At the time I was too busy being 13 to pay attention to the lessons that were being laid out before my seventh grade class, but in 1979 thirty of my classmates and I found ourselves learning enough about the social-emotional economic realities of the prepubescent classroom to write a doctoral thesis. Of course, we didn’t really know what a thesis was let alone social-emotional economies.
What follows is not a thesis, but it is a true story.
In 1979 Holy Redeemer Elementary school, in Portland Oregon got a male teacher. Somehow, that press release didn’t make the 5 o’clock news but as a student that had never had a teacher that was neither a mother nor nun, it was the biggest news of the year.
The school had found a man; we were so excited to not have a nun that he could have had two noses and we would not have noticed until Christmas. Mr. Antz was small, unassuming, and serious about both his religion and learning but we liked him anyway. He treated us with respect, like the adults we wanted to be. Even his classroom made us feel more mature than we were.
Like every classroom, the walls of Mr. Antz’s room had pictures and posters, but for the first time, there was no alphabet strip above the chalkboard. There were none of those childish Frank Schaffer posters with round face cartoon kids explaining that a noun is a person place or thing. No pictures of Jesus blessing a circle of multi-cultural children.
Mr. Antz had the traditional cross and a flag by the door, but the rest of the walls were covered with real art. Copies of classical works ripped out of old calendars. Posters of real musicians, living and dead that stood as a testament to a person’s ability to honestly enjoy more than one kind of music. I also remember quotes that we did not understand, some of them in Latin, just written in marker and taped to the wall. I spent hours staring at those walls pretending to think.
The most interesting thing in his room was not his walls it was the calendar behind his desk. Because it was filled with gold stars. Mr. Antz graded himself every day. I had never heard of, or thought of such a thing. A teacher that graded himself.
He was quiet about it. But it was never hidden. As we packed up to leave at the end of the day he would look through his lesson plan from the music stand that held it, then pull the page of sticky gold stars from the paperclip on the back and filled in that days square. It was a 4 point scale.
I asked him about it once; He said, “I can only improve if I know how well I’m doing.”
For his students, gold stars were hard to find and had real value. Even top star papers bled the red ink of corrections and suggestions. When he thought we could do more he told us so. His rebukes stung because we wanted to earn his respect, it meant something and to have it was valuable. A four star paper was a source of both strength and pride.
Mr. Antz was as tough on himself as he was on us, most months only found one or two 4 star days. I questioned him after one such day because he had yelled at a couple of us. “Sometimes my job is to tighten things up, and sometimes it’s to let it ride. I get that fourth one for knowing the difference.”
In the first weeks of November, there were rumors that Mr. Antz was gay. By Christmas, he was gone.
In January 1980, Frank Schaffer was back on the walls explaining nouns, the gold star calendar was replaced by a blank one from State Farm. Mrs. Morley, a former nun and our new teacher, was tried and convicted of replacing Mr. Antz, then sentenced to serve 6 months hard time with a group of angry preadolescents.
The fact that Mrs. Morley was as innocent of the crime as she was guilty was lost on us. We were angry 13 years olds functioning in an economy of emotion. We felt we had been wronged, and would force someone to pay the price.
Like every teacher, Mrs. Morley quickly found value in a colored star economy, so immediately tried to buy her way to a lighter sentence. The girls got two gold stars for every paper turned in, the boys two silver. We got another star for putting our name on our work. Soon, a 5 star paper was common place. Everything we did was “wonderful”. She was flooding our emotional economy with false praise.
Every third sentence Mrs. Morley spoke to us was tagged with a smiley face and the words, “You’re such a sweet class.”
“You’re such a sweet class. Let’s do some long division.”
“You’re such a sweet class. I don’t know why you keep forgetting your books”
“You’re such a sweet class. Now stop that stupid chatter and get to work.”
By February, gold and silver had no market value at all.
By March, all praise rang hollow, the word sweet left a sour taste in our mouths. Our once strong emotional economy founded on effort and reward had gone bust. Flooded with over-inflated praise.
We finished out June proud of the fact that Mrs. Morley would not be coming back. Somehow, that was a moral victory. Seventh graders are not known as a forgiving demographic in terms of emotional economics. They are also not known for their foresight. Giving up on learning because your teacher uses false praise is the special kind of stupid that is reserved for 13 years olds.
Eighth graders in September are not substantially different than seventh graders in June. That was fine for our teacher, Sister Magdalene, she was old school, an old school Catholic nun, the only one in our school that still wore her black and white habit.
The walls of her room were sparse, a saint picture or two, a reproduction of the Declaration of Independence and a couple of poems written out, in perfect penmanship, on poster size paper.
On the first day of school, in the first hour of class, Sister Magdalene clarified her stance on gold stars.
“Paper stars are for little children. I teach young adults.”
Golden stickers are an easy to understand visual representation of feedback and encouragement; they are the Frank Schaffer posters of the reinforcement world. …Every classroom has a social economy, with or without shiny currency.
Sister Magdalene’s classroom social economy was as plain and clear as the walls of her room. If you worked hard, you earned praise. Generally in small personal tones. Like a “Well Done”, “Smart Work”, or a “Nicely Explained” on the bottom of a paper. She was not open and chatty like Mr. Antz, I don’t think anyone hung out in her room after school to visit. But, when you found yourself fortunate enough to earn a compliment, either on paper or verbally it had real value.
Long before winter break every one of us knew the value of “well done”. We knew that when sister Magdalene smiled with her teeth barely visible we met her expectations, and when that same smile leaked into the corners of her eyes we had impressed her. That was better than money in the bank.
By early spring, everyone in the class had established a source of social income. Some got small smiles daily but never the high payout; others would drain their bank dry and then try to score big on a test. Most of us worked hard, failed some and succeeded some. Our economy was expanding. A healthy credit with Sister Magdalene had high market value with other teachers.
We left school at the beginning of summer never to return as students. The social economy of high school was completely different. The cache of credits we earned at Holy Redeemer were nontransferable funds. However, I know from personal experience that their value carried some of us through 4 years of a social economic recession.