Monday, September 28, 2015


I love being a teacher.   My decision to become a teacher was certainly one of the 2 or 3 best moves I have ever made in life.  As I journey through my 45th year at this job, I only wish I could carry on for many more decades.  

Looking back from such a long distance, it is easy to become reflective.   How would I change anything if I were to do it all again?   Perhaps this is a question we should all ponder earlier in our teaching careers.  

In hindsight, I would probably adjust my vision a bit as to what I really want to accomplish with my students.

I teach accounting.   I really enjoy teaching accounting.   I love the complex thinking that is necessary to understand and communicate the logic of its rules.   Accounting is like a complicated game where only about half of the rules are written down and you have to figure out the other rules on your own.   (If it were just about following specific rules, then anyone who had a good memory and could read would be a great accountant.)   It is an odd day that I do not look forward to wandering into class to see how I can play around with the minds of a group of 20 year old college students.      

My students often think that, because I love accounting, my ultimate goal is for them to become successful accountants after they graduate from college.   That is absolutely not the case.   I very much want every student to have a happy, fulfilled, meaningful, satisfied, productive life.  
---If that life is found in the area of accounting, good for them.  
---If that life is found in some other field, good for them.  
I want my students to find a path that excites them and pushes them to make this world a better place.   There are 168 hours in every week and I hope my students learn how to go out into the world and make good use of those hours.   Colleges should work to give each student the tools necessary to find his or her path and the ambition to have a positive impact on the people they encounter along the way.  

I certainly teach accounting but I also hope that I am teaching something more than accounting.   If I were only teaching accounting, I would be ready for retirement.  

Looking back now and being reflective, I think every college teacher should give some consideration as to what they want to teach beyond just subject matter.

This was brought to my attention recently.  Last Friday morning I received a written card in my mail box at campus.   In this age of email and texting, I rarely get personal cards.   So, getting a written card caught my attention.

I opened the envelope and the message across the front of the card made me smile before I went any further.   It said:  “Life Begins At The End Of Your Comfort Zone.”  (apparently a quote from author Neale Donald Walsch).   I could have written an entire blog essay on just those 9 words.   Even before I opened the card, I was intrigued.   Anyone who buys and sends a card with that message is probably not the typical accountant.

Then, inside, I found a hand written message from one of my former students.   I don’t know when I have been more pleased to read about the career direction of a person who has been in my class.   Accounting was apparently not his path but he seems to have done a great job in finding his path.  To me, this is a true success story.  

“Just wanted to drop a line to say ‘thanks.’  After passing the CPA exam and spending several years auditing, I am now in my fourth year of teaching middle school.   You wrote me a recommendation for my Masters in Teaching, and I appreciate that.   I teach 6th grade geography and 7th grade ancient civilization.   (I was an accounting/history double major at the University of Richmond, class of 2005).   I love teaching and hope you’ll be delighted to know that I use the Socratic method often.  In fact, part of the ancient civ curriculum is about Socrates.   I also read and revisit your book ‘Tips and Thoughts on Improving the Teaching Process’ quite frequently.   I can hear your voice in my mind as I read!”

Yes, that was a good day for me.   I was happy.   I doubt that I had much to do with this person’s success (just from the tone of the letter, don’t you suspect he would have gotten there on his own?).   But I was so pleased that he had found a path that was meaningful for him, one that he loved.   Watching that happen is a truly inspiring part of this job.   And, I get paid!!!   Life is wonderful.

From time to time, every teacher has a chance to provide a small bit of guidance to help students find a path that appears to be the first step to a happy, fulfilled, meaningful, satisfied, productive life.   Those are moments to be treasured.

Okay, what is the real point of this posting?   As I move closer to the end of a very long career, I find that I have a different view of what I what to accomplish with my students.   I used to want to teach them every single detail of countless accounting rules.   All accounting all the time.  I thought that was the secret to their universal happiness.   I have changed my mind a bit.  Sure, I still want my students to understand accounting.   That is important and it is actually a fun subject to teach.   But I also want them to develop the critical thinking skills that will be necessary for them to find their own particular path to a happy and well-lived life. 

I used to teach accounting in order for my students to understand accounting.   Now, I teach accounting as a platform for developing their critical thinking skills.  

I often tell my students “I believe I can teach you to understand accounting and to develop critical thinking skills both.  But if I had to choose just one of those two – I would choose to help develop your critical thinking because those skills will guide you in finding the life you want to live and how to make it happen.”

So, as an old person providing advice in this blog:   Pause a moment and reflect.   Think about what you really want to accomplish with your students today.   Then go out there and do it.

Monday, September 14, 2015



Over the years, I have met a lot of good students.   I have met far fewer great students.  

Over the years, I have met a lot of good teachers.   I have met far fewer great teachers.

Occasionally, students swing by my office to ask how they can become great college students.   They feel that they are good, probably even very good.   But, they know they are not great.   At least, they are not yet great.

Occasionally, emails arrive from teachers around the country who ask about becoming great teachers.   They feel that they are good, probably even very good.   But they know they are not great.   At least, they are not yet great.  

Of course, many people are interested in how to move from good to great.   Jim Collins has managed to earn a fortune by writing fascinating books about companies that make the transition.   I am more interested in people who succeed in the crucial move from good to great.  It does happen but, from my vantage point, not often enough.  I sometimes refer to this as “stuck on good.”  

When someone asks me about going from good to great, I often relate a story that I first heard years ago.   Despite being an oldie, it does an excellent job of drawing attention to an important truth.    (With the recent ups and downs in the stock market, the punch line of this story doesn’t exactly hold true today but you should still get the point.)  

