Monday, May 19, 2014

What It Takes to Be Great

I am lucky.   At my school, students register for classes early and the professors can receive their email addresses almost immediately.   I have talked before on this blog about patterning student behavior (what do I want my students to do and how do I go about getting them to do that?).   I usually start sending emails to my students pretty quickly to set the tone that I want for the semester.   I don’t want to wait until the first day of class to start patterning their behavior.  

What tone am I trying to set in these emails:   (1) I am serious about this class so you better be as well and (2) there is a lot of challenging work to be done but the benefits are amazing.   If I can get those two points across before I meet the students in the fall, the battle is already half won.  It helps that I believe both points.

Consequently, I sent out an email to my junior level students this afternoon.   All I am asking is for them to take 10-15 minutes of their time to read a fairly interesting article.  But, I already know that if I just send them an email and suggest that they read the article, my chances of success are not high.   So, I use this as a chance to make my point:   There is a benefit here and that alone is a good reason to do the work.   I want them to approach this assignment and this class as an adult and not as a child.

Will all the students do the assignment?   I think most will.   More importantly, when they finish, I think they’ll say “Well, that was interesting and worth my time” which makes it so much more likely that they will follow up when I give them their next assignment.   I want to pattern their behavior in a positive direction.

Letter to my students:


To: Accounting 302 Students

From: JH

I realize our first class is not for more than three months but I have an assignment for you. And, I will begin by telling you several important things:

--I am not going to grade you on this assignment.
--I am not going to take anything up.
--I am not going to quiz you on it.
--I am not going to give you a few bonus points because you read it.
--I doubt that I will mention it to you ever again.

Well, why the heck should you do this assignment then?  Because I believe it will be good for you and you should long for assignments like that.

And, because you are no longer a teenage high school student who has to be bribed into doing work. You are an adult getting ready to enter the business world and compete against some very knowledgeable (and ambitious) people. When you walk into Intermediate Accounting II, it is time to stop thinking “I’m just a kid” and start thinking “I’m an adult preparing myself to compete in a challenging adult world.”

So, here is the assignment: I want you to read a Fortune magazine article that I read about 7 years ago that has impacted much of what I have done in this world since that time. The article is titled “What It Takes to Be Great.” It can be found at:

I have long argued that most students (most human beings) are entirely satisfied to be good (or at least average) but I rarely meet people who have a driving ambition to be great at anything at all. I think that’s a real shame. The world needs more bright people to push themselves to be great and then go out and change the world for the better.

I usually give about 15 percent A’s in my classes. I rarely find that much more than 15 percent of the students actually shoot to make an A. A vast majority are more than happy to shoot for a B. 100 percent of my students are capable of outstanding work. About 15 percent do outstanding work. Which group will you be in?

I think the problem is that most school courses (from kindergarten on) train students to shoot to be good but rarely push people to be great. How do you become great? That’s what this assignment talks about.

I want you to focus specifically on two sentences that come from the 4th or 5th paragraph:

“In virtually every field of endeavor, most people learn quickly at first, then more slowly and then stop developing completely. Yet a few do improve for years and even decades, and go on to greatness.”

That last sentence describes what I want for you.

Those sentences describe two groups of people. One group that settles for good and the other group that continues to improve and push forward and finally achieves greatness. You are capable of being in that second group. It is not easy. I will be glad to help but, in the end, greatness requires work. You have a world of talent in that head of yours but greatness requires a serious investment of time and effort.

I was watching the pro basketball playoffs last week and one of the coaches was wearing a microphone. The game was close and there was a real question as to which team was going to win. The coach looked at his players and told them one thing: “At the end of the game, don’t let anyone be able to say that the other team played smarter or played harder than you did.”

I like to steal from the best so: At the end of Intermediate Accounting II in the fall of 2014, don’t let anyone say that the other students in the class worked smarter or worked harder than you did.

Now, go do your assignment: Read the article and think about what it tells you about making an A in Intermediate Accounting II.

Let me know if you have questions or thoughts (but that is not a requirement).



Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Why We Teach--Four Short Stories

There are days, especially at the end of each semester, when I wonder why I keep teaching.   I guess we all face those dark moments.   Students will be lazy and then expect you to go out of your way to do them a favor.   Or, you will ask a serious question in class and get a ridiculous answer that causes the whole class to become distracted.   Or, a heated debate will arise over a grade, an argument that seems more painful than it is worth.   Yeah, days like that happen.

