Monday, July 25, 2016


I hope that many of the folks who read this blog will be attending both the Conference on Teaching and Learning in Accounting (CTLA) on August 6 and 7 and the American Accounting Association (AAA) annual meeting on August 8 through 10.   These conferences will be held in New York City near Times Square.   I am speaking twice at the CTLA on teaching and will serve on two panels during the AAA annual meeting.   Would love to see as many people as possible.   If you are there, grab me and let’s talk.   Tell me where you are from and what you teach and what goes well and what challenges you face.    I am always glad to chat.   On Saturday morning (August 6), I am giving the opening keynote address at the CTLA and will be talking on the topic “Recharging Your Batteries:   The Joys and Importance of Teaching.”   I have decided to subtitle this talk: “Seven Quotes that Changed My Life or, at least, My Teaching.”  

In this blog posting, I am going to describe one project that I have been working on this summer.   Before I start, I want to mention two things:

  1. When I finish this project, I will be glad to share it with anyone who thinks it might be helpful.  I have high hopes that it will be very beneficial to my introductory students but, in the teaching business, there are never any guarantees.   However, I am happy to pass along the final version if you are interested.
  2. There is still a month left in the summer.   I would urge every reader to think of a project that you can accomplish in the remaining weeks that might help your students be great this fall.  Such projects can be big or small.  The real purpose of this blog posting today is to stimulate your thinking.   I guess you would say it is a call to action.


I have long believed that a big problem with education is the material that we use when teaching our students.   Textbooks, journal articles, and the like are fine in a limited way.   They do a reasonably good job of conveying content.  But, we need to supplement those resources to help achieve some carefully considered educational objectives.   Teaching is more than the mere conveyance of subject matter.  For that reason, I have spent a good part of my summer creating a supplement that I believe will help my financial accounting students this fall.    

To me, educational supplements should demonstrate some or all of the following six characteristics:
  • They need to be sequential.   Most students don’t learn in a random fashion.   They learn in a tightly structured step-by-step order.   Once material has been learned, sequencing becomes less important.  But, initially, a carefully crafted sequence is essential when showing the core of complicated topics to students.  On their own, students often fail to see the logical sequencing and then struggle to gain understanding of material that is really not that difficult when shown step by step.
  • Those sequential steps need to build layers of knowledge very gradually.   Students rarely have the ability to make giant leaps from one level of knowledge to the next.  Growth in understanding should be at a realistic and sustainable pace.  It is easy to lose students—leave them far behind—if complications build too quickly whenever new material is presented.   I remember sitting in college classrooms, totally lost and confused, as I wondered to myself “How did the teacher just get from Point A to Point B?  It looked like magic to me.”   The transition was clear to the teacher but it certainly was not to me.
  • Supplements need to help students realize that not all material is equal.   Some information is simply more important than others.   At first glance, students see all knowledge as having equal value.   They have trouble identifying the critical areas and, therefore, can wind up bogged down by trivial topics.  A good supplement should help point students in the right direction.  “This is really important so pay close attention.”
  • Material needs to be broken down into chunks that are small enough for a student to absorb.  Students become overwhelmed very quickly by too much material.  When considering a supplement, envision the sequence: “here’s a manageable piece of knowledge and, now, here’s another manageable piece of knowledge that builds on the first piece of knowledge.” 
  • The presentation of additional information must be interspersed with practice.   A teacher cannot simply make a “check off” list of things for a student to learn.  A reasonable amount of material is first presented and then that material is practiced before more material is added.  I have long stressed to my students: “Some amount of study time needs to be spent in learning activities.   The remainder of the study time should be used for practice activities.   Both are essential.”
  • It is important to use both auditory and visual learning.   I believe that some students learn better by hearing material and some students learn better by seeing material.   Some combination is probably ideal.   To me, too much of our educational material focuses on visual learning.

By looking at the above six characteristics, you can easily see why I believe good supplements are so important.   Textbooks and the like often struggle with my list of essential characteristics.   For the most part, textbooks are more content providers and less educational aids.  Content is essential but so are materials that guide student education in a logical fashion.

