Wednesday, November 23, 2016


I read recently an opinion column that stated the obvious:   Americans have become very angry people.  And, it is not just the recent election.  For months (well, more like years), news reports have conveyed an ongoing story:  People across this country are angry and upset for one reason or another.  I am not here to judge whether such feelings are justified.  That is not my point.  I just find the current level of anger especially sad since we are not involved in a world war that is killing millions or trying to live through the horrors of the Great Depression or having to watch our children perish with the bubonic plague or living with rampant inflation that makes our money worthless before we can spend it.

I think one reason for such universal anger is that most people simply don’t feel appreciated.  That is a basic human need that we tend to overlook in our daily lives.  People need to feel that their efforts have been noticed.  If they don’t get an occasional pat on the back, it is easy to be upset.  

So, during this Thanksgiving season, I decided to do something I had never done before.  If you have read this teaching blog for long, you know that I send out a lot of messages to my students.  Here is the one that I emailed to them this morning.  I had never before written to students like this.  It will not do any harm and maybe it will make a small difference in how they look at themselves as students.   Maybe it will help their self-image and their confidence.  That is always beneficial.

--I wanted my students to realize that I really had seen their efforts.
--I wanted my students to understand how much I appreciated them (even though I tend to fuss a lot when they seem to be lazy).
--I wanted to give them a genuine pat on the back.
--And, I wanted them to become a bit more aware and pass along that same message to another person.  The problem is not solved simply by receiving a pat on the back.  You must also be willing to give a pat on the back.

Here’s the email I sent to my students on this day before Thanksgiving.

Three Things

(1) – I received a note yesterday from a student who was in my class 10-12 years ago and now lives thousands of miles away.  He said that he wanted to thank me – not for teaching him accounting but rather:  “You helped me appreciate the tremendous value of showing up to class every day ready to engage.”  I liked that comment a lot because it focused on two things that I hope to pass along to all my students:   (1) you’ve got to prepare fully and consistently or your education quickly becomes no more than training for a position as a stenographer and (2) once the class/job starts you have to be ambitious, you’ve got to engage—you cannot succeed by hiding in the shadows. 

(2) – Because it is Thanksgiving and because I received a word of thanks myself, I have decided that I want to pass along a word of thanks to you folks – my 53 accounting students for the fall of 2016.   As you can imagine, over the last four and half decades I have had great classes and bad classes and everything in-between.  I can truly say that your class this semester has been excellent.   Okay, I don’t think the group has any true accounting geniuses (every so often I get one of those) but the percentage of students who have done well this semester has been extraordinarily high.   Usually, I’m ecstatic if half of my students are truly ready, willing, and able to participate in class each day.  In your class, it has almost always been at least 70-80 percent.   When a teacher walks into class and 70-80 percent of the students are prepared and willing to think, talk, and try, teaching is both the easiest and the most fun job in the world.   So, thanks for a great semester (at least so far).  Your willingness to show up to class every day ready to engage has made this a lot of fun for me.

(3) – I received a word of thanks from a student.   I passed along a word of thanks to you.   Why not keep the ball rolling?   Think of a teacher (kindergarten, English professor, high school biology or the like) who was really helpful to you (you cannot do me – I’ve already received my note of thanks for this Thanksgiving).   Then, write them a note or email and thank them.   It doesn’t have to be more than a couple of sentences.  Just tell them that you still realize how much they helped you to become the person you are today.  Put it in your own words – tell them what their teaching meant to you.  My bet is that you will make that teacher's day.   It will only take you a couple of minutes and, trust me, it will make your teacher very happy.   And, if that teacher truly helped you, he or she deserves a word of thanks.  Every person appreciates a pat on the back now and then.   I won’t make this a class assignment.   You should do it because YOU want to do it and because YOU have the initiative to get it done.

Then, next week, take 3 minutes to come by my office and tell me who you thanked and why.   If you don’t show up, I’ll assume your teachers have all been so bad that you could not think of a single person who deserved one word of thanks.   So, do it!!

Have a great Thanksgiving!! 

Okay, now it is your turn.  Although I am nearly 70, last year I wrote three of my high school teachers and told them how very much their work had influenced my life.   I only wished I had done it many, many years earlier when more of my teachers were still alive.   Isn’t it time for you to pass along a pat on the back to one of your teachers?

And, as I said to my students:   Happy Thanksgiving!!