Here is the story I like to convey.   A very rich person goes to the best grad schools around the world and hires ten of the most outstanding recent MBA grads.   He brings them into his organization and reads out specific instructions.   “I’m going to allow each of you to manage and invest $500,000 in cash.   At the end of one year, I will award the person who has made the most profit with a bonus of $250,000.”   The young MBAs grow excited because they all believe they are destined to win that big pile of money as their reward.

After 15 minutes of intense thinking, each of the ten new hires rushes out of the room to go buy shares of Apple.  

The rich person looks at an assistant and whispers “Once again, I just saved $250,000.”  

Over the years, under normal conditions, buying Apple has been a very good investment strategy.   However, if you truly want to stand out as great, you have to do something that is different from the crowd.   We are all just average until we do something that is unique.  You cannot be noticed by doing things exactly like everyone else—even if the strategy is a good one.  

People want to believe they can become great by doing what everyone else around them is doing.   I have met a lot of people with that belief.  That will not work.

Inevitably, you must be willing to take a risk and do something different.   To be great, you must try something that others have not dared to do.   And, that opens you up to risk.   If you shoot for greatness, you must be willing to accept the possibility of failure.  I am not talking about ridiculous risk.   I am talking about a considered, acceptable level of risk.   You will never be great at anything—you will never stand out from any crowd—if you avoid all risk by simply blending in.

Okay, when is the last time, in your teaching, that you tried something that was truly original?   Maybe a better question is:   What are you going to try this semester?   Always be on the watch for something different to do.  What can I change?   What needs to be improved?   What would a possible improvement look like?   What positive benefits might accrue?   What are the real risks?  

What can you do this semester in your classes that will make you stand out?   You want to walk the halls of your school and overhear colleagues whispering about you:   “Did you hear what that guy tried in his class?   I hear it was amazing!!   I plan to try it myself next semester.”  That is the ultimate compliment.

There is an interesting term that you might hear occasionally in business:   fast follower.   It refers to a person (or a company) who watches others for innovations.   If those innovations seem to work, they adopt them quickly.   The idea is to accrue some of the benefit without accepting the related risk.   In other words, such leaders are fearful of their own innovative thoughts and prefer to piggy back on someone else’s success.   That’s a good way to be good.   That is no way to become great.

As I have argued previously on this blog, I think our world needs more people who truly want to shoot for being great.  “Good enough is good enough” is a very depressing motto.

If you really want to be great, you have to look around and ask “What can I do that will make the learning process better for my students and that has never really been tried before as I envision it?”  Over the next couple of weeks, step away from the crowd and do something both unexpected and awesome.   Make your push to go from good to great.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015


As I have mentioned, I was involved with two panel discussions recently at the annual meeting of the American Accounting Association.   At one point, I was asked about the best teaching advice that I ever received.  

Over a 44 year period, everyone hears a lot of good teaching advice (and some bad advice also).   Deciding which advice is best can be a challenge.  

But, my mind always goes back to something my boss told me during the first year I was teaching.   The advice came at a time when I was struggling to figure out who I wanted to be as a teacher.   Those first few years are so important because they form the structure on which a teacher builds an entire career.

One day the head of the business program was talking with me about teaching.   He looked at me and said “If you truly care about these students, you will push them as hard as you can to be great.”   There was a lot that I liked about that sentence in 1972.   There is a lot that I like about it today.   I think it has probably influenced me more than any other advice I’ve heard or read.  One thing that I liked best was that he spoke the words as the absolute truth and not just as some clever fortune cookie type mantra.   He believed 100 percent in the importance of what he was saying

--Everything starts with the need for me as the teacher to care about my students as people.   It is easy to think about students as a group (my 9:00 class or my 10:30 class) rather than as individuals.   Too often, we describe such groups in negative ways.   They are annoying.   They are lazy.   They are frustrating.  They fail to think.   They fail to prepare.   But students are unique individuals with their own hopes, dreams, weaknesses, and aspirations.   It is not important for me to like my students but it is important for me to care about them.   Walk into your next class and look at your students as distinct human beings.   They are not part of the furniture.   They are people.   Don’t waste so much time judging them.   Simply realize that they are human and, whether they know it or not, they need your help as their teacher.   As Mother Teresa said, “if you judge people, you have no time to love them.”  

--I need to push my students as hard as I can.   I know it is redundant to say but students are human beings.   They often lack motivation.   They procrastinate.   Their ambitions have not been well nurtured.   They have not been well trained as students.   Many of them have no idea how to succeed.   Many will underachieve in school and then become convinced that mediocre is the best they can be.   The teacher needs to open their eyes to what great things they are capable of achieving and then be willing to push them to hit those goals.   In most cases, success only comes from hard (but also efficient) work.   I would love to boast that all my students are self-disciplined and self-motivated.   But that is not the way of the world.   Most people need help.   They need to be pushed.   They need to be challenged.   Grade inflation has come about because teachers do not want to bother pushing students to do outstanding work.   Our world is struggling at the moment because too many people leave college believing that “good enough is good enough.”   Push your C students to make a B.   Push your B students to make an A.   Push your A students to make an A+.   Each step is a triumph that you and the student can share.  

--Don’t be satisfied if your students get good grades.   Education is more than grades.   Push them to be great.   Our world, as I have said, has numerous problems.   We need many more graduates leaving college with great educations, great ideas, great innovations, great ambitions.   Don’t look at your students and see them as they are.   Look at them as they might be able to become if you push them hard enough.   See the potential within them and then do your best to help them reach it.

Three thoughts that make a world of difference
--Care for your students as people.
--Push each one as hard as you can.
--Help them find greatness, a greatness that can make our world better. 

Teachers really do have the potential to save the world.