For the first half of next week, it is inspection time at the school where I work. It has been six months in the making; lessons and accompanying resources are planned (for the most part), data has been analysed to death, middle management (like myself) have been ‘coached’ to understand how example questions could be asked, assemblies have been given to the entire student body to remind them of their role and responsibilities as school ambassadors, and there have been overnight appearances of new health and safety symbols, including new fire hydrants.

With the way that this week has gone, I thought that I would need to spend some or at least a portion of today doing some more bits. However, it has worked out that I am for the most part organised and there really isn’t much more I could do (without re-planning everything and that isn’t going to happen).

During the hustle of the past few months, and in particular the few short weeks since returning to work following the Christmas break, I haven’t paused for long to take a breath. But something happened yesterday afternoon that has stuck with me.

I was sat in my classroom checking through some of the finer details for some lesson materials when my immediate boss walked in, to check how I was feeling and if I was ready for the following week. I was, just about. He laughed and said that he was confident in my work and had no concerns. A relatively quick conversation ensued where he shared some of the details for the following week and I asked him how he was. Similar to me it transpired, a little anxious but he had also reached a point where he couldn’t do much more without going crazy. He left and I got back to my work, but something was different. A bubble of something, a feeling that I hadn’t experienced in some time had formed inside of me, I felt appreciated. And I took that away with me when I left for the day.

During the late 1940s, B. F. Skinner developed the work of behavioural psychologists arguing that existing models were too simplistic in explaining human behaviour. He developed what became known as operant conditioning and he believed that observable consequences can have an impact on behaviour. Simply put, some sort of positive reinforcement such as the example with my boss complimenting my work, provided me with a reward, an intrinsic one, but a reward nonetheless. The sense of appreciation that I felt motivated me and I left work with a smile on my face and I genuinely feel a little more positive about the upcoming inspection.

Skinner also believed negative reinforcement can also impact on behaviour and this works by the removal of a negative reinforcer. For example, I have a phobia of spiders, not so much the tiny money spiders, but anything remotely bigger than this. Even thinking about them now is causing me some mild anxiety… so rather than focus on this, I will get to my point! If I find myself in the presence of a spider then I do my darndest to either remove myself or more likely remove the offending spider… yep, I kill them if I have to. Now, diminishing spider populations aside as a result of my violent behaviour, the removal of the negative reinforcer (the spider) removes the unpleasant experience for me and therefore I feel better.

Finally, Skinner argued that human behaviour can be influenced by punishment. I imagine that we are all familiar with this, certainly in the context of education. If we do something bad, we may receive an admonishment from a teacher and perhaps in more ‘serious’ cases some other form of punishment, so that we are less likely to repeat the behaviour. Skinner concluded that it is possible to gradually change behaviour through a delicate balance of reward and punishment, as this amusing clip from The Big Bang Theory shows.

However, Skinner also conducted his research on non-human animals (rats and pigeons), including delivering electric shocks to encourage certain types of behaviour. Suffice to say, humans might respond a little differently under similar circumstances.

But I guess where I am going with this post is that that simple and relatively quick conversation with my superior made me feel valued. That the hard graft that I have been putting in along with my colleagues was worth it. I just wish that it didn’t take an inspection for the management to finally recognise some of this.


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