I am blessed to teach next door to Amy Rice, an incredible teacher, very dear friend and former student. She shared a strategy with me that has really made an impact on her classroom community and improved student behavior and, lucky for us, she agreed to write a guest post all about it. You’re going to love this! Take it away, Amy:
If you have been in a high school classroom lately within the 2021-2022 school year (literally any high school classroom with students in it, anywhere in the country and probably beyond), you might notice more chaos than normal. Discipline referrals are up, immature behaviors are much more prevalent, and in general, it just feels like these are a different breed of student than most teachers have ever seen before.
At the same time, as discovered by class discussions, surveys, reflections, journals, and many one-on-one conversations, our students are longing for what school used to feel like for them.
In one class that wouldn’t get quiet, I jokingly used a kindergarten quiet signal, and it worked like magic. I put my hand up with my middle and ring finger touching my thumb and gently said, “quiet coyote.” The class quieted! I was shocked. What I had originally done as a joke inspired me (We have adopted this now as a new quiet signal, but we started calling it Tigre Tranquilo, as our mascot is the Tigers.). These kids are really nostalgic to their times in school before the pandemic, which was basically elementary school for a lot of them. (By the way, don’t tell them that they are nostalgic for elementary school, or they will think you are treating them like babies. You have to just go with it and see how they react. Don’t let them know that we know, or they will turn against us, because that’s just how this generation of kids acts.)
Inspired by this idea that kids are nostalgic for elementary school, I began researching other elementary school level classroom management tactics and found the idea of Secret Students. It has been surprisingly successful in my Spanish 2 & 3 classes and I’m thrilled to tell you all about it.
At the beginning of class, while students are Free Reading:
I use my magic index cards to pick one student. I announce to the class that I have picked my Secret Student, and will watch this student closely today during class, but I do not reveal who the Secret Student is. I specifically say what I am looking for behavior wise, such as following all school rules, using Spanish in class, being on task, or being a helpful student in class, etc. You can tailor this to the behavior you want to improve, but for my class so far, the focus has been following all rules and in general “impressing me”. I make sure to tell them that the Secret Student doesn’t have to be perfect, but that they have to impress me. This is important to say, because if you correct a student’s behavior, they may assume they already lost their chance at earning the Secret Student prize and stop trying, which doesn’t help anyone.
Throughout class, I announce every so often the status of the Secret Student, without giving too much away. I say things like, “Wow, the Secret Student seems to be doing a great job on this assignment,” or, “I sure hope that the Secret Student is one of the people listening closely and working hard right now.” The goal is to gently remind them that there is something on the line, and they might be the student that I am closely watching.
At the end of class:
In the last few minutes of class, I have students pack up but return to their seats. Then we do our Secret Student ritual. I describe the behavior of that student without revealing who it was just yet. I say, “Today, the Secret Student earned their prize. I saw them doing a great job while reading. They had a little hiccup with a school rule but when I reminded them, they quickly fixed the problem and apologized and moved on, which REALLY impressed me. They also had the opportunity to be distracted because they were sitting so close to a friend but focused instead of letting it be a distraction. They even helped their entire group by putting their materials away! Who do you think the Secret Student is today?” (By the way, right now I’m doing this in English because I’m working really hard to make sure behavior and community are the focus of my class and I want to make sure I’m using language that the student can understand, so they can appreciate my genuine compliments. In the future, we might change this, but for now, this is what I’ve chosen.)
The guesses start pouring in, and it allows me to honor the other great things other students did. “Was it Alex?” I respond with, “Ah, it wasn’t Alex today, but if he was, he would have earned Secret Student too! He did great today too!”
Finally, I reveal the student and allow them to come up to the front to pick from my prize bag. They get to pick one item from my bag of decal stickers and jolly ranchers. I bought my stickers about a year ago on Amazon, and they’ve lasted me forever. (I have bought this pack and this sugar skull pack.) These are both some great options because you can get so many for a low price, and students are typically motivated by them. (Sidenote, if you buy a sticker pack, I would recommend scanning the stickers for inappropriate ones. I was surprised to find a sticker with a glass of wine in my pack!)
