When a Hug Says it All

In my modest teaching career, one of the main problems I have run into is classroom management. With my 2nd grade here at TYO, I encountered my biggest challenge yet. My co-teacher informed me about different methods she tried and said she was open for any other suggestions. I was scared. One of my major concerns was the fact I didn't speak any Arabic and the students themselves had only limited knowledge of English. My fear proved to be right: two lessons in I was ready to quit. I am not qualified to do this. They are not going to learn anything... But then, I never quit a project before.But I also do not punish kids for bad behaviour. The good always wins, right? And so I began my research on the most effective reward systems. Having the above said in mind, it didn't take too long until I came across a reward system called “Birdie Buck.” It seemed to be worth a try. After adapting it here and there and with approval from my co-teacher, I was ready.

How it works:

Three boxes are set up as a small shop. Each box contains educational and useful rewards such as colouring books, a toothbrush, and play dough. At the beginning of the session, the class established four ground rules. Students who follow these rules and encourage their classmates do the same receive a play dollar in the next lesson. Doing extra tasks such as distributing worksheets earns them an extra dollar. When enough money is saved – 3, 5 or 8 play dollars – they have the chance to “buy” a prize of their desire. The other option is to save money for a more “expensive” reward,thus teaching responsibility and evaluating savings.


 The DIY aspect of it all was very important. Students made their own wallets, which would literally have their own personal touch. Owning something that is entirely theirs, something they made with their own two hands – to top it off – makes it even more special.

 When handing out the wallet templates, one student – let’s call him Husam – was not happy with the colour he received: grey, the colour the majority of the class received. He wanted yellow. I gave him the option to keep the colour he was given or not to have a wallet at all. This tendency to want to “choose-the-best-out-of-everything” I observed often in this class, be it pencils or chairs. Well, sometimes you need to compromise the small things to get what you want which is far more worthwhile.It is important to see the bigger picture. In this case, the grey, yellow or blue colour of the wallet would not affect its functionality, which is to keep valuable things safe and organised. Husam disagreed and crossed his arms. He was pouting and chose the option not to make a wallet at all unless it was yellow. He was determined to stay stubborn as usual until he got what he wanted. But so was I.

 Engaged and eager, the class started folding their wallets step by step as instructed. Husam was still pouting, arms crossed, but observing the others. Five minutes into the folding process, the wallets being folded to a third, I offered Husam his grey template. His response was a cold shoulder shrug. He was still stubborn and so stayed I. The class carried on. Their faces glowing in excitement. Husam's observations of the others grew more intense. The wallets were nearly done and I offered Husam his grey template one last time. This time, with a determined and now also excited face, he nodded and grabbed his template, immediately starting to fold it. My stubbornness achieved what I wanted: Husam saw the result of the folding process; he realized that his stubbornness didn't get him anywhere and that it was not worth it. Unknowingly, he compromised for the bigger picture.

 Within minutes, he had caught up with the rest of his classmates. I approached him, asking if he needed help with the last tricky bit. He nodded, pulling me down at one arm. I kneeled down to his height. Slowly and with his help, we folded the tricky part. His eyes never left my hands and the wallet. What happened next, I would never have imagined to happen: With the last folding touch, Husam realized that the wallet, HIS wallet, was done. Out of nowhere, he jumped up and hugged me. With the most sparkling eyes, he said, “Shukran! Thank you!” Then he quickly let me go to admire his work. His eyes wide open, smiling in disbelief. The hug surprised us both. This split second, however, in which the hug took place and seeing his proud face were enough for me to think: this was worth it.


At this point, it is important to mention my aim for implementing this reward system. Even though the children who receive play dollars for good behaviour might think that this is all that this system is for, the ultimate goal behind it all goes deeper. It is about learning how to be patient in order to achieve what you really want: Do I buy this toy because I have saved enough money or do I save some more for the toy I really want? It is about seeing the bigger picture: I want the wallet so I compromise for the grey colour even though I don't like it. It is about learning how to keep valuable things safe. In this case, it is play money. In life, it might be something more valuable. Seeing that Husam quickly understood one of these (life) lessons was a major reward for me already.

 In the following week, the volunteers and I handed out the wallets, which now each contained a play dollar. Seeing the students' faces when they opened their handmade wallets and found their first dollar felt like a warm wave of genuine happiness that only children can radiate. Their expressions gave me the motivation I was lacking. We can and will make this work.

English classes at TYO are much more than teaching a new language. They are about teaching responsibility, manners, and what matters in life. They are about – pardon the corniness – believing in others and not forgetting to believe in yourself. Taking on this challenge taught me how not to give up and stop walking when the hill gets steep, but to lean forward and ascend. Seeing the bigger picture myself, I once more realized that great things are achieved taking it step by step. And also knowing when to give in. Making even one child grasp this important life lesson is the biggest reward I get.

- Natali, Spring 2019 International Intern