Help! My AP Expects Me To Motivate My Student With … Gift Cards?

A prize? For doing the bare minimum?

Illustration of a teacher who struggles to motivate her student with gift cards

Dear WeAreTeachers,
It’s my first year teaching high school biology and IPC. I have one student who is resistant to all my efforts to help him learn. He’s not a behavior problem, but he just won’t do anything. He hasn’t turned anything in—homework, classwork, tests, nothing—all year. When I met with my AP about it, she told me to try external motivators. “Think of something he really wants. You know, like a gift card.” I genuinely thought I had misheard her. A gift card? For doing the bare minimum? When I expressed my hesitation to her about this plan, she simply said, “We have to do whatever it takes.” I really, really don’t want to do this. Will I get in trouble if I don’t? —Not Daddy Warbucks

Dear N.D.W.,

First of all, I take issue with “Whatever it takes” and the family of phrases it belongs to. I also feel weird about external reward systems and the optics of a teacher giving a gift card to a student for doing the bare minimum.

But at the same time, what I hear in this story is the genuinely tragic result of No Child Left Behind. This kid figured out that it didn’t matter whether he did the work; why bother performing for a system that doesn’t believe in you?

You don’t have to do gift cards. I would be shocked if your AP even followed up with you to check whether you’re using them, since everyone who works in a school is constantly flung in twelve thousand directions. Do not burn yourself out; it is not your responsibility to undo the harm caused by terrible legislation.


It is your responsibility to do two things: care and keep trying. Each week, try one new (small) thing to show the student you haven’t given up. Give him a weird sticker with no explanation. Ask him the attendance question directly to build participation in a low-stakes way.

Once, in a real “throwing spaghetti against the wall” moment with a similar student of my own, I asked him, “Do you need a pep talk from my mom?” To my surprise, he said yes. He talked to my mom—whom he’d never met and who is also the sweetest woman in the world—for several minutes on my phone in the hallway. I kid you not, that was our turning point. (Did he do every piece of work after that? Of course not. But he occasionally did work, and we got along great, which I took as a win.) He even reached out a few years ago as a (successful! happy!) adult to tell me he never forgot that.

Movies and teaching fellowships and societal narratives love to suggest that you’re only good at teaching if you sacrifice your personal life and mental health, but that’s not true. You just have to show up, keep caring, and keep trying.

Dear WeAreTeachers,
I have my first runner this year. That’s it. That’s the question. —One Tired Pre-K Teacher

Dear O.T.P.K.T.,

Have you tried giving them a gift card for every day they don’t run off?


As a middle school teacher, I never had to deal with a runner. But between our WeAreTeachers team and some stellar current pre-K teachers I talked to with lots of experience, here’s what they had to say:

  • First, remember that there is always an emotional reason behind why they run. It’s easier to stay calm and empathize with a child who is running in response to a really strong feeling than a child who just randomly felt like making you panic today.
  • With any plan you create or adjust for this student, make sure your whole school is in the loop, including staff and counselors. When you’re absent, it’s important the teachers around you know how to respond.
  • If your school hasn’t already given you a walkie-talkie set, request one. When you have a runner, every second matters, and you can’t afford to wait while a phone rings. While you’re at it, see if your school will buy you cute running shoes. It’s worth a shot.
  • Document and share with the family every running incident as well as every protective and preventative measure you’ve put in place to ensure transparency around your efforts to curb the behavior.
  • Talk to the child at a moment when they’re at their calmest. “Tell me what happened when you ran yesterday. How were you feeling? What can we do to help you choose to stay?” One of my coworkers had a first grader who, like clockwork, would take off running when recess was over. Turns out he just needed to be her recess helper and hold her hand while she rounded up the kids.
  • Make sure they know your No. 1 goal is to keep you safe and that you hope they join you in keeping their own body safe. Positive language (“I want you to keep your body safe”) is always more effective with kids than negative language (“Stop running!” or “Don’t you dare!”).
  • Find out what the thing they love is. Make a plan that when they resist the urge to run, they get to do the thing they love. Would they love to read a book with the principal? Would they love to feed the fish in the counselor’s office? Think of something that doesn’t cost you anything and that’ll get them back in the classroom quickly.

Aren’t you glad I know such fabulous teachers? I am too!

Dear WeAreTeachers,
I’m in my 15th year of teaching middle school math. Over the summer, our department chair (a teacher in his third year) chose a new curriculum—including books, software, worksheets, Smartboard activities, etc.—and we are all expected to use it. Here’s the problem: It sucks. This curriculum is great as extension learning for my honors classes, but it’s missing critical practice and foundational knowledge for my grade-level classes. I’m also offended that we weren’t a part of the decision-making process for adopting a new curriculum and that it was left to a relatively inexperienced teacher. What can I do that won’t give me the “Not a Team Player” label? —At a Crossroads

Dear A.A.C.,

As my English friend would say when she’s truly frazzled or overwhelmed: Oh, my days. (Isn’t that cute?)

I feel like this situation is a microcosm for a lot of problems in education right now. Big decisions happening last-minute. No teacher autonomy. Outsiders with minimal experience making decisions without listening to experts.

You have every right to feel frustrated. But channel your frustration into strategy. Your principal and department chair made what they felt like was the best decision at the time with the information they had. (Even if it seems obviously boneheaded to you). Also, many times, when schools don’t use their budget by year’s end, the amount left over gets taken off the next year’s budget. Your principal may have just needed to throw money at something to avoid getting shortchanged the following year.

Approach your department chair and principal with data rather than feelings, and with questions rather than accusations.

“I have some concerns about our new curriculum. I put together some data on several different tests, looking at the last few years vs. this year. In the past three years, students scored an average of 83 on the linear equations test, with the lowest year’s average of 79 when we were all teaching virtually. Teaching from this new curriculum, this year’s student scores averaged out to 74.

“I wanted to make sure I was giving the curriculum a fair shot, and I’m worried that I’m not seeing the trends I typically see with student learning. Have you noticed this issue among other teachers? Can we talk about making some adjustments to the curriculum to meet my students’ needs?”

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Dear WeAreTeachers,
I’m in my second year of teaching fifth grade. My appraiser says I’m doing a great job with everything but classroom management. My students are constantly talking over me and either not listening (or taking forever) when I ask them to do something. I want to be better at managing them, but I don’t know what else to do! I’ve tried motivating them with positive rewards, threatening them with consequences, and making efforts to connect with them to try to build relationships. I’ve read books on classroom management and even attended a whole week of non-mandatory professional development this summer to improve. But my appraiser and I both agree we haven’t seen much improvement in classroom management. I’m starting to think I’m not cut out for teaching. What should I do? —Managing to Mess It All Up

This week on Ask WeAreTeachers, we cover whether to motivate a student with gift cards, a pre-K runner, and a new (bad) curriculum.