So, this summer I have been considering those six characteristics as I build a new supplement for my financial accounting course here at the University of Richmond.   I am doing this project in three stages (that I have cleverly named Stage One, Stage Two, and Stage Three).   I am nearly finished with Stage One.   I hope to be entirely finished with the project by the middle of October.

For each of the 17 chapters in the Financial Accounting textbook that I use in class, I am creating my own set of flash cards.   I wanted to develop a supplement that students could easily use with no cost.   So, I am building the flash cards as PowerPoint slides.   Slide One is a question, Slide Two is the answer, Slide Three is the next logically sequential question, and so on.   When the project is finished, I might switch to a more elaborate system of technology but this will work for my fall testing.  I want to keep this simple until I see how it is working.

In Stage One, for each of 17 chapters, I am creating about 30-40 flash cards:  15-20 questions and then the corresponding answers.   I have worked hard to think through each topic and establish a logical sequence of bite-sized information.  

In Stage Two, I plan to go back though each of the 17 sets of flash cards and add audio clips.   So, for a topic that is particularly difficult, I can record a 15-20 second clip to make a suggestion or give encouragement.   I love the idea of talking directly to the student.   I plan to scatter these audio clips all through the flash cards.   If students are not confused, they can choose to ignore each audio clip.   That will be up to them.  But, if things are not clear, they have additional auditory information easily available.  Visual and auditory assistance is available.   

Finally, in Stage Three, I hope to add links to Explain Everything videos that I hope to make (these are the kinds of videos that the Khan Academy has made famous).   As an example, here is a short video that I created a few years ago to help my students understand FIFO and LIFO.  Would 20 or 30 of these help my financial accounting students better understand the textbook material?   I certainly think so.

Notice that I am not eliminating the textbook.  It will still play a central role in my class.  Instead, I’m trying to take information from the textbook and make it easier for students to understand and absorb.   And, I am doing this by (a) sequencing the material in a logical fashion, (b) very gradually making the coverage more challenging, (c) pointing out the most significant material to the students, (d) presenting the material in chunks that are of manageable size, (e) mixing material coverage and practice so the students have an immediate way of learning the material and working with it, and (f) using both auditory learning and visual learning.   

Can you build a supplement like that?   Sure you can!   In fact, it has been kind of a fun experiment for this summer.   But, you need to start by answering an essential question – what are the characteristics that you want to add to your course by means of this supplement?   I started with my six characteristics and the work has flowed from them.   But that was me.   Figure out what characteristics you want and I bet that you will be surprised by how quickly you start coming up with some great ideas.  

Monday, June 6, 2016


I just checked the statistics for this teaching blog.   Sometime over the next day or so, it will likely reach a total of 200,000 page views.   I am always amazed and pleased that so many teachers read these essays.   Since there is no publicity, the word only spreads because readers like you pass along the URL.   Thanks for doing that!!  Whenever you read an idea that you like, I hope you will share it with your colleagues, friends, neighbors, and even your enemies.   I love it when people send me teaching ideas.  Likewise, I appreciate your sharing my thoughts with others.  Teaching ideas should be shared and not hoarded.

If you have read this blog for long, you know that I am always thinking of possible ways that I can improve my teaching.   I am a big believer that the more ideas you have then the more ideas you will have.  If you have one idea, a second idea may be difficult to produce.   But if you already have 10 or 20 ideas, the next bunch is likely to flow out of your brain at record speed.   Okay, some of those ideas might not be feasible but I guarantee that 10 ideas will produce more good ideas than one idea will.   I really believe that producing innovative ideas is a habit that teachers can stimulate within themselves.

I know that there are a lot of people who have just read the previous paragraph and are already shaking their heads and muttering, “No, Joe, you are wrong.  I never have any ideas.  I am always trying to borrow ideas from others.  If I don’t do that, I will continue to teach the way I have always taught.  I don’t have faith that my ideas are any good.”   Well, that is certainly a self-fulfilling prophesy if I have ever heard one.   Don’t be so down on yourself.   Don’t be so timid.   Break out of the rut a little bit.  