The Secret Student selects their prize, they say thank you and I thank them in return for being such a great student today. It’s a great little bonding moment. I mark on my Magic Cards that the student was the Secret Student on that date, say great job to the student, then the bell rings. They leave and we repeat the process the next time.
Here’s a REALLY important step – if they DO NOT earn the Secret Student, don’t say who it was. Simply say, “Oh, shoot. The Secret Student didn’t earn it today, but no worries! We will put their name back in the mix and try again another day!” No need to embarrass anyone. The entire point of this tactic is that it is POSITIVE and not stressful for students or you.
Here are a couple tricks and sidenotes for extra success with this.
- The first couple times you do it, make sure you pick students who you know can earn it to gain some momentum with it. Also, pick some students strategically that you think might earn it, but other students wouldn’t think they would earn it. For example, I have a really goofy kid that is so respectful, but other students see him as a bit of a trouble-maker. By picking him, everyone sees Secret Student as an attainable goal.
- If you are worried about a student being able to earn it, secretly pick two students that perform similarly. That way, if one doesn’t get it, you can easily award the other’s behavior.
- These prizes work great in my class, but some other options that I’ve considered could be extra credit, a positive phone call home, a homework pass, an extra bathroom pass, or anything else that individually honors a student.
- Creating a routine with this is super helpful. I always choose the Secret Student during independent reading time so that I can announce it while they are reading to encourage them to actually read (not try to sneakily watch TikToks on their phone or stare at the ceiling). I remind them throughout class, then the last five minutes, they pack up, put away their binders, and we reveal. I can make this last longer or short if needed, but it’s helped a lot to make sure my room gets left clean and nothing gets forgotten that we do this at the end of class before they leave. We are ready to go before we announce the Secret Student.
- It is probably worth mentioning that my class already is full of a lot of weird and goofy routines and tactics that they already are expecting most of the time. I’m not sure if that’s a contributing factor to why this has been so successful in my class. I think it would be successful in any class as long as you keep it positive and find something that motivates your students.
If you still aren’t convinced that this is awesome, here are my takeaways after utilizing it in my class for the last two weeks.
- It forces me to look for the good in students. I’ve only been looking for the negativity in this tough, tough year, and it has made me feel bitter and frustrated with each of my classes. I kept finding myself finding only negative things to say about certain students, but Secret Student has helped me to look at good behavior. That simple reframing has helped me a lot. This year is still hard, but my mindset is a bit better because I’m forced to look for the good.
- It allows me to reward students for being good humans, so we can separate behavior from grades. Sometimes it’s so hard to separate students from how they perform academically. Today, the Secret Student in one of my classes is someone who in the past has driven me insane because I’m always chasing him down to get missing assignments. Today he took everyone’s books and put them away. I never noticed that he does this, but he went out of his way to be kind to his classmates. It was great.
- Students are motivating themselves. The mystery of not knowing if you are the Secret Student that day is alluring and exciting, and not knowing if the teacher is watching you extra closely is motivating. It’s less of me reminding them over and over and over not to do the same thing.
- It really has brought us a little closer. I already had a decent relationship with my students, but this little ritual each day has brought all students closer and me closer to them. It’s a reason for them to be kind and well-behaved in class, but it also allows me to see the good in them, which helps me to like them more and have more patience. The students that fall under the radar get to be the center of attention for a moment, and that helps us bond! And students get to notice the good in the other students in class and appreciate their efforts.
I hope you try this out in your class! It truly has been heart-warming and so positive in such a tough year. Thanks, AnneMarie for letting me briefly (or not so briefly) take over your blog! If you try this in your class, reach out to AnneMarie and tell her how it went!
Thank you so much Amy! I love how positive this is and how it’s fostered community during such a tough year. Lord knows, I need all the help I can get with my Spanish 1 Little Darlings and I’m excited to start implementing this with them!