61: Michael and the Tokens

61: Michael and the Tokens

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Teachers

Michael and the Tokens

Hold yourself responsible for a higher standard than anybody expects of you. Never excuse yourself.

~Henry Ward Beecher

I glanced up at the seating chart on the bulletin board to see which students I would be teaching that hour. I recognized two names. The third one, Michael, was new.

At two minutes to the hour, the director opened the door to the afterschool learning center, and the students came in. My regulars quickly seated themselves, and I handed them their first assignments. A heavyset boy of about nine lagged behind. The director walked him over to my desk. “Michael, this is Harriet, your instructor.”

I smiled and stretched out my hand in welcome. Michael offered me a limp handshake and plunked into his seat.

His shirt was crumpled, stained and tucked in halfway. Brown hair fell over his eyes, and a ring of purple, probably grape juice, stained his mouth. As I leaned over to talk to him, the smell of unwashed boy wafted toward me.

Breathing shallowly, I forced myself to smile. He did not smile back. His glance slid past me and darted around the room.

“Michael,” I said, keeping my voice bright and friendly, “let’s get started.”

He continued to ignore me.

“Michael,” I repeated, “please look at me when I’m talking to you.”

He turned to me and sighed. His sigh said it all. He did not want to be here.

A quick glance at the other students told me they were working well, so I had about five minutes to devote to Michael. “You’re going to be working on three to five reading and vocabulary exercises each time you come,” I said. “I’ll check your work after each exercise before moving on to the next. And at the end of each session, you’ll get special tokens to buy toys in our store at the back of the room.”

At the mention of toys, Michael’s eyes lit up. “I get toys?” He swiveled around in his chair to stare at the store display.

I gave him a moment before tapping on the table to regain his attention. When he turned to face me, I continued, “Yes, you get toys, but you earn them by working hard. You save the tokens, and when you have enough, you can buy something. So let’s start earning those tokens.”

I handed him the first exercise and described what he needed to do. We worked on the first example together. When I was sure he understood the assignment, I turned to one of the other students.

Within a minute, Michael piped up, “I’m done. How many tokens do I get?”

A quick check of his work showed mostly errors. “Michael, I think you can do better. I want you to read this again slowly.”

“But what about the tokens?” His voice had taken on a whiny tone.

“You get the tokens for working hard, not for working quickly or carelessly.”

He shrugged and went back to work.

The next two months were a repeat of the first session. Michael would barrel through his work with little care for the right answer. When forced to do it again, slowly, he’d get most of the questions right. He was smarter than his original test scores indicated, but he was sloppy and didn’t seem to care how well he did.

The only thing that motivated him was tokens.

Since his regular school didn’t give out tokens, I knew I had to figure out some way to improve his self-discipline and motivation that went beyond our one-hour sessions. I tried praise. That didn’t work. I tried pointing out how hard other students were working. That didn’t work either.

After another three weeks passed with little improvement, I talked to the director. “Michael and I are both getting frustrated. Maybe he’d do better with another instructor.”

She agreed. We tried him with three other instructors. He did worse. The day I walked into the center and saw his name back at my table, I was ready to quit.

Just before the students entered the classroom area, the director came over to me. “Michael’s mother spoke to me in the waiting room. When she checked the board and saw that Michael was back with you, she was pleased. You’re his favorite teacher.”

Favorite teacher? But before I could process that, the students filed in. Michael took his usual seat with me and raced through his first assignment, as usual. But this time, I didn’t react as usual. Instead, I turned to him. “Michael, you know how I decide how many tokens you get each time?”

He nodded.

I smiled. “Let’s try something different. From now on, you’ll decide.”

“Me?” he said, looking right at me.

“Yup, you. I think you’re a good judge of how hard you’re working.”

At the end of the session, I handed the other two students eight tokens for a job well done. Then I turned to Michael. “How many tokens do you think you earned?”

He paused for a moment, his face scrunched up in thought. “Two?” he said. “I made a lot of mistakes.”

“Okay,” I said, “we’ll go with two today. But remember, the tokens aren’t only for correct answers. They’re also for working hard.”

Over the next two months, Michael worked himself up from two tokens to five or six. He still sometimes slipped into his old ways and rushed through the work, but that happened less and less. By the end of the third month, he was routinely giving himself seven or eight tokens, and he deserved them.

He had conquered his reading and comprehension problems. More importantly, he had taken responsibility for his learning. On the day he “graduated,” I’m not sure who was prouder — Michael or me.

~Harriet Cooper

More stories from our partners