Wednesday, August 15, 2018

THE ONE CHARACTERISTIC OF ALL GREAT TEACHERS

(NOTE:   This is my 269th posting on this blog.   Over the years, the writings have never really varied.  They have always been about my observations on teaching in college, which is, I truly believe, one of the most important professions in the world--maybe the most important.  We should all approach this job as if the fate of our planet depends on us.

I tend to author 5 to 15 new essays each year.  If you would like to receive a short notification from me whenever I post a new essay, send me an email at Jhoyle@richmond.edu.   I will not email you for other reasons – I respect your privacy.  I will just let you know when I have posted a new entry to the blog.   

And, as a wonderful new school year begins, THANKS to everyone who reads these blog essays and spends some serious time thinking about teaching!!!)

**
In 12 days, I begin my 48th year in the classroom.   As always, I am looking forward to the challenge, to the fun of going into class and trying to help all my students learn, think, and understand.  I hope you are at least half as excited as I am about the possibilities that come from the beginning of a new academic year.   It is a great time to be enthusiastic.

I have two classes of juniors and one class of sophomores.  Over the summer, I have emailed the sophomores about six times and the juniors eleven.   Seems like overkill doesn’t it?  

Why have I written to the students so often?  Am I trying to drive them crazy or scare them to death???   Well, I will come back to my rationale, but first a story.

Yesterday, I was sitting at a coffee shop near our campus talking with a dear friend about teaching.   I posed a question to her that I want to ask you.   “I believe if you take all the great teachers you’ve ever known and think about how they taught, you’ll discover they have at least one thing in common.   They all demonstrate this one thing.   I don’t think it alone makes anyone a great teacher but, without it, I don’t think you have any chance at all of being great.  What do you think that one thing is?  Think about the great teachers you have known.  How were they alike?” 
**
Okay, obviously, I want each of my readers to stop right here and consider the question.   What characteristic do all great teachers have?   I think this is truly important because it forces you to consider the question for yourself.   Don’t just listen to what I have to say.  I might be full of nonsense.  What do you think? 
**
My friend and I discussed the question generally for a while until she turned to me and said, “Okay, I’m ready to hear what you think.   You clearly have an answer that you like so convince me that you are correct.”  

My answer is this.   And, this is the basic reason for sending so many emails to my students before I even meet them.   I believe no teacher can be great unless the students have a deeply held faith in the teacher and the teacher’s abilities.  Few students are ever going to do their best work unless they have faith that they are not wasting their time.  Think of the great teachers you have had and ask yourself whether they were able to establish a high degree of student faith.  I am betting the answer is Yes.  “This person really can teach me something worth knowing.”  Here at the beginning of the semester, if you can begin to establish student faith, you open up the potential for a truly great semester.  This is the perfect moment to consider the issue.

Well, this raises a more complex question, what do I mean by “student faith?”   This is not a religious experience where you walk in and simply ask the students to have faith in you.   What is it?

Here’s how I view the creation of a student’s faith in a teacher.

First, students have to have some understanding of what you are trying to accomplish.  How is the course organized and what are your goals?   Without that, you are just asking for blind faith.  “Trust me because I am the teacher” is going to get you few converts in 2018.  Students don’t want to see a day-by-day outline of the course but they need a general idea of how you work and what you are trying to achieve.  Confusion does not inspire faith.

Second, and this relates directly to the first requirement, students have to believe that you have the ability to achieve your goals.   When I was in college, I had a number of teachers who started the first day telling us about the wonderful things that were going to happen during the semester.  However, within a week or so, it became obvious that the teacher simply did not know how to attain those objectives.  If you promise the moon, you better be able to show them how you are going to get them together to make the voyage.  Promises alone mean nothing.  In fact, promises alone are just irritating.

Third, students must be shown why the goals you have established are important and attainable.  Why should my students want to learn this stuff?  Students are human beings.   If you can show them that work has value, they will likely do the work.   If you cannot show them that work has value, why would many of them ever do anything?   This is common sense.  

Fourth, the students must believe that you will be fair in everything you do with the students, especially the grading.   Teachers can be easy and students will adapt.   Teachers can be hard and students will adapt.   But, if students come to believe you are not fair, they will never adapt to you and what you are trying to do.

Why all the emails to my students over the summer?   In my never subtle way, I am trying to answer four questions for them.

