When I was in middle school, my sixth grade teachers used an incentive system. They would give students fake money whenever we did something good or commendable, and they took money away if you broke the rules.
At the end of the marking period, there was a huge auction in the school cafeteria where students could spend their money to buy the latest and greatest products the world had to offer 12-year-old kids in the 1990s: Tamagotchi pets, blowup couches, Beanie Babies, and the crown jewel of auction items: a waterproof Walkman.
Eye on the Prize
It was five pounds of yellow-and-black magic, and I did everything I could to earn those class dollars so that I could proudly wear that Walkman in public. Winning that Walkman became an obsession, and by the end of the period, I had amassed $498! That Walkman was mine! Or so I thought.
I was sitting in my honors math class one day, taking notes, when I turned to the student sitting next to me to ask a very specific question about the lesson content. OK, not really. I actually asked him who he thought was hotter: Britney Spears or Christina Aguilera.
The math teacher, a tall ex-military man with a crew cut as flat as a butcher block, abruptly stopped what he was doing and turned to me.
“Trevor, I said there is to be absolutely no talking,” he said in his deep, commanding voice. “You need to learn how to follow the rules. I am deducting 500 Class Dollars from you.”
I felt every eye in the room staring at me, and tears welled in my eyes when I realized every single dollar I’d earned that semester was gone.
Broke and Defeated
At the auction in the school cafeteria, they moved a table to the back of the room for kids who had no money to spend to sit at. And being $2 in debt, me and three other kids from the entire sixth grade sat and watched the auction from afar. I was embarrassed and ashamed.
This story had a profound effect on the rest of my time in school and my future in math. I wanted revenge on this teacher, and after a year of detentions and calls home, I failed sixth grade math and got moved out of the honors program.
Because I spent the last semester goofing off and loathing my teacher, I was unprepared for this class, and I struggled again. This pattern continued through junior high, high school and even into college, where I failed my first two algebra courses. My struggles with math were always attributed to “not being good at it” or “having too much of a right brain.”
The Impact of Teachers
I’m not trying to paint this sixth grade math teacher as a monster who set out to destroy my career in mathematics. Teachers have bad days and make mistakes all the time. I know this from personal experience.
The truth is, my old math teacher didn’t know the impact his simple punishment would have on me. He saw a student talk out of turn and wasn’t in the mood to hear explanations. He had no idea he helped tip the first domino on my downward spiral in math.
But my point is this: Students are highly impressionable beings. Teachers are highly influential people. And as educators, we can never forget this.
During that same year in sixth grade, I also had a wonderful English teacher, Mr. Peters. He would ask me how I was doing. He would talk to me about my parents, who were going through a divorce at the time. And he even talked about everyday things like the Minnesota Vikings and the scary subject of girls.
I can’t say that I remembered much about his class specifically, but I loved every moment in his room. Mr. Peters listened to me. And much like the way the math teacher affected me, so did Mr. Peters. But this time, there was a more positive outcome.
Now I’m an English teacher.
Trevor Muir is a teacher and storyteller. You can learn more about him on his Facebook page, The Epic Classroom.