Tuesday, July 30, 2013

If I Challenge You to Become a Better Teacher in 2013-2014, What Is Your First Response?

As some of you might know, besides being a college professor, I am a cofounder and president of CPAreviewforFREE.com.   In that role, I send out email lessons to about 20,000 past and future CPA candidates two or three times each month.   These lessons talk about how to pass the CPA Exam and, hopefully, encourage and assist those candidates in achieving their goal.   I’ve actually written these motivational email lessons now (off and on) for nearly 20 years.  

The following blog entry is adapted from a recent one of those lessons.   Obviously, I’ve changed the goal from “pass the CPA Exam” to “become a better teacher” but I believe that this basic message applies to teachers just as much as it does to CPA Exam candidates.   Success is success whenever you face a genuine challenge.


Two to four times each year, over the past 10-12 years, I have given presentations around the country on teaching.   I am always amazed by how many capable teachers show up to these sessions and immediately start telling me why they cannot improve their teaching.   Were it not so sad, it would be funny.   Over the years, I have started diagnosing this as the “I can’t do this because” disease.  

--I can’t do this because the students are lazy.
--I can’t do this because I have to focus on my research.
--I can’t do this because I have too many students.  
--I can’t do this because I am paid so poorly.  
--I can’t do this because my dean will not give me the resources that I need.
--I can’t do this because I have always gotten bad evaluations in the past.
--I can’t do this because it is not important for tenure and promotion.
--I can't do this because no else around here wants to teach well.
--I can’t do this because my students have no interest in learning.  

With all these self-imposed barriers, I often wonder how anyone ever manages to become a better teacher.   But people do improve and even become great teachers.   If you want to be one of those folks who really does improve,  it can be done.   Yes, it can!!!   It might not be easy but it can be done.   The excuses might slow you down but you can still get better.

When teachers tell me why they cannot improve, my response is always “well, don’t place too many stumbling blocks in your path.   Let’s start by looking at several places where small amounts of improvement can be made.”   Teaching in college is tough enough without you telling yourself you are going to fail.  

So, let’s practice.   Let's check your attitude.   If I were to get in your face and challenge you to become a better teacher in 2013-2014, what is your first response – would you start giving me reasons why that can’t happen or would you start thinking about changes you might make in order to become a better teacher?

I have long pondered the need of teachers to establish excuses.   For many, it is very much like a chanted mantra:   “I cannot become a better teacher because….”  This tendency seems almost universal.   A lot of humans just think in that negative way.   Every time we start a new challenge in life, especially if it pushes us outside of our comfort zone, we seem to lack faith in ourselves.    I suppose setting low expectations makes failure easier to face.  We make excuses as a way to soften the possible blow to our egos if we do fail. 

However, setting low expectations makes success so much more difficult to attain.   A negative attitude works against you.   It is hard to have the confidence to do the hard work necessary for success if you have already explained to everyone (including yourself) the many reasons you are going to fail.   Who wants to work hard if you don’t believe you can succeed?     People (teachers as well as students) live up to their own high expectations but, just as importantly, they also live down to their own low expectations.  

Attitude is vitally important in achieving success.   People rarely succeed without a “can do” attitude.   No one wants you to walk around and brag about how well you are going to do.   But, a certain degree of “I can do this” is necessary if you are going to take on tough challenges and succeed.

Let me give you an example.    My wife has long wanted to take a pottery class.   I have always resisted because I was convinced that I could never learn how to take a lump of clay and put it on a wheel and turn it into a pot or bowl or vase that could be glazed and fired.   I always assumed that I would produce a wreck and the teacher would look at me and just shake her head in frustration.   I didn’t want to try because I was afraid that I would be embarrassed by failure.   I was afraid of looking stupid.   So, I created all kinds of excuses.   When pottery was mentioned, I found myself starting every sentence with “I can’t do this because.” 

Finally, as I have written before on this blog, we decided to take a six-week pottery class this summer after I ran out of excuses.   I figured that I would produce awful stuff but I’d get it over with.  

And, of course, you can guess what happened.   The teacher was very patient and showed me exactly how to start, how to get the clay centered, how to mold it, how to shape and trim it.   When I did something wrong, she would show me how to learn from my mistake and do better the next time.   It was a wonderful learning experience.

I enjoyed every second.  And, almost immediately, “I can’t do this because” was replaced by “with some help, I can make this happen.”   Becoming a better teacher is much the same.   Quit the excuses and give it a try.

The key was that I stopped putting roadblocks in my path.   I stopped defeating myself.   I let the teacher help me make gradual progress.   And, eventually, I could make some pottery.

After 6 weeks, my wife and I had produced over 30 pieces.   If you want to see them, you can go to the following website and see a few photos that we took:  


What is the point of this story about pottery?   When it comes to teaching, stop doubting yourself and start thinking about improvement.   You have to rid yourself of “I can’t do this because” or you will never get one bit better.   Instead, get to work and get better.      

I recently read a book titled “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed.   It was a relatively long book and quite interesting.   But one line near the start of the book really caught my attention.   I immediately jumped up and ran to find a pen so that I could write down those few words.

Ms. Strayed was 26 and had lived a tough life.   Her mother died when Ms. Strayed was in college and she had a lot of trouble getting over it.   She had married and divorced and experimented with some dangerous drugs.

In hopes of getting her life straightened out, she decided to walk 1,100 miles of the very challenging Pacific Crest Trail by herself with little training or experience.   In the book, about the time she gets ready to start this grand adventure, she gets scared and almost backs out.   It is there that she includes the line that I appreciated so much:  
“Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves.”

 A line well worth remembering.