(1) – What are my goals?   What am I trying to accomplish? 
(2) – How am I going to get every member of the class to reach those goals?
(3) – Why is the work worth the effort?
(4) – How am I going to treat them so that I am absolutely fair to everyone?

If I can come up with satisfactory answers to those questions before I meet them, I have a chance to establish student faith in me and what I hope to accomplish.   I believe that creates the foundation for the construction of a great class.  Without that faith, it is going to be a long, tough semester.

A new semester is beginning.   It’s a good time to address these four questions with your students.  Build their faith.




Sunday, July 8, 2018

HELPING STUDENTS GET INTO THE RIGHT MOOD FOR LEARNING



If you have followed this blog for long, you know that I email my students occasionally over the summer to help them get into a good mood for a great semester.   I teach accounting.   A lot of my students start out with terrible attitudes.  That misery can be contagious.  

“This is going to be so boring.”
“I’m going to hate this.”
“This stuff is utterly useless.” 
“I’d rather be eaten slowly by ants than take this course.”  

Great teaching is impossible if students cling to that type of attitude.  I simply cannot ignore the negative assumptions running through my students’ heads.  I know they are there.  Although my summer emails have a lot of different goals, a main one is just helping the students develop a proper attitude about the upcoming course. 

Here is an email that I sent out to my fall students today (actually about 20 minutes ago).


To:   Accounting Students (for the fall semester)

From:   JH

I read a lot.   It helps keep me from getting too old too fast.   Occasionally, I read something that I want to share with my students (you).   It could be about school or business or life or learning or corn flakes or whatever.   Usually, I simply think, “Wow, this might help some of my students in some interesting way.”  After 47 years of working with people exactly your age, I’d like to think I have some knowledge of what might be beneficial.  

The words that caught my attention this morning came from Samuel Goldwyn.   In case you don’t know the name, this bio sentence comes from Wikipedia (the fount of all knowledge):   “He was most well known for being the founding contributor and executive of several motion picture studios in Hollywood.”  In other words, he produced a lot of great movies.

Here is the quote that got me thinking this morning.  I liked it because I could not agree more.   
         “No person who is enthusiastic about his work has anything to fear from life.”

Our class begins in exactly 50 days (not that I’m counting).  As far as I’m concerned, your “work” is this class and learning as much as possible.  I receive questions frequently from students asking how to do well.  One important piece of advice is to be enthusiastic.   By that, I simply mean that you should walk in the first day with a positive attitude, one approaching excitement.  You want to have a positive feeling about the class, the material, and yourself.   “This is going to be a great experience and I am going to do my best.”  That’s it.  At the start of every class, I’ll gladly settle for a little enthusiasm like that.  Write it on the cover of your notebook.   

I have no interest in watching you look miserable.  That brings me no delight.  I don’t care about your smarts.  I don’t care about your GPA or anything like that.  However, I will simply be delighted if you bring some enthusiasm with you on August 27.  Don’t try to impress me by seeing how bored you can look.  

I cannot guarantee an A.   Things don’t work that way.   I can guarantee that if you have enthusiasm, you should be able to maximize your grade.  And, you WILL maximize your enjoyment.  You will maximize what you learn and understand.   You will feel better about the class and about the material and about yourself.   A little enthusiasm (I don’t need a lot) invariably leads to nothing but good things.

What do I mean by enthusiasm?  That is simple.  Here are three components.
--Be willing to do what I ask you to do without seeking shortcuts.   If I ask you to work four problems, you can’t just work two and quit.  You can’t just copy someone else’s answer.  The biggest problem that average students have is that they will procrastinate and then have to cut corners.  All they are doing is hoping for a C.  Be more enthusiastic than that.
--Come by my office to ask questions when you are confused.   Being willing to accept confusion is a perfect indication of no enthusiasm.  In class, my response to “I just couldn’t get this to work,” is always, “Why didn’t you come see me?”
--Manage to stay engaged for all 50 minutes of each class session and not just 25 minutes.  Daydreaming for 25 minutes is 100 percent a lack of enthusiasm.

That’s it – enthusiasm in three components.  In return, here’s what I offer.

