/her strength (or humility, on the other side).

      1. Thanks, Gemma, for that…so much to think about when trying to teach! I take dance class and last spring took a choreography class — I was terrified! But the teacher made it so fun and so welcoming, even while she stretched us mentally.

        Being a teacher is so much more complicated than “merely” trying to share or transmit skills…you’re modeling behavior.

    2. It’s tricky…I teach a writing class and we edit work in class; i.e. everyone knows whose work we’re reading, so praise and criticism are public de facto. I explain in the very first class that the criticism is NOT personal(i.e. don’t feel crushed by it, but use it to grow) but professional; it’s part of being a writer and I, being one as well, am also subject to it. One of my students is extremely sensitive to both and it’s been challenging, but she is very bright and mentally very strong. A few are not and I am aware who they are.

      As an adjunct, I’m only paid for my hours in the classroom (plus all my prep and grading), and I have no office; i.e. anywhere private to speak with students. That makes it difficult and minimizes how much time/energy I can afford to devote to private time with them. I have had private meetings with four of them and they’ve proven helpful.

  5. i am absolutely against it on every level. i am all for talking openly and honestly to any student to offer praise, compassion, or to discuss challenges at any time. publicly or privately, as needed.

  6. themodernidiot

    Man, that’s some lazy-ass shit right there, buddy.

    What a stupid app. Created by some stupid, business-efficiency firm, I’m guessing. It’s certainly endorsed by some stupid businesses, and promoted by some seriously stupid and lazy media.

    The web site’s front page ( conveniently omits the negative feedback and public embarrassment portions.

    That’s some suspect shit right there, buddy

    Anti-student, drone building, Corporate fodder software right there, buddy.

      1. themodernidiot

        Haha, I edited the first two versions for restraint!

        It is very weird when teachers do it without software, so to have some creepy anime demean you has to be just over the top.

      1. themodernidiot

        Haha Charlene, you’d be correct!

        I sent this info to a teacher friend, and she about went ballistic. She teaches back in my Iowa hometown, and it hasnt made the classrooms there…yet.

        She was grateful for the warning, Kelly. She sends her thanks.

  7. Ok, sticking my neck out here. I’ve used it, but I didn’t abuse it. I agree with Alfie Kohn on a lot of things. But I think this app like anything else, can be used in good ways, or in bad ways.

    I had a particularly rambunctious 6th grade class. All was good if kids were working alone or in pairs. But the minute a group project rolled around, whoa to the world. It was as if all of a sudden, they thought I couldn’t see them doing bad or good.

    So I used this app, created my own things to award point for, and awarded points to kids who were doing what they should be doing. There was a bit of a competition to see which group could wrack up the most points. I didn’t take away points, I only gave them. It worked. And it got the reluctant kids to be more actively involved.

    I didn’t not use it all the time. I think it was 4 times. I did not give parents access, I didn’t give kids access. What was displayed for the day or the activity disappeared. I only used it when kids were working in groups of 3 or 4.

    As far as praising/reprimanding in public or private…depends. Some kids need to be praised in front of a class. It makes their year. Some kids are mortified when you let the rest of the class know they are a super smarty. Some kids need to be called out as doing something wrong. Some kids need a quiet moment face to face.

    If you have positive relationships with your students, if you know them, you can read what works. And nothing is more meaningful than a teacher’s apology. Again, sometimes face to face, sometimes to the whole class. When you know you crossed the line, kids need to see adults realizing that they made a wrong choice and that they will be better in the future.

    1. Thanks for sharing…The hardest part of teaching, for me, by far is the issue of classroom management…I love teaching, but that bit can feel overwhelming and exhausting.

      One of the challenges of being an adjunct is not having “office hours” or even an office, so I have no formal private time with my students and I can feel how disconnected I am from some of them. Of 12, I’d say I’ve developed a bit of a relationship with eight — which isn’t bad. I make clear to them they can email me any time and I respond quickly (within 12 hrs at most) to their questions or concerns. It’s clear that some of them have no interest in any deeper relationship and I feel it would be inappropriate to push; I follow their cues.