Here’s an experiment that you ought to try.   For the next 30 days, write down one teaching idea every day that you might be able to use during the upcoming fall semester.   Don’t try to judge whether any of the ideas are good or bad – just get them down on paper.   One idea a day for 30 days.

I think you will discover that two things will happen:

--First, as you eventually look back over your 30 ideas, you will realize that at least 2-5 of them are really good.   They are worth trying.   They can make your fall semester go better.   A lot of time it takes 30 ideas in order to produce 2-5 good ones.   So, you’ve got to get in the practice of producing those 30 ideas.  No one has 30 great ideas but everyone should be able to hit 10 to 20 percent batting average.

--Second, I think you will find that your ideas become easier to generate after the first couple of weeks.   Yes, for the initial 10-14 days, ideas will be difficult but you will get into the swing of it.   The brain cells begin to loosen up.   Eventually, your mind will simply be looking for more ideas throughout the day even when you are not trying.   It is like physical exercise.   It becomes easier with practice.

Try it – what do you have to lose?   30 ideas in 30 days.

So, what is my idea for today?   Here is one that I was pondering this afternoon.   In every class, it seems to me that students spend time doing two things.   One is thinking – trying to figure out how things work or why things work as they do.   They are trying to develop an understanding that will help them in solving future problems.   The rest of the time they are doing something other than thinking.   They are copying notes that they will later memorize.   Or, they are daydreaming or contemplating something that is not class related.  

No one can think about subject matter 100 percent of them time but I wonder how close students can get.

Next fall, as I leave each class, I am going to try to estimate what percentage of class time was spent in actual thinking.   Obviously, it will be a guess but I am betting that I can figure out which activities lead to thinking and which activities lead to note taking or some other type of nonthinking.  If I say, for example, that Boston is the capital of Massachusetts, then that is note taking.   No matter how interesting that might be, no thinking is required.  On the other hand, if I ask a student why Boston became the capital of Massachusetts, then—assuming they have some way of figuring out the answer—that should lead to thinking.   It is not thinking if the answer is a known fact.   It is thinking if the student must, in some way, try to figure out the answer based on the information they have.

I have never done this kind of measurement exercise before.   Can I get to 50 percent of class as thinking time or maybe even 75 percent of time?   That might well be a legitimate goal.   Or, will I be stuck at 10 percent?   That is certainly possible.    Just to make things more interesting, perhaps I could explain my definitions to the students and occasionally ask them to judge:   In class today, what percentage of our time was thinking time and what percentage of our time was something else?

Maybe I am wrong (I’ve not read any research on this) but I would suspect that the more time during class that is spent thinking, the better the learning results are for the students.   If that is true, then I should be able to improve the education level of my students by forcing/encouraging them to think more during class.   Not necessarily thinking deeper, merely thinking more.  That strikes me as an interesting possibility.  Maybe we worry about thinking deeper when we should be worrying about thinking more.

That’s my idea for today and one that I do plan to try out in the fall.

What’s your idea for today?

Saturday, April 23, 2016

One Last Thing

I finished my last class of the semester about 18 hours ago.   It was my 45th year in the classroom.   I believe that I taught most of my students a lot of accounting.   I would hope, though, that I helped them see more about life than just my subject matter.   Maybe I am wrong but I think 50 years ago college teachers were interested in more than the pure conveyance of subject matter.   As I look at the weirdness of the current presidential race, I wonder whether we have come to focus too exclusively on subject matter.

So, I got up this Saturday morning and sent a final message to my students.   Not sure if it will make them any different but, maybe, in a few cases, they will think about their future lives a bit differently.

To:   My Accounting Students

Saturday, April 2, 2016


On Friday morning, April 8, 2016, I will be speaking at the Ohio region meeting of the American Accounting Association on the topic of “Perspectives of High-Quality Teaching.”   If you are in the Cleveland area, I hope you will show up.  I would love to meet you and chat about teaching.   Here’s the URL.


I am teaching three classes this semester—two Intermediate Accounting II classes and one Financial Accounting class.  I have 78 students.   I realize that some of you teach hundreds but, for me, 78 is a fairly large number.  That provides some challenges when trying to get each student to do outstanding work.