I promise that I will be enthusiastic.   I will prepare for every single class.   I will not take shortcuts.  I will do my best to make this class fun, interesting, rewarding, challenging, intriguing, and inspiring.   But that is just my half.  Unless you are trying to waste your valuable time, you have to bring your own enthusiasm to the class. 

It is not my responsibility to make you enthusiastic.   Your attitude is your responsibility.   If you simply assume that this course material is “useless,” “hard,” “boring,” and “confusing,” then you are undermining your own attitude and your own enthusiasm and your own enjoyment and your own success.

What do I want you to do between now and August 27?   Work on a positive attitude.   This course can be the greatest class you have ever taken.   But that will NOT happen if you lack enthusiasm.   During the fall semester, I want you to maximize learning, enjoyment, and, of course, your grade.   Those goals do not begin with me.   They begin with you and your ability to get a little excited about the upcoming semester.
**

Okay, blog readers, it is time for you to do a little work.   I’m a big believer that if you want to get better at something, you should dissect it and study its parts.   This email is long and winding.   What all am I trying to accomplish?  Here is your assignment.   Write down 10 specific things that I hope to accomplish with this email – both through the tone and content.   There are a lot of motivational/guidance things going on here – what do you see?  You don’t have to agree with me but I think it is beneficial to take this letter apart sentence by sentence and see what I am trying to do.  

Then, pick out the 2 or 3 things that you like the most and ask yourself how you can do them.   As I have often written on this blog, I am not trying to clone you into being me.   I’m trying to help you think about teaching, learning, and students so you can become a better you.   I think identifying 10 things I’m trying to accomplish in this email is a good exercise.  Then, picking 2 or 3 that appeal to you especially and consider how you can convey that same message to your students.



Sunday, June 10, 2018

FOUR TIPS THAT SHOW YOU WANT YOUR STUDENTS TO LEARN




NOTE:   This is my 267th posting on this blog.   Over all the years, the writings have never really varied.  They have always been about my observations on teaching in college, which is, I truly believe, one of the most important professions in the world.  We should all approach this job as if the fate of our planet depends on us.

I tend to author 5 to 15 new essays each year.  If you would like to receive a short notification from me whenever I post a new essay, send me an email at Jhoyle@richmond.edu.   I will not email you for any other reason – I respect your privacy.  I will just let you know when I have posted a new entry to the blog.  

Over the years, these 267 postings have had 450,644 page views (as of two minutes ago).   That is approximately 450,000 more than I expected when I first began writing.  Periodically, I feel a need to thank everyone who has read these postings, who has emailed me with comments/questions/suggestions, and who has passed along these thoughts to their colleagues.  Spread the word.   As teachers, we have a responsibility to share ideas about motivating and guiding students.  College education can and should get better every day.  Sharing thoughts is an important aspect of that evolution.  (Start your own blog, for example.)

In case you are interested, here are the individual essays in this blog that have had the most page views over the years.
--What Do We Add?   July 22, 2010
--What Is the Purpose of a Final Examination?   May 12, 2010
--The Most Important Days of the Semester    October 1, 2017
--Thinking About Teaching – How Do We Get Them Excited?    December 7, 2015
--Two Words for Better Teaching    January 7, 2015
--Be Daring   September 14, 2015
*******

When I talk with college teachers, I often notice that some tend to define themselves by what they believe they cannot do.  “I cannot be a great teacher.”  “I cannot make this material interesting.”  “I cannot get my students to participate in class.”  “I cannot get the students to think.”  “I cannot convince students that this material is important.” 

These teachers are frustrated.  That is why they tend to focus on “I cannot.”   Nevertheless, I am not sure how this mindset is beneficial.  Dwelling on what you believe you cannot do is of no help to either you or your students.  A good way to improve your teaching is to identify one basic goal that you CAN achieve and then begin the task of making that happen.  As you get better in any one area, I suspect that your overall teaching will begin to improve.   The many, varied components of teaching are interconnected.   Get better at one thing and many other aspects of your teaching will also show improvement.

Okay, the next roadblock is that teachers tell me, “When it comes to improvement, I don’t even know where to start.”  Change can be difficult to initiate.  So, let me provide a suggestion.  It is summer time.  Hopefully, you have a bit more time to consider how to make good things happen in your upcoming classes.

After a semester is complete, I frequently get an email or two from students with a kind (but vague) message.  “Thanks for a great semester.”  “I learned a lot in your class.”  “I appreciate all of your help.”   I never fail to be grateful to any student who takes time to provide feedback in a positive manner.  