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Want to Teach Better – Here’s My Ultimate Piece of Advice

My good friend C. J. Skender is an outstanding teacher at UNC (and genuinely nice guy).  He recently sent me a sheet of “Forever” stamps for my birthday that celebrated the work of Jaime Escalante.  You might already know about Jaime Escalante but, if not, I’ll talk a bit about him at the end of this blog posting.

I often have people ask for advice about teaching and I try my best to say something that might be insightful and helpful.   Unfortunately, it is often hit or miss.  But there is one piece of advice that I really think is the ultimate piece of advice that every teacher needs to consider if they truly want to grow in their work with students.

I was reminded of this by several things I read recently.

Story One:  Carole Bayer Sager has been a well-known writer of popular songs since the 1970s.  Her hits include “Don’t Say You Love Me,” “Arthur’s Theme,” “Groovy Kind of Love,” and “That’s What Friends Are For.”   She recently published an autobiography (They’re Playing Our Song) that was reviewed a few weeks ago in the Wall Street Journal.   

While having lunch at my favorite deli that day, I came across the following story in that book review:

“In high school, she and a classmate, Sherry Harway, made a dash for the piano every day after school and tried to emulate the words and melodies they were listening to up and down the AM dial. ‘I began to study every song I heard on the radio, dissecting each one to find out what was that special thing that made it a hit,’ she writes. ‘What wasn’t I doing yet?’

Story Two:  Somehow, I have recently gotten on a list where I receive regular emails full of teaching advice.  They are pretty good.   I try to read them as often as I can.  On October 24, I received one titled “Teaching Critical Thinking: Some Practical Points” by Linda B. Nilson.  It opened with these words.

“We all endorse it and we all want our students to do it. We also claim to teach it. ‘It’ is critical thinking, and very few of us actually teach it or even understand what it is (Paul & Elder, 2013). Research tells us that our students learn critical thinking only after we receive training in how to teach it and design our courses explicitly and intentionally to foster critical thinking skills (Abrami, Bernard, Borokhovski, Wade, Surkes, Tamim, & Zhang, 2008). We have to start by formulating assessable critical thinking learning outcomes and building our courses around them.”

For those of you who might want to read further:  Here are the two works cited.

Abrami, P. C., Bernard, R. M., Borokhovski, E., Wade, A., Surkes, M. A., Tamim, R., & Zhang, D. (2008). Instructional interventions affecting critical thinking skills and dispositions: A stage 1 meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 78(4), 1102-1134.

Paul, R., & Elder, L. (2013). Study of 38 public universities and 28 private universities to determine faculty emphasis on critical thinking in instruction. Available at

Story Three:   A few years back, I wanted to get a better understanding of self-publishing so I wrote a book on success (Don’t Just Dream About Success—Stack the Odds in Your Favor) that I self-published.   It was a fun, learning experience for me.  In this book, I related (and discussed) a lot of stories that had influenced me over the past decades.   Here is one of my true favorites.

“Mark Rothko was a celebrated artist who worked during the middle part of the 20th century.  The website for the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, provides this assessment of his influence on the world of art.

“’One of the preeminent artists of his generation, Mark Rothko is closely identified with the New York School, a circle of painters that emerged during the 1940s as a new collective voice in American art.  During a career that spanned five decades, he created a new and impassioned form of abstract painting.’

“In 2009, the play Red opened in London before eventually moving to Broadway in New York City and then throughout the United States.  The action is set in Rothko’s studio and consists of conversations between the artist and his young assistant.  Red was recently staged here in Richmond, Virginia.  I am no theater expert, but found the play funny, interesting, and insightful.  Although the entire production is a fascinating look at Rothko’s ideas and personality, one short monologue about a painting by Henri Matisse really caught my attention.  Those few lines have reverberated through my brain numerous times since that evening.

“In this particular scene, Rothko is describing the evolution of the unique style that made his art both famous and influential.  At a critical point early in his development as an artist, he discovered a work that truly intrigued him:  Matisse’s The Red Studio at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.  Initially, he was baffled by how Matisse managed to create the painting’s stunning effect.   Unlike most people, Rothko could not let go of the need to understand what he was seeing.  How did the artist produce such a powerful impact?  What caused this mix of oils to be so mesmerizing?  Returning to the museum each day, he stood in front of the painting for hours analyzing Matisse’s techniques and talent.  According to the play, the daily pilgrimage continued until Rothko was able to unravel the mystery to his satisfaction.  He had a tenacious need to see more deeply—a characteristic that enabled him to grow artistically as he began to comprehend the secrets that made this painting great.