If you tell yourself that you cannot become a better teacher, you will become afraid and will not even try.   You are letting your own story defeat you.

If you tell yourself that you are going to keep pushing forward and learning from your mistakes, your chances of improving go up immediately.   Don’t let your excuses hold you back.  

When you look at becoming a better teacher, what story are you telling yourself?   In many ways, that question is the entire point of this blog entry.   What story are you telling yourself?

--The students don’t care so why should I waste my time as the teacher
--If I improve, I’ll have a positive impact on more of my students

--I need to shut my door and work on my research; the students keep me from doing the work that is really important.
--If I improve, I can change my students for the better and there is simply not a much better way to live a life.

--I have always gotten bad student evaluations; that is never going to change no matter what I do.
--I cannot become great overnight but I can make small improvements and if I keep working and have patience, I can become a good (maybe outstanding) teacher.  

 Before the fall semester begins, ask yourself: “What stories am I telling myself about my teaching?”   Am I telling myself stories that are going to make me afraid and hold me back from getting better?   Am I convincing myself that I am weak and flawed?   Or, am I telling myself stories that will provide me with the courage, energy, and enthusiasm that I need to improve?   Am I convincing myself that I am strong and able?

There are no guarantees in life.   But that doesn’t mean that you have to view yourself as chained to failure.  Everyone can teach better; I guarantee it.   Tell yourself stories of courage and determination and, quite possibly, like Cheryl Strayed, you’ll succeed at a very difficult task and become a better teacher.

It is easy to have weak stories in your head.   But your chances for improvement go up dramatically if you can replace them with strong positive stories.

Monday, July 15, 2013


As I have mentioned several times in the last few months, this blog is receiving an innovation award at the American Accounting Association annual meeting that will be held next month in Anaheim.  As part of that program, on Wednesday, August 7, I will make a 90 minute presentation (2:00 until 3:30 p.m.).   Because this blog is about improving teaching, I assume the presentation should be about improving teaching.   There will be hundreds of research presentations in Anaheim; however, at least this one will be a teaching presentation.

I realize that 99 percent of the people (maybe 100 percent) who read this blog will not be able to attend my session in Anaheim.   So, today, I want to talk with you about how I plan to start that program and why.   You can pretend you are in Anaheim in August (at a hotel next to Disneyland).  

If I want to have any real impact during my 90 minutes, I need to get the attendees mentally involved as quickly as possible.   I want them to seriously consider the importance of good teaching and how they can become better teachers.   That’s my basic goal.   However, from past experience, I know that whenever I give talks about teaching, the conversation can quickly fall into a litany of complaints about students:   Why are they lazy?   Why do they never seem to be able to think?   Why are they reticent to participate?

Those are legitimate questions but I want the program to have positive energy and not negative.   I am not looking to become “Dear Abby” – out to solve everyone’s problems with their students.

What I plan to do is have a quick warm up exercise to get people in the right mood.   To begin, I will ask all of the attendees to close their eyes.   I will then ask them to think back through all of the teachers they have ever had – from kindergarten through grad school.   I will ask them to consider them all but eventually pick the one teacher who was the very best.   I am not asking them to select their favorite teacher of all time or the most popular teacher.   I want them to pick the teacher from their experience who was the very best.  

From past presentations, I have found that almost every person in the audience is able to quickly select his or her choice.   I don’t provide any criteria but people just seem to know who was best.  Usually one person stands out above all the rest.   It might possibly be a 9th grade biology teacher or a 4th grade English teacher or maybe a math teacher in college.   Virtually every person has at least one teacher who has really made a difference.

I will then ask every person present to consider that selection very carefully and come up with three characteristics that describe why that person was their very best teacher.   I want them to choose three words that capture the teacher’s essence.   What made that person so very good?   It wasn’t luck.   What was it?

I will next ask each person to think of what they would tell that best teacher if he or she walked into the room at that very moment.  Some are probably dead and many have been out of contact for years.   But if their best teacher was to appear, what would they want to say?   What message would they convey?  How important has that person been?

Finally, I ask all of the attendees to turn to the person on their left or right and describe their best teacher by talking about those three words they chose as descriptors, and also what they would like to say to that person.   I want to create a personal conversation about great teaching.

Okay, I do not know how this will work in Anaheim (all of the people might fall asleep) but when I have asked these questions in previous presentations, everyone has gotten seriously involved.   Why?   That is easy.   I have changed the perspective.    The people in the audience walked in as teachers (probably annoyed with student behavior).   Like most groups, they often feel dissatisfied by what they have been able to accomplish.   But then, suddenly, each person has been returned to the role of student, a student who has been influenced by a great teacher.   It is the proper perspective for a teaching presentation.   I want every person to consider how important a teacher can be.  I want every person to think about how lives are affected by great teachers.   Most of all, I hope each attendee will want to become some other student’s “best teacher.”   That is really a goal worth having.  

Okay, if you are going to be in Anaheim, I hope to see you there.   But if you are not, why not try this warmup exercise by yourself?   You don’t need me there.   Sit in a chair in a quiet room.   Close your eyes.   Think of all your teachers, probably since you were 4 or 5 years old.   Pick the one who was the best teacher.   Think about why that teacher was so good.   Select three words to describe that teacher.   Imagine that teacher suddenly walks into your room.   What would you want to say? 

You are not going to be in a room with other people so, instead of discussing your best teacher with the person to your left or right, I will give you an alternative assignment.   For those three characteristics that made this person so wonderful, what grade would you give yourself and your own teaching?   For example, if your best teacher was “caring,” that was clearly an important characteristic to you.   So, what grade would you give yourself on being a caring teacher?   If it is not an A, then you know you have some work to get done.