A few weeks ago, I received an email from one of my spring-semester students.  The note really made me stop and think because it was more specific.  This student is from China and had worked hard in my class.  She did not thank me for a great semester or for my assistance.  She did not mention learning a lot.  In fact, she wrote virtually nothing about the subject itself.  

She had a different type of observation, “I hope that I can pursue things in my life with the same passion as you have for educating your students.”  Over my 47 years in this business, I don’t think any previous student has ever said anything like that to me.   She had come to see that I really did care about my students so that I genuinely wanted them to learn.   She hoped eventually to find that same passion for things in her life.  Maybe, I began to think, she had identified a foundation step for becoming a better teacher.

Simple question – do your students think you teach purely to earn money?   Or, do they believe you have a passion for helping them to learn?   Be honest – how much passion for teaching would your students say that you have?  A lot?  A little?  Almost none?  That is an interesting question to ponder.  Moreover, here is an aspect of teaching where you can get away from “I cannot.”  There is nothing to keep you from demonstrating an intense desire for each of your students to learn.  That does not require a particular talent.   If students believe you want them to learn, I believe they will be more likely to do the work that you ask of them.   If they don’t believe you care about their learning, then why should they do more than the absolute minimum that is required?  I had teachers in college who clearly did not care if I learned one iota and my feelings quickly came to mirror theirs.  

We all get frustrated as teachers.  There might be a lot of things about teaching where “I cannot” feels like the appropriate answer.  But, there is absolutely no reason why you cannot demonstrate a genuine passion for educating your students.  And, that passion might be the first step in making a lot of other things about your teaching start to improve.  If you show a belief in the importance of education, I believe many of your students will respond with more effort than you might imagine.

How do you convince your students that you have a passion for their learning of the subject matter?   Let me give you a couple of tips.   I am sure we could list 20 more tips but these four will get you started on convincing students that you have a passion for their learning.

Tip 1 – You cannot fake it.  Students can sense when you try to create a false enthusiasm for the learning of course material.  You actually have to want each student (from the best to the worst) to learn what you are teaching.  If you really don’t care, why should they?

Try this.  About every 2-3 weeks during each semester, take your grade book and slowly read each name and pause.  If your classes are small enough, picture the person in your mind.   You want to think of every student as an individual person and not simply as a member of the herd.   I usually look at their grades to date and try to decide whether that person is living up to his or her potential.  I want to remind myself that I am working with distinct human beings who desperately need a good education (whether they want a good education or not).   It is easy to mentally group students (“good students” and “bad students”), but I want to think of John Doe and Susan Dough as separate individuals and not merely as a part of the mass of humanity sitting in front of me each day in class.  I don’t mean to sound like Mother Teresa, but I do believe she inspired the world because she was not faking it when she talked about caring for each individual person.

Tip 2 – You have to communicate.  As I often say, students cannot read your mind.   You have to tell them and tell them, “Here is what I want you to learn and here is why I want you to learn it.   There is a reason and it is for your benefit.”   As of this afternoon, I have already written 3-4 emails to the students registered for my fall classes that will not begin for three months.  For me, that communication is vital.   Will the students read every word?   Of course not, but all I want is to start building up a sense in them of (a) the importance of the material and (b) my desire to help them learn.  

Of all the things I ever write about teaching, the one that I probably believe is most true is that teachers tend to under-communicate with their students and then wonder why the students don’t do what the teacher expects of them.   Don’t drive them crazy with useless information but make sure you establish a system of essential communication.  Tell them exactly why you want them to learn the material.

Tip 3 – Be willing to be available to help.   If you teach your classes and then go hide, there is no sense that you have a passion for your students to learn.   Again, as I have written previously, you cannot urge them to leap tall buildings in a single bound unless you are willing to stick around and help them learn how to fly.  “Here are my office hours.   If you have a problem, I expect you to be at my office with your questions.  We are in this together.  I want you to succeed.   I am on your side.”  Most students are leery of seeking help from a teacher because it might make them appear stupid or lazy.   Unless the material in your class is easy, most students will need assistance now and then.  That is just a fact of life.  You have to make sure that they know you are ready and willing to answer their questions and provide needed help.  