“He did not buy a book about Matisse and fall in line with some expert’s opinion.
“He did not take a class on Matisse so that a teacher could describe various theories about the work.
“He did not call Matisse on the telephone and ask for an explanation.
“He did not go online and pull up Matisse’s resume to discover the school where the artist had studied.

“No.  Rothko went back day after day, hour after hour, and stared obsessively at The Red Studio working to penetrate the wonder of its composition.  He was witnessing a work of genius which inspired him so completely that he was unable to rest until he mentally captured that essence.  Only then could those secrets be assimilated into his own artistic talent.  You cannot implement what you do not understand.”

Okay, what is the point of these three stories.   For me, the point is that becoming good at something does not happen by accident.  That’s the ultimate advice I can give to a person who wants to be a better teacher:   Being good doesn’t happen by accident.

--Carole Bayer Sager dissected the hit songs to try to determine what was special about them.
--Linda B. Nilson asserts that you cannot teach critical thinking simply because you say that you want to do it.   If that is the goal, then you have to learn how to do it and build the course entirely around that idea.
--Mark Rothko became one of the most influential artists of the last century because, at least in part, he obsessively spent hours coming to understand what made one painting so very magical.

Story Four:   Anyone who has read this blog knows by now that in 1991 (after about 20 years as a college professor) I switched from being a lecture style teacher to using the Socratic method exclusively.   I have told that story so often that people tell it back to me.  What I don’t tell people is that I spent the summer of 1991 breaking my teaching down into its smallest possible components:   how did I communicate with the students, how did I call on them in class, how often did I call on each one, how did I ask them to prepare for class, what did I ask them to do after class, how did I react to a missed question or a lack of effort, how did I test them, what did I do if I was unhappy with them (individually or specifically), how did I grade them, how available was I to mentor them, how did I motivate them, etc.   I tried to consider every aspect of my teaching.   Then, I tried to figure out which of those components was working and which were not working.   The parts that were working, I kept.   The parts that were not working, I tried to figure out how to fix.

If I became a better teacher after that, it was never because I switched to the Socratic Method.  It was because I invested a few months one summer thinking about every aspect of my teaching.

Story Five:   Okay, who is Jaime Escalante?  For 17 years, he was a high school math teacher in Los Angeles and the subject of the fabulous movie Stand and Deliver.  

I do not remember every detail of Stand and Deliver but Escalante becomes a teacher at a high school that is truly struggling.  In a very tough environment, the students seem lost and hopeless.   But, Escalante convinces several of these students to try preparing for the AP Calculus examination even though everyone else thought that was a useless idea for these students.   It seemed like a totally hopeless goal but, somehow, he managed to succeed, not just with a few students but with virtually all of his students.  I love that concept -- he succeeded with virtually all of his students.

According to Wikipedia, “In 1982, Escalante came into the national spotlight when 18 of his students passed the challenging Advanced Placement Calculus exam. The Educational Testing Service found these scores to be suspicious, because all of the students made exactly the same math error on problem #6, and also used the same unusual variable names. Fourteen of those who passed were asked to take the exam again. Twelve of the fourteen agreed to retake the test and all twelve did well enough to have their scores reinstated. In 1983, the number of students enrolling and passing the A.P. calculus test more than doubled. That year 33 students took the exam and 30 passed.”

Okay, you say you want to be a better teacher.  Great goal.   Watch Stand and Deliver and then write and tell me exactly how he did it.  Dissect the movie (to use Sager’s term).   Watch it a couple of times to see what you can catch.  You are not trying to become Escalante.  You are trying to understand teaching at its most fundamental level.  This guy is a true genius at teaching – heck, he has his portrait on a postage stamp.  You are not trying to become Escalante.  Rothko did not become Matisse.  Rothko used the Matisse work as his guide post – so that he could see how the magic was done?   My email address is  If you truly want to get better, watch Stand and Deliver and then write and tell me (point by point), how he created that miracle.

Thursday, November 3, 2016


I had actually planned to write an entirely different blog this afternoon.   Had it all sketched out and ready to go based on something I read recently in the Wall Street Journal.   But, I received emails from two former students over the last four days and heard a third say something particularly interesting during a recent panel discussion.  All three of them made me start thinking about what I truly wanted for my students.  So, I decided to defer my original essay for a week or two and let my mind wander in a different direction.