I always give three tests every semester and a final exam.   I believe that gives the students a chance to show me what they have really learned.   After the first two tests, I usually have a good group (50-60 percent) who are doing well and have an excellent chance of getting an A or a B (hopefully).   They are strong and talented students who put in the work consistently for every class.

But I have another group (40-50 percent) who do not seem able to break through.  In some cases, the students are simply not working.   In other cases, accounting does not come easily to them.   We all have different talents.   In truth, though, a vast majority of my students are working relatively hard and seem more than capable of making an A or B.   Well, then, what assistance can I offer this second group of students to help them move from C’s and D’s to A’s and B’s?  

In many ways, isn’t that one of our most important jobs—helping students who are struggling to figure out how to become outstanding?   And, isn’t that where the victories are the most satisfying?   Getting a bright, hard-working student to make an A feels good but I always realize that they could have probably done it without me.  I don’t deserve too much credit.   Getting a student who has a C or a D with only 3-4 weeks left in the semester to make an A or a B seems like teaching at its best.

So, I take it as a personal challenge to get my “under B” group to do better.  First, you have to get them out of a “C” mentality.   After two low test grades, it is easy to become discouraged and start to think of yourself as no better than an average student.   That’s nonsense.   That’s absolute baloney.    Everyone can do better.   I am convinced of that.   I like to remind them that they still have well over half of their grade to be determined.   In my classes, the last regular test and the final exam make up approximately 57 percent of their overall grade.   Although the semester seems to be drawing to a close, they are not even at half time yet as far as their grade is concerned.   They still have plenty of time left to make an A or B but they do need to make some adjustments and they need to make them immediately.  I need to impress on them that they can do better but there is some urgency.  Without urgency, change is tough.

As probably everyone who reads this blog knows, I use the Socratic Method.   My class is filled with questions that the students work to answer.   I am training them (I hope) to learn how to “figure out” answers for themselves.  My giving them answers and information is not nearly as beneficial as them getting the information and figuring out the answers for themselves.

When a student comes by to ask for help here in this last month, I like to ask that person to start writing one test problem after each class.  I want to see one problem that they think I might ask on a test based on the material we covered.   I want them to start focusing on how the material can be turned into questions.   In the book Make It Stick, the authors assert that students often over-estimate what they have learned.   I think that is probably true.   I also think it is true that students focus on answering the questions they have already seen and not on the questions they are going to see. 

What I find fascinating is that, even after having two of my tests, students often write poor questions.   For the most part, they simply take the questions that I ask in class and change a few words or numbers.   I think that is how many of them have been trained in high school.   The teacher says something.   The student writes it down.   The student hands it back on the test.   The student gets an A.   That does not work in my class.   I ask them to take material and do something different with it.   I sometimes think that the reason they are not making an A or B is that they don’t truly understand how they are going to be tested.

When they send me their questions, I often point out “that sounds like what I asked in class.  I’m probably not going to ask that same question again.   What would that prove?   How could I twist the question to make it different and see what you really understand?”   Usually, on a second (or maybe third) attempt, the questions start looking like one of my test questions.   The student starts making a break through—not on the answer side but on the question side.

At that point, when they start to understand the nature of the questions they are going to see, then coming up with legitimate answers becomes a more realistic goal. 

If you are having students who do not seem to be able to “break through” into the A and B range, you might try that.   After every class, ask them to write a question that you might ask on a test.   Then, if they do not do a very good job of that, help them see what more you might be expecting from them.   Get them to focus on the questions before they worry too much about the answers.  

I sent my Financial Accounting students a practice problem this morning.   Sure enough, I took what we had done in class and added something a bit different.   I challenged them to “figure it out.”   And then I tried to make the point more clearly:   “And, as you are getting ready for the third test start asking yourself two questions:  (1) Can I do the standard problem?  (2) How can the problem be extended to make it more challenging?   That's when education gets exciting.”

Maybe focusing on the questions will help your C and D students move up to A’s and B’s here in the last few weeks of the semester.  That’s a victory for everyone.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016


If you have read this blog for long, you know that I have two interconnected goals.  