Tip 4 – Be proactive.  If a student is not doing well in your class, you simply cannot look the other way.   If a student is not preparing for class, if a student is not able to answer simple questions, if a student is skipping class, if a student is doing poorly on quizzes and examinations, you cannot wait for them to seek help.  Many will simply give up and fail.  Before that happens, call them into your office.   Explain your concern.   Ask them, “Is there a problem that I need to know about?   I need to see better work from you before the semester gets away from you.   What can we do to get you on a track toward success?”  If a doctor walks by a bleeding person, the doctor would try to provide assistance.  The doctor would not wait for the person to seek help.  A teacher cannot sit idly by as a student drifts off toward failure.  No teacher can save every student but every teacher can make an effort.  


Want to be a better teacher?   For one semester, try these four tips.   What do you have to lose?   Don’t sit there and simply repeat, “I cannot.”  That doesn’t solve any problems.  There is nothing on this list that you cannot try.  Just see how your teaching might be different.   Convincing students that you really do have a passion for their learning might well be the key that makes other aspects of your teaching grow stronger.


Wednesday, May 16, 2018

THE SECRET TO GREAT TEACHING – FOLLOW-UP




I recently finished reading Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson.   One of Leonardo’s primary characteristics was that he would grow curious about something (the tongue of a woodpecker, for example, or the swirling pattern of flowing water) and become so obsessed that he would want to learn everything that could be known about the topic.   I think I am picking up that trait when it comes to the secret (or secrets) of great teaching.   It is probably a topic that I could spend a lifetime exploring. 

I posted a blog recently on this site about the secret of great teaching.  My proposition was that great teaching requires great goals.   Any person who wants to become a great teacher (or great at anything else for that matter) needs to establish truly great goals. 

I received several emails from readers (jhoyle@richmond.edu) talking about either great goals or great teaching (or both).  I always love hearing from other teachers.  

After some thought, I want to add a second secret for great teaching.   Here it is:   I think it is virtually impossible to be a great teacher without some effective method of communicating with students (beyond the classroom).  
--I believe you can be a good teacher without an outside method of communications.  
--I believe you can be a great lecturer without an outside method of communications. 
--I believe you can be an extremely popular teacher without an outside method of communications. 

Nevertheless, I do not believe you can be a great teacher without some independent means of communicating with your students.   Great learning requires some amount of interaction beyond the typical 150 classroom minutes per week.  

Although the first class of my fall semester is not for another three months, I have already emailed my new students several times in order to start guiding them toward becoming the students that I want them to be.   If I wait until the first class to begin creating that influence, the battle is probably already lost.   However, if I can give them some hints in advance, if I can provide them with reasons to believe the material is worth learning, if I can assist them in becoming effective learners and successful students, the odds of a great semester skyrocket.   That requires communication that starts well before the class begins.

As an example, I sent the following email to my students this morning.   In it, I want to combine my two teaching secrets—great goals and effective communications.   Notice in the first part, I am trying to help them identify specific goals (rather than dreams) that really will help them improve as students.  In the second part of the note, I am trying to influence their attitudes.   I want them to view the challenging nature of my class as a positive and not as a negative.   In learning, a good attitude can make all the difference in the world.  If a student has the right attitude, this job gets much easier very quickly.

If you have email addresses for your next group of students, what kinds of communications can you use over the summer to help ensure a great fall class?
**

Email to my students:

(1) – Comment Number One.   I maintain a teaching blog and have done so for years.  I write about teaching and how I believe it should be done.   In my latest posting, I talk about my thoughts on the secret to great teaching.   As I see it, the secret of great teaching is having great goals.  In this essay, I include the following lines, which I thought you might find interesting.   “I am 100 percent sure that it is impossible to be great without great goals.  In fact, I think that is a limitation that students also have.  They have average goals and are then disappointed when they earn average grades.”

As you ponder the upcoming fall semester, do you have (a) great goals, (b) mediocre goals, or (c) no goals at all?   For most students, the answer is somewhere between (b) and (c).   Then, in December when they get their grades, they are frequently disappointed.   “I’m not sure why I didn’t do better,” is a refrain that I hear often.   I suspect one of the reasons is that they simply had no goals that inspired and guided them to do well.  