College officials often say that one of the main purposes of a college education is to create well-rounded individuals who can lead meaningful and productive lives.  Gosh, who could possibly argue against that goal?   We are not training robots.   We are teaching flesh and blood people.   If we have any human feelings, we absolutely must want our students to live happy and fulfilled lives. 

As college teachers, what is our responsibility in helping our students achieve such a goal?  Or, is that someone else’s responsibility and not ours?

Where in college do we actually go about this process of helping students become well-rounded individuals ready to be productive members of society?   Okay, we can require courses in literature or art but that is just shifting the burden off on someone else.   Plus, requiring a course is not necessarily the same as sharing with them a love of Shakespeare or Botticelli.   We can require psychology or history or political science but that might only mean they must learn to pass a test on those subjects.  That is hardly life changing.

If you have read this blog for long, you know that I have two assignments in my Intermediate Accounting II class that have absolutely nothing to do with accounting.  But I truly hope they have an influence on the future quality of life my students will experience.

(1) – I give my students up to five points on the final exam for visiting up to five places in the city of Richmond.   I provide an approved list of sites they can visit:   the art museum, the history museum, the Edgar Allan Poe museum, a park, the opera, a play, and the like.  I have a great number of photos on my office walls of students at the ballet, a nearby James River park, an ancient house brought to Richmond from England, and so on.   Does this assignment make them better accountants?   I don’t know and I don’t care.  I deeply hope it makes them better adults.   I like that idea a lot.   I truly believe that every college class needs to be about more than just the conveyance of subject matter if our students are going to have happy adult lives.

(2) – Every semester since 1993, I have asked my students to write an essay about the best book they have ever read.   I get beautiful, long, thoughtful essays about books that range from 1984 to Harry Potter.   From To Kill a Mockingbird to The Catcher in the Rye.  You wouldn’t believe that accounting majors could write so eloquently about literature.   I then accumulate the list (all the way back to 1993) and give it to the students and challenge them to start reading books from that list.   Does the assignment make them better accountants?   I don’t know and I don’t care.  I do hope it makes them better adults.  

Okay, what made me think of this?  As I said, I recently received two emails from former students and heard another former student speak at a panel session.

Former Student One:   It was not an easy process to adapt to the busy life in New York, but I like it so far. Inspired by the bold success story you wrote in your book, I have pushed myself to participate in different sorts of activities around the city and find my passion and dream outside of work. There are two of my adventures that I am eager to share with you (I have included photos). Two weeks ago, I signed up for a wine and painting event organized by my firm. Despite all my efforts, my painting still looked pretty sketchy.  I am still very happy that I did it. This painting is currently proudly exhibited in my bedroom. The second picture was taken during a recent visit to the Guggenheim Museum.

Former Student Two:  I heard that you're doing your best books assignment (which I remember from when I was in class but I can't remember what my answer was). I wanted to reach out and see if you'd share the list that you come up with? I'm looking for some books to read while I'm traveling for the holidays.  I love that you do such an assignment - I find myself encouraging the staff that I work with to do more than just audit and go on social media/watch TV.   I feel like my attitude is a result of you emphasizing that so much in your classes.

Former Student Three:   (I am paraphrasing this because it came from a panel discussion to about 50 of our students).   I have spent the last 27 years doing a great job of Managing My Career.   I have pushed myself very hard to be very successful.  I made all the sacrifices I could to be successful.   Then last spring, at about 49 years of age, I had a heart attack.  Since that day, I have done a much better job of Managing My Life.  I wish I had thought about that a bit more when I was a student. 

In 46 years, I have never had a former student thank me for teaching them to properly account for deferred income taxes.  Never, not once.  Last week alone, I had a student thank me for pushing her to get out and experience her environment (including visiting the Guggenheim Museum) and another thank me for pushing the importance of reading good literature. 

This all struck me when I heard my other former student talk about Managing His Life rather than Managing His Career.  

I cannot tell you how to do it in your class.   I think that is up to you and what you feel comfortable doing.   I just believe that college education should be about more than just knowing how to get all the rules lined up correctly.   Think about some small assignment that you could add to your class that might have a positive effect on the quality of life that you want for your students.  Start small and work your way up.   Yes, of course, college needs to be about subject matter but it also needs to be about how to live a meaningful, satisfied life.   And that is not a responsibility we should outsource to someone teaching a general education requirement.  That should be an underlying goal of 100 percent of our classes.