--The first is that every teacher should strive to become 5 percent better each and every year.   Never stand still.  Always push yourself to find some area of improvement.  

--The second goal is to Experiment-Evaluate-Evolve.   It is that active level of experimentation that leads to improvement.   No improvement is possible without making some change.   You should always be able to look at your current situation and point to specific changes that you are trying and evaluating.

If I stopped right now and asked you “what experiments are you trying this semester that might make you 5 percent better,” could you identify one or more? 

Experiments work better if they are directed at identified problems.  

After nearly 45 years in the classroom, one thing continues to irritate me.   I have many bright young people in my classes who have never learned how to become great students.  They are good at note-taking and they are good at memorization but they struggle when the learning goes beyond that level.   They don’t know how to respond.   How can a 20 year old who has been in school for 15 of those 20 years not know more about efficient learning?   That is an issue that seems to hold back many, if not most, students in college.   I don’t understand why we don’t exert more energy to help students learn how to become better learners.

There are a number of excellent books on the market that tell teachers what their students need to do to be better students.   Go to Amazon right now and you’ll probably find dozens.   But they all seem to be targeted at the wrong audience.   It should be the students who read and study such books rather than the teachers.  

So, last semester, around December 10, I emailed the 55 students who were going to be taking my Intermediate Accounting II class this spring.   This class is known for being particularly challenging.   Most students enter wanting a good grade but with a great amount of trepidation.  

In my email, I explained to the 55 students that I wanted them to become better students so they could be more successful in my class.  That seemed reasonable.   I also pointed out that they would probably have some spare time over the winter break.   I then offered to give them up to three bonus points on the first test of the spring semester if they would read the book Make It Stick by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel.  Read the book -- get three points.

On the inside cover of "Make It Stick" is the following description:   “Drawing on recent discoveries in cognitive psychology and other disciplines, the authors offer concrete techniques for becoming more productive learners.”   Wow, that’s exactly what I want for my students.   The description goes on to say “many common study habits and practice routines turn out to be counterproductive.  Underlining and highlighting, rereading, cramming, and single-minded repetition of new skills create the illusion of mastery, but gains fade quickly.   More complex and durable learning comes from self-testing, introducing certain difficulties in practice, waiting to re-study new material until a little forgetting has set in, and interleaving the practice of one skill or topic with another.”  

I think that is an understanding of learning that every college student should consider.   I was willing to offer bonus points just to see how many students would read the book and what the impact might be.   It was an experiment.

Fast forward three months.    Our first test was last week.   Of my 55 students, 20 said they had read less than 20 percent, one said he had read 20 to 50 percent, 7 said they had read 50 to 80 percent, and 27 said they had read 80 percent or more.   Roughly half the class claimed to have read roughly the entire book.   Interestingly, 63 percent of the top 16 students on the test (before the bonus points were added) said they had read at least 80 percent of the book.   Only 22 percent of the bottom 9 students claimed to have read that much.  

Of course, it helped that I gave them the assignment over a long holiday and offered points for a course that already begun to scare them.  It is hard to motivate students by being too easy.

Did the students tell the truth in their self-assessment?   It was only a couple of points; I accepted their word.  They are adults.   They know the rules.   I suspect that 80 percent or more told the truth.  To me, the potential benefit of the experiment far outweighed the risk that some student would falsely get 3 extra points on a single test.

More importantly, did the reading help them?   Has the book changed their behavior?   Do they now understand more about the science of learning?   I’ll wait until the end of the semester to ask them about those questions.   Unfortunately, we have lost several days to snow so it is hard to compare the test results so far this semester with that of previous semesters.

Here’s what I want to happen:
--I hope that the very assignment of this book helps to open the students' eyes to possible improvements in how they study.   Most students never seem to question how they go about learning.   It is like breathing—they just seem to do it without thought.   I wanted to raise the question:   What works in learning complex material?   I do wish that effective and efficient learning was a topic more stressed in middle school and high school.
--I hope the students threw out some of the study habits they have relied on in the past.   Cramming over the 48 hours just before a test is one “study” habit that I would love to outlaw.  Why spend time doing something that does not help?
--I hope the students considered some new study techniques that they might never have considered previously.   In that way, this voluntary assignment might well have a long lasting benefit.