Okay, I already know the most likely response, “I have a goal of making an A in Professor Hoyle’s class.”   That is NOT a goal.   That is a dream.   To me, that is a real problem for great education.   Students have dreams that they mistake for goals. 

A goal sounds something like this:
--I have a goal of studying 10 hours each and every week in Professor Hoyle’s class.   I’ll keep a diary and see if I make it.   No matter what is happening, I will have no week where I spend under 10 hours in class preparation.
--I have a goal of walking into class with good answers for 75 percent of the assigned problems and adequate answers for 25 percent of the assigned problems.   I will never never never walk into class without a legitimate answer because I will never understand what is happening in class.
--I have a goal of answering any extra assigned problems that come from Professor Hoyle (this is a common occurrence) within 48 hours and immediately going to see him if I cannot get the answer in a reasonable period of time.   If I am still struggling, I’ll ask for an additional problem so I can keep practicing.

Listen, if you just set these three goals right now and stick with them, I think you’ll do great.  I make no guarantees, but these are great goals.   This process is not rocket science.  Do the work.   “I have a goal of making an A” is a dream.   You need to have goals that you can put into actual practice every single day of the semester.

It is not required but if you are interested in reading my posting on great goals, here is the URL:

http://joehoyle-teaching.blogspot.com/2018/05/what-is-secret-to-great-teaching.html


(2) – Comment Number Two – Back in April, at our Senior Recognition Dinner, I was named “the Most Challenging Professor” for the entire school.   Is that good or bad?   Sometimes, it is hard to tell.

I went to the gym near my house this morning.   On a big sign out front, they had posted this sentence, “If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you.”   I realize that most of you will be juniors in college this fall.   For me, college has one major purpose:   To help you make the transition from being a high school student to being a well-adjusted, thoughtful adult.   If you didn’t want to change, if you really wanted to stay a high school kid for the rest of your life, you could have saved a lot of money by not going to college.

Here’s a question that I would like for you to ponder over the summer.   Which of these two statements sounds like you?

--Yeah, within reason, I really do want to be challenged.
--No, I am perfectly content not to be challenged. 

I think you will do better if you walk into my class and honestly say to yourself, “I am no longer a high school student.  I am ready to be challenged.” 

Something to consider:   If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you.

**

My two secrets to great teaching.
--Have great goals that guide and inspire you.
--Set up a system of effective communications with your students so that you have a way to guide and inspire them.




Friday, May 11, 2018

WHAT IS THE SECRET TO GREAT TEACHING?



The semester is over or ending.   The academic year is over or ending.   It is a great time to pause and consider what you liked and what you didn’t like.   In sports, the teams post wins and losses which makes evaluation easy.  Teachers don’t have the luxury of such a clear-cut scoring process.  Some serious thought is necessary to know how well it all went.  How can it be improved?

In assessing the past year, don’t dwell on either the good or the bad.   Think about the year and celebrate the good stuff and consider what changes might have limited the bad stuff.  Most of us will have another chance to do this all again in the fall.  What can we take away from the past year that will help improve our teaching?   There is nothing to keep us from improving and now is the critical time to consider the changes that will lead to that improvement, especially as you get ready for next fall.

A few weeks ago, I participated in a video interview here on campus.  It was a PR piece.   Some of the questions dealt with my years at the University of Richmond.  Others had to do with my thoughts on teaching.   My favorite question was, “What is the secret to great teaching?”   I had some idea of what the questions were going to be so I had taken a few days to consider my answer.

Before I share my thoughts, I have two questions for you.

First, has anyone ever asked you that question?   Or, have you ever heard anyone directly address that question?   My point is that perhaps we don’t have more great teaching because we never really consider what that means.   Over the years, I have been to many conferences, presentations, and the like about various aspects of teaching, but I do not remember anyone saying, “Let’s talk about great teaching—what does it mean and how do you get there?”   If you have a pedagogy committee at your school, suggest they have that conversation.      

Second, is a more obvious question – how would you personally answer that question?  Before you read my response, how would you have answered a question about the secret to great teaching?   In truth, your opinion ought to be more important to you than hearing what I have to say.  

(This is a pause point while you think of your answer to the second question above.   If you are not willing to come up with an answer, that might indicate that you really don’t care about great teaching.)

Okay, now that you have come up with your answer, here is approximately what I had to say.  

