Educator Actions to Last a Lifetime

By Jackie Gerstein, guest blogger

Jackie Gerstein, E.D., is an education thought leader who writes about "education as it should be: passion-based" in her blog, User Generated Educationwhere this post was originally published. Jackie covers myriad topics, including professional development on Growth Mindset, implementable coding games, personalized learning, makerspaces, and more.  

I currently teach graduate level educational technology courses. I like to acknowledge exemplary work by tweeting out the best of the best to my 21,000+ followers. A past student of mine was asked by one of her current teachers to describe a major positive learning experience in her education, and she replied it was my course, due to:

A major moment in this course was some validation of my work that I was not used to. A few of my assignments were used as examples, and some were even tweeted out, and retweeted! The fact that a professional in this field (the professor) and others thought my project had real value and took the time to share it thrilled me. That has been one of the best moments in my education, because for the first time I felt my work extended beyond the gradebook. I also felt like my work gave me some validation and confidence that I just might be able to put some things on a resume that might land me a sought-after position someday.

. . . and then there was Payton, a gifted 5th grader who spent one day a week with me when I taught in a gifted program. Payton was a quiet and somewhat shy kid. He didn’t make trouble in his regular ed class the other four days per week, but he also didn’t excel.  I had a number of robotics kits in the classroom that the kids could select from during our last hour of the day for choice time. Payton, after some weeks of experimenting, ended up creating a solar-powered Ferris wheel. His subtle non-verbals indicated to me the pride in his work. I suggested that he take it outside while the other students were walking to the lunch cafeteria. As they went by, he would demonstrate his creation to them. I hope that this is a memory he takes with him . . . forever.

. . . and then there was Jose, a tough 6th grader, who I had in a gang prevention group. The group of kids were doing a difficult, group problem-solving task called Island Hop. He figured out this task and even adults had difficulty solving it. Upon doing so, he looked up at me. I gave him a big nod, a smile, and a thumbs-up. To this day, I remember the look of pride on his face. It was one of those looks that still brings tears to my eyes – seeing the look of self-esteem growth. I had a hunch this kid didn’t get a lot of positive feedback for pro-social behaviors or for being the smartest in the room, so I hope this moment stayed with him.

I am using these as examples to show the variety of ways to acknowledge exemplary actions and work of learners. Isn’t this a big part of our responsibilities as an educator to acknowledge learner work that has gone past the normal expectations? I once heard an expression that our actions, even the smallest ones, can change the life and the world of another forever.

I am definitely an advocate of intrinsic motivation — providing students with choices and options — so they naturally want to engage in the learning tasks, get joy out of the learning process itself. But I do believe that learners should be acknowledged for exemplary work — especially if it is exemplary for them — providing them with feedback and opportunities to shine for a job well done.  This practice matches real life where good works are or should be given credit. On the other hand, I don’t go into any learning activity offering learners any type of extrinsic rewards nor with the intention of finding the best work and using it as an example what other learners should be doing. I believe learners are on their own learning journeys and should be acknowledged for actions and work that moved them beyond what they personally perceived possible.

Some ways to acknowledge and highlight exemplary learner work include:

  • Intentionally look for those big moments in learners’ lives.

  • Tweet or Blog about exemplary learner work.

  • Write learners personal notes about why you admire their work.

  • Ask learners to show others what they’ve done.

  • Ask learners to present at a virtual or face-to-face conference.

  • Don’t hold exemplary work up as an example of what you expect from other learners.

  • Remember that each learner is on his/her own journey.