I don’t want my students to learn just accounting.  That has never been my goal.   College education should be more than that.  I want them to become more successful students.   In the world after graduation, when a teacher is no longer around to provide guidance, that efficiency in learning might well be more important to them than anything else I can teach them.

Will I do this same experiment again next fall?   I am still evaluating.  I like the idea.   I would like to figure out how I could make better use of it.   I guess it is still in the planning process.  

I will leave you with a line from page 226 of Make It Stick:   “Students generally are not taught how to study, and when they are, often get the wrong advice.  As a result, they gravitate to activities that are far from optimal, like rereading, massed practice, and cramming.”  

Yeah, I agree.  Let’s start introducing the students to better practices so that they can become the capable students who will make our jobs much more interesting and easier.   Sometimes all it takes is three bonus points.

Thursday, February 4, 2016


Recently, I was invited by Dr. Shannon Orr (Bowling Green State) and Dr. Staci Zavattaro (Central Florida) to participate in an upcoming book project (to be published in 2017 by Palgrave).  They are asking 100 college professors to respond to the question:   What do you wish you had learned back in graduate school?

Isn’t that a fascinating idea for a book?   I must admit that I can hardly wait to read it myself and see what the other 99 have to say.  I am always in need of advice.   The question really breaks down to the ultimate life question:   If we had it all to do over with again, how would we do it differently?   That’s a question we should ponder now and then as we consider making changes in our present day life.  You can’t change the past but you do have some control over the present.  Thinking about the past might help us improve the future.

I spent several days considering what my honest answer might be.   Here is what I wrote.   Dr. Orr was kind enough to allow me to post this to my blog.   (So be sure and buy a copy of the book just as soon as it comes out.)

For the first 20 years I taught in college, I believed my role was the conveyance of information.  Essential subject matter resided in my head and needed to be moved into the heads of my students almost like boxes transported along a conveyor belt.   Successful learning depended on my ability to explain complex material.  I poured hours into creating beautiful lectures.   Students transcribed every word.  Content was memorized and then regurgitated back on tests.   Occasionally in class, I threw out a question that one of the more attentive students would immediately volunteer to answer.  The rest stuck to their note taking with dogged tenacity. That strategy had proven successful during their long slog through the educational system and was not going to be abandoned without a fight.

Class evaluations were good.   I won teaching awards.   Colleagues congratulated me on my success.   And, I was so dissatisfied that resigning was an ever present temptation.   Student learning seemed stuck in low gear.   My efforts appeared to accomplish nothing more than helping bright young people become stenographers.  

In 1991, I took a desperate leap of faith and switched to the Socratic Method.   I no longer conveyed information.   Instead, I asked questions every day for the entire period.   I followed James Thurber’s mandate: “I’d rather know some of the questions than all of the answers.” This change might have seemed rather spontaneous.   In truth, the need for radical change had been building inside of me for years.  I wanted to teach differently.

The transition was not easy.   The Socratic Method takes practice. Nothing is predictable.  No two classes are alike.  Absolute control is lost.   Years are required to appreciate its intricacies.  My class evaluations went down but, eventually rebounded.  

Every student receives a list of basic preparatory questions before each class.  But, it is the follow-up questioning that pushes them to a deeper level of understanding.  “Think about what we have discussed.  Now apply that knowledge to a more complex situation.”  Developing this type of logical reasoning creates an education worth having.  

I never ask for volunteers.  I award no points for participation.  I call on everyone every day and expect students to be prepared.   “I don’t know” is not acceptable.   “Figure it out” is my reply to a weak response.   The questions are the key.   They form puzzles that must be analyzed and solved.   “Why is it done this way?”  “What would have happened if the facts had been reversed?”  “If a different country had developed rules, what might they be?”   I constantly search for questions that force students to think more deeply.  That sentence is worth repeating:  I constantly search for questions that force students to think more deeply.