“I am firmly convinced that the secret to great teaching is having great goals.  Great goals will not guarantee great teaching, but I don’t know how anyone can hope to be a great teacher without great goals.   I think too many people have average goals and then wonder why they are not great teachers.   If you have average goals (or possibly no goals), there is no chance of greatness.   I am 100 percent sure that it is impossible to be great without great goals.   In fact, I think that is a limitation that students also have.   They have average goals and are then disappointed when they earn average grades.  That is probably easier to see in our students than it is to see in ourselves.”  

“I write a blog about teaching and I occasionally write about my end-of-semester goals.   On the first day of class, at the middle of the semester, and at the end of the term, I am always shooting for one goal.  It never leaves my mind.   Here it is:   On the last day of the semester, I want to hear my students say, ‘I never thought I could learn so much.  I never thought I would think so deeply.  I never thought I could work so hard.  And it was fun.’  Whatever I accomplish as a teacher, I believe it is because I have those goals firmly in mind and try to make sure everything I do is directed toward achieving them.”

Okay, those are my goals because they work for me.  Between now and next fall, you should identify goals that work for you.  If you have not set great goals, then it is time to do so.   Here at the end of the semester, you have the opportunity to look back and consider what you accomplished.   What goals did you have and were they able to push you toward great teaching?   Before you consider changing your teaching, think about changing your goals.   How could you modify your goals for next fall to push you even closer to great teaching?

I guess that is the point of this essay.  How can you modify your goals to push you closer to great teaching?   It's a question that is worth repeating.

The topic of “great goals” is very interesting to me.  It just seems obvious that you cannot achieve greatness without developing goals that go beyond mediocre.  Start listening as people talk about their goals.

I read an article recently in the Wall Street Journal about Arsene Wenger, the manager of the Arsenal soccer team in London, a team that plays in the Premier League.   I know little about soccer as a sport but I do know that fans in Europe take their soccer (“football” as they would call it) seriously.   Wenger is retiring from the Arsenal team after a long and often legendary career.  

What I found interesting was that the article talked about his philosophy as a soccer manager, “I help others express what’s inside them.  I didn’t create anything.   My permanent battle in this job is to draw out what’s beautiful in man.”  

The whole idea works for every teacher but I really liked that last sentence.  Education often seems like Marine training where you want to work the students into exhaustion.  Wenger’s thoughts have a positive feel that is especially appealing to me.   Too often, this past semester, I found myself annoyed at students who would not live up to my extremely high standards.   Perhaps, I needed to think more about drawing out the best in them.   I’m not ready to abandon my “think, learn, work” goals but maybe they need some modification.  When the learning process is working perfectly, when a student is beginning to catch on, it truly is beautiful to behold.   I want more of that beauty.   And, I want to fully appreciate it when it happens.

So, even if I don’t change my goals, I am going to try paying more attention to the beautiful elements of being a teacher.   It is way too easy to stay annoyed at students who don’t always work as hard as I would wish.   Teachers do not have to be perpetually irritated.   Perhaps, as I tackle this job again in the fall, I will be better able to move toward great teaching if my goals push me to pay more attention to the beautiful side of this whole teaching process.   That is going to be an adjustment to my goals for the fall – to better see the beauty of being a college teacher.  

But, that is me and is not really relevant to you.   How are you going to modify your goals so they will be great enough to push you closer to great teaching?





Saturday, March 31, 2018

BETTER STORIES MAKE FOR BETTER STUDENTS


The spring semester is rapidly ending.  I have little time left to work with my current group of students.   I always want every semester to end on a surge of energy.   Especially in the spring, classes can drift into mass lethargy where everyone just begins to go through the motions.  Education is too important for that conclusion.   Everything goes better when it ends with enthusiasm.

Recently, I emailed all my students in hopes of encouraging them to redouble their efforts even as spring began to warm the earth and flowers began to appear.   I am trying to establish a strong mindset here at the end of the semester.   They are young and strong.   With the right mindset, they still have time to move mountains.  I have a motto, "if you are not dead, things can always get better."

Here is the email I sent to my spring students.

We have four weeks left in the semester – roughly 12 hours that we will be together.   It’s not much time but it is enough time to push that grade up.

Let me make a suggestion.

