Opinion: Praising with meaning: In a world full of undeserved awards, how can we show true appreciation for achievement?When I was a first grader in Miss Johnson’s classroom at Cleveland Elementary, I have to admit that I was what they now call a “teacher pleaser.” Unfortunately, that doesn’t really cover it, but since I’m loathe to use the various terms students today would have assigned me then, I’ll have to go with a few of my own: toady, sycophant, and, my personal favorite, lickspittle.
By: Joe Graves, Mitchell superintendent
When I was a first grader in Miss Johnson’s classroom at Cleveland Elementary, I have to admit that I was what they now call a “teacher pleaser.” Unfortunately, that doesn’t really cover it, but since I’m loathe to use the various terms students today would have assigned me then, I’ll have to go with a few of my own: toady, sycophant, and, my personal favorite, lickspittle.
Back then, I would have copied the dictionary backwards for a single gold star. Or at least I would have until the day I discovered a truly appalling item in the valise my father carried to and from school each day. It was a large plastic box filled with hundreds or even thousands of little stick-on stars. Gold ones, silver ones, green ones, red ones. And on the back of the box was a tiny but clearly legible price tag reading 39 cents.
That’s what it took it to buy our enthusiasm, our participation, our positive regard, even our love. For 39 cents, Miss Johnson owned us, mind, body and soul.
But the even more startling fact was that she was amazingly stingy with her stick-on stars. You didn’t see a star on top of a C paper. She could have been handing those things out like vendor yardsticks at the State Fair, but she didn’t. Either teacher pay back then was not just miserly but downright vindictive or she knew something important. The latter being the case, what she knew was that anything given out too easily quickly diminishes its perceived value.
What Miss Johnson knew, education in general has largely forgotten. Today, grade inflation is rampant pretty well across the board in schools public and private, elementary, secondary, post-secondary and university. And it is a trend almost impossible to buck, for if you decide to be the lone dissenter or if your school or even whole state refuses to go along, the immediate victims are your own students. Employers, universities and scholarship committees will look at your students’ grades and, not understanding that you alone are holding the line against academic corrosion, will decide your scholars are less able than others. They will lose the jobs, be unable to enter the university of their choice and be denied the scholarship dollars they need to go on to college.
I wish I had a solution for that. The truth is I don’t.
But it raises another question. If educational awards are always subject to a form of hyperinflation, how do we effectively communicate to students and others that they are doing well? How can they know, with any assurance, that what we are telling them is meaningful, has merit, rather than just being one more gold star at 39 cents per thousand? It is an important question, because though we live in a world with increasingly effusive praise and undeserved awards, many, perhaps even most people, lack a sense of accomplishment, of being appreciated, or even of being loved.
I saw one answer the other day in an assignment that came home from Mrs. Larson’s class at the Mitchell Middle School in one of my daughter’s folders. It was called the “Fill My Bucket” assignment and asked that each student write a few sentences about every other student in the class. The sentences were in response to certain questions and were required to be specific. It was not enough to say you liked this person but rather required you to say what it was about that person that was likeable. I chatted with a few of the students from that classroom about the assignment and I listened less to the words they used to describe what they received “in their bucket” than to the look on their face, which was, consistently, a smile. Mrs. Larson, along with providing a lesson in composition, I think, made a group of sixth grade lives a little better, a little happier.
Could it really be that simple? A specific, sincere word of appreciation intended for no one other than that single other person. And perhaps the oddest thing? It costs even less than 39 cents.