Occasionally, I try to step back and remind myself of why I chose to become a teacher and why I want to continue to be a teacher.    We all need to recharge our batteries especially here at the end of a long academic year.   Never ignore that need or you will become grumpy and disillusioned and I have already met way too many teachers like that.

It is nice when something happens that helps get us pumped up and ready to go back into the classroom and do it all again.  Here are a few short stories that happened to me over the past couple of weeks that have helped me end the semester on an uptick.  


Story 1:   I posted the following message on my Facebook page a few days ago.   I don’t post often but I am quite sure that these few words got more response than anything I have previously entered on Facebook.   The thing that made me smile the most was how many of my former students hit “like” in response to this message.

“I just officially turned in my grades so that finishes up my 43rd year as a college teacher. Only 17 more left to go and I’ll hit the 60 year mark.

“And, no matter what you might hear, 99 percent of the students do work pretty darn hard and enjoy the learning process. They are good kids who want to learn and make their mark on the world. If you can keep the right attitude, teaching will help you become an optimist.”


Story 2:   I was at church a few Sundays ago.   I am not sure I was looking for spiritual guidance for my teaching or not but I managed to find some.   The first lesson for that Sunday was from the 50th chapter of the book of Isaiah and started with the fourth verse.   This translation came from the New Revised Standard Version:

"The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word.”

Isn’t that just so beautiful and inspiring?   I truly do not know how often (if ever) I might “sustain the weary with a word,” but merely the thought of that possibility is touching.   Maybe, in the future, I should be more alert to the needs of the weary in my classes.  

What other jobs can you get where people pay you a salary and then hand you the opportunity to make a positive difference in the lives of so many others?

I fully realize that I will probably never know how (or whether) I have influenced many of my students.   But there is always the hope that I have been able to make some difference.   I often tell my students “Of course, I am here to teach you accounting and I think that is important.   But my real goal is to help make you smarter, to guide you in becoming a better thinker because that is a benefit that you can carry with you for the rest of your lives no matter what you choose to do.   That will make a difference in you become and what you accomplish.”

That is not exactly the same as sustaining the weary with a word but perhaps each of us helps to provide our students with some change that will impact their lives in a positive manner.   That is, indeed, a job worth having.


Story Three:   About two hours after I left the above church service, I was driving around listening to NPR on my car radio.   Someone was interviewing Doris Kearns Goodwin, the Pulitzer Prize winning biographer, historian, and political commentator.   She has become extremely famous by authoring numerous books such as The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

I was not paying close attention because I was driving but I believe the interviewer asked her if she had loved history as a young child and that love had then carried over into her later career.   Her answer was that she had certainly not been all that excited about history but that one of her teachers in (I think) high school had turned her on to how interesting the study of history was.   The teacher had a passion for the subject and passed that love along to her.  

She acknowledged that her career might have been entirely different except for the influence of that one teacher—one person who simply shared a passion and that made all the difference in the world.   I wondered whether the teacher was still alive or, possibly, had died without ever knowing the positive impact that came from that love of the subject.   All those wonderful books got their start with one teacher.

We cannot influence every student so greatly but we can certainly impact many of them and that is just a wonderful way to spend a life.


Story Four:   Yesterday, before I sat down to write this blog posting, I pulled out the Wall Street Journal (May 6, 2014) and flipped through it.   My eye was immediately caught by a story on page A-3 “Colleges Don’t Buy Happiness” by Douglas Belkin which talked about a Gallup survey.   I won’t quote much here but maybe enough so that you’ll get curious enough to go find and read the entire article.

“...people who feel happy and engaged in their jobs are the most productive.   That relatively small group at the top didn’t disproportionately attend the prestigious schools that Americans have long believed provided a golden ticket to success.   Instead, they forged meaningful connections with professors or mentors, and made significant investments in long-term academic projects and extracurricular activities.”  

“’It matters very little where you go; it’s how you do it’ that counts, said Brandon Busteed, executive director of Gallup Education.   Having a teacher who believes in a student makes a lifetime of difference.’”    (emphasis added)

“The strongest correlation for well-being emerged from questions delving into whether graduates felt ‘emotionally supported’ at school by a professor or mentor.   Those who did were three times as likely to report that they thrived as adults.”


Why Do We Teach?    I cannot answer that question for anyone other than me but I’d like to believe that I teach because I want to make a little difference in this world and one of the best ways to do that is to become a teacher who cares about students and their future.