      The praise thing is weird — one student chastised me privately in an email (!?) for not praising her progress (when I had yet to see much); when she did make a huge improvement (thanks to tutoring), I said so in class…but she did not look happy. Sometimes, I think…enough already!

      I have apologized several times in class; our guest speaker arrived just as class was ending and I made clear how embarrassed and sorry I was about that (we all went to the cafeteria and did the event there after class) and a few times when I’ve not been sufficiently clear about my instructions. I believe it’s really important to be as human as possible, but it isn’t always easy to maintain authority and be relatable.

  8. Kathleen R sounds like a thoughtful, thinking teacher and I can see that the app might be one more string to her bow, hacked to allow her to give recognition of students’ hard work. It reminds me of the units of pasta, buttons or beads primary school teachers in the UK often put into a large jar, one by one, when a whole class has worked together well. The jar’s on a shelf where the class can see it. As soon as the jar is full the class chooses from various treats – a games afternoon, an afternoon of music, a film or whatever. The pasta/bead/button is awarded to the class as a whole – though the teacher might say ‘Well done Mary/Matthew, do you want to put this button in the jar for the class?’

    Otherwise, the app reminded me of nothing more than Mao’s Red Guard

    1. I’ve never heard of that…thanks for sharing that detail!

      In our class the day before Halloween I brought in 3 games of Bananagrams and they all sat on the floor and, in teams of 4, played it. It was a lot of fun and it gave me some interesting insights into them as they enjoyed themselves.

      1. Hi Caitlin – you’ve just reminded me of a relationship counsellor I met when I lived in the US, long ago. He would take all the couples who consulted him to a tennis court, hand out racquets and a few tennis balls and watch them play. He said that he learnt more about the nuts and bolts of their relationship with each other from watching them acting it out while they played the game than he would have learned in a long, long time of listening to them talking about each other.

        I know you weren’t counselling your students, but, as you say, you gain interesting insights from watching people at play.

      2. So true! I once played a game of tennis with one of my bosses (I was in my 20s and super-ambitious); I very quickly saw that making a mistake was OK…once! That helped me figure him out better.

  9. They’re too young for this. As an adult, we take our lumps and learn to deal with it. As a child, this kind of app kills creativity and experimentation. It cramps the room to make mistakes. And kids desperately need to make mistakes.

  10. I would never use such an app.

    As a college professor, I laid out my expectations form the get go. I was a fairly relaxed prof, but didn’t tolerate certain behaviors. I told students that if I saw such behaviors, I would discretely contact them and give them a warning. If the behavior continued, I would do a public warning. Third time, they were asked to leave the class. I’m talking about behaviors that were disruptive to the class and disrespectful to either me or fellow students.

    As for praise, I encouraged students to participate and rewarded them when they did, but, again, I didn’t go overboard. Just “nice job” or “good question.” I understand that a student can be fully engaged without speaking up and didn’t want to put pressure on those students who were more shy (like I was as a student).

    All I know is that, as a professor, you carry a great deal of influence. You can empower or disempower students with your words and actions. Being mindful of that is so important.

      1. I always went by how I felt as a student. I never forgot what it was like to sit in the chair of the student and respected that when I was a professor. I guess that’s the only rule I followed.

  11. Horrible idea! People have nuances and needs and emotions and ideas. There is no way an “app” could come near this language. Great article! You sound like a wonderful teacher. I have a junior high student and a high school student who are navigating the world of apps…

  12. Peter William Carrillo

    That app sounds horrible! I’m an English language teacher at a very small school, and if I used something like that, not only would the whole class know, the whole school would know too. Building student’s confidence in their second language is very important to ESL teaching, and something like that would go a long way in ruining a lot of confidence.

    1. Peter, thanks for sharing! It’s good to know that some other teachers feel as horrified by this as I do. Once a student loses their confidence, it can take years to regain it, if ever. Smart and sensitive teachers realize that.

  13. I wonder if the people who invented the app attended school, because in my view I don’t think any student or any one who remembers what it was like to be a student would make something like this in their right mind.

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