I listen to books on CDs as I drive around town.   A few years ago, I was listening to an audiobook in my car:  Wild by Cheryl Strayed.   It is long and complex so I will not include a detailed synopsis here.    However, at the beginning of this autobiographical work, the author believes that she has lost control of her life (at least in part because of the death of her mother).  She decides to focus on a genuine challenge in hopes of regaining inner peace and balance.  In that circumstance, I might have taken up a hobby like pottery.  With virtually no experience to guide her, Strayed chose to walk 1,100 miles alone through the mountains of California and Oregon on the Pacific Crest Trail.  Even now, the level of that challenge seems absurd.  Although she faced horribly frightening experiences during those months, she ultimately succeeded.  She was not the fastest hiker, actually one of the slowest, but she made it.  Along the way, she faced enormous challenges, but figured out ways – often by herself – to get through them successfully.

One day, I was listening to Wild as I drove to campus.  The author was getting ready to begin her incredibly long, difficult journey.  Not surprisingly, she lost her nerve and almost quit before marching off resolutely to the starting point.  In describing her emotions, she wrote a line that is so insightful that I pulled my car 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.  “Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves.”  For me, this was the most brilliant sentence I have read recently.  The words have stuck with me like an arrow for months.  And, the sentence is even more relevant if you begin to swap out the word “Fear” for other words such as “Joy,” “Excitement,” “Hate,” “Love,” and “Success.”   We are very much a product of the stories that we tell ourselves.   I believe that.

We have four weeks left in this semester.   My guess is that all of you would like to finish strong so you can learn the material and make the highest grade possible. 

What is holding you back from reaching your potential?   I suspect a large barrier to your desired level of success is a list of the stories that you tell yourself about this class.   Be honest – what stories linger in the back of your mind about this class?   Which of these sound like you?

--I’m not as smart as the other students.
--I’m just not very good with numbers.
--I’m tired of being a student so I’m going to coast out with as little work as possible.
--I prefer to sit and listen and this teacher keeps asking me questions, which is annoying.
--I’m good at memorizing.   I am not very good at thinking.
--The class is in the morning and I am not a morning person.
--I’ve got other classes that take up much of my time.
--I am never going to need to know this material so why waste my time.
--I don’t really know what I want to do in life so why spend so much time on this course.
--I want to have fun with my friends and don’t want to waste time on this class.   College is for fun.
--I’m really terribly shy and don’t like to speak in class.
--I always seem to know the material until I get to a test and then I panic and make stupid mistakes.
--No one really cares if I make above a C.   Mediocre is good enough.

And, all of those are absolute nonsense.  They are designed to hold you back.   They are designed to give you a dull, mediocre life.   They are designed to take you off the hook and have an excuse to be lazy.   Those are the wrong stories.  They will never lead to success in anything.  That mindset makes you an average person.   You are smarter than that.  Come up with better stories and you will come up with better results.   I cannot guarantee that you’ll make 110 on our third test but I honestly believe you will do better.

What stories should you be telling yourself?

--I will be the best prepared person in class next week.   I will analyze every question in advance and be ready with an answer.   I might not be able to do this for an entire semester but I can do it for the next week.
--I will write down questions in class that I don’t understand and go ask the teacher immediately.   He is paid to teach so let him earn his money.
--I will enjoy the energy and excitement of the class discussions.  I will look forward to this class. 
--I will pray that the teacher calls on me in class because I am ready to be a leader.
--I will work the extra class problems as soon as I get them.
--I will start keeping a diary of the amount of time I spend studying each day just to see if I can slowly raise that average.
--I will not worry about whether the material will ever be important.   I will learn it just for the sheer joy of adding knowledge to my head. 
--I will be better at time management so that I am ready for every class and can still have time to enjoy life outside of class.

I simply believe you will do better if you have better stories.   Positive stories create positive results.  You have to have stories that give you the strength to do the work now and do it well.   You have to overcome the bad stories.

That is not easy.   I fully understand.   But better stories really do make for better students.

I have an odd photo here at my house.  It is taped to my wall near my computer.   It is a photo of the cover of a notebook.   It was given to me by a student who did very well in my course about a year ago.   After the semester was over, she sent me the photo and explained, “I wrote this on the cover of my course notebook on the first day of the semester and I looked at it long and hard every day for the entire semester.”

On the notebook, she had written just four words:

“I want it more.”

She told herself the right story and she did very well.  She truly did succeed.