Virtually every college boasts of developing the critical thinking skills of its students.   Is this a serious objective or merely a standard line added to a website?   If serious, how do we fulfill that mission? After 45 years in the classroom, I worry that not enough faculty have considered the implications of this last question.   Lectures and the conveyance of information are not the answer. 

When I describe my conversion to the Socratic Method, I often encounter resistance.  Radical change is frightening.  As a visiting history professor once told me, “I see how it works for accounting but I don’t see how it could work in history.”   Socrates would surely have been mystified by that assertion.

Our planet faces a litany of problems that threaten its very existence:  pollution, racism, religious intolerance, disease, terrorism, poverty, dwindling energy resources, climate change, and many more.  I am convinced that only one possible solution is available:  improved education.   Colleges must produce substantially more high-quality graduates, people ready to tackle these challenges.  Conveyance of information will not save us.  Students must learn to think more critically.  They must be encouraged to delve into problems more deeply. 

What holds us back?  Teachers should be leading the charge for better education.

Last summer I listened to a fascinating audiobook on my car’s CD player:  Wild by Cheryl Strayed.   With no practical experience, the author walked 1,100 miles alone through the mountains of California and Oregon along the Pacific Crest Trail.  One day, as I drove to campus, Strayed described her anxiety as she readied to begin the journey.  Not surprisingly, she lost her nerve and almost quit before regaining her composure.  In describing these emotions, she wrote a line that is so insightful that I pulled over to the side of the road so I could write it down.  

“Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves.”

Shakespeare could not have said it better.  Those words have passed through my mind now for months.  We tell ourselves stories that can hold us back from changing our lives and the lives of our students.  Never expect failure.  Never fear change.  Never view students as incapable of serious thinking.  Never view them as lazy. Never feel that your teaching is unimportant. Never enter the classroom with low expectations.   Both fear and failure, to a great extent, are born of the stories we tell ourselves.

What do I wish I had learned in graduate school?   A complete list might stretch out like Rapunzel’s hair.  

I wish I had thought more deeply about the difference between conveying information and the development of critical thinking skills.  I wish I had appreciated fully the vital role every teacher plays in the future of our civilization. I wish I had developed more positive stories about myself and my work so that I would have been brave enough to experiment sooner.  Most of all, I wish I had come to understand that good questions create puzzles that lead students to think deeply, more deeply than anything I could possibly tell them in a lecture.  If I had understood all that, I could have made better use of those first 20 years in the classroom. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2016


Last week, the School of Professional and Continuing Studies here at the University of Richmond held its opening meeting for the new semester.   I was asked to give what I would describe as a keynote speech to kick off the semester.  Often, when I am asked to speak in this way, I will present some type of Power Point slide show where I discuss a topic like “My Top Ten Favorite Teaching Tips.”   In truth, I can do those programs fairly quickly and often with good results.

However, I decided that I wanted to do something different this time.   Our world has become so cynical and sour.   Every politician with a microphone will stand in front of a crowd and spew anger and hatred.   The news channels do not help as they debate the pros and cons of every single political decision often deriving people who are trying to do their best.   I fully realize that people in every community can be frustrated but I am tired of the sole political statement being:  “I am mad and I am going to tell you about it.” 

Plus, I often believe that teachers are just under appreciated, especially by themselves.  Without teachers, we would have no doctors or lawyers or engineers or accountants.

I decided to use my microphone time to talk about the excitement and thrill of being a teacher.   Sure, I could have stressed the bad days that happen in the classroom (and we all have those) but I wanted to talk about the wonderful influence we can have over so many people, especially young people.   I am glad they pay me for this job but I might well do it even if I wasn’t paid.  I love the thrill of making a difference.  Don’t you?   I can’t see how anybody would not love being a teacher.

In case you would like to watch that speech and judge whether I was really positive and optimistic enough, you can check out the URL blow.   The first nine minutes are announcements.  I start speaking after that.   Eventually, I ask the group to answer a question.   I’d love to know how you would have answered that question.

If nothing else, fast forward to the very end where I read a couple of sentences from a famous book.   Those words are worth hearing.