Monday, July 17, 2017

WHAT DO YOU REALLY WANT TO HAPPEN? MY DESIRED REALITY.



During a semester, teachers do not always have enough free time available to make radical class improvements.  Consequently, as I have said often in these blog postings over the years, the summer is a fabulous time to work on the upcoming learning process.  Frequently, this advice has focused on the students.  How can you get them especially well motivated for an outstanding class in the fall?  Today, however, I want to address you as the teacher.   I want to make a suggestion for a simple experiment that I hope you will try between now and the first week of class.

Creating a great educational experience is impossible unless you have a clear idea as to what success should look like.  What do you really want to happen?   “By the last day of the fall semester, I want to have a great class but I really do not know what that will look like,” is a ludicrous statement.  However, many teachers really do not know what that great class would look like.  They have just never considered it.  

I believe college teachers should merge their class goals and their basic teaching philosophy to form a mental model of the type of learning environment they hope to create over the course of a semester.  I refer to this as “my desired reality,” what I want to see happen on the final day of class next fall.  In sports, athletes often talk about the importance of mentally visualizing an upcoming competition.  Prior to a tennis match or football game, the athlete will sit quietly and envision exactly what he or she hopes to have occur.  The athlete makes this mental picture as vivid as possible by “walking” sequentially through each desired step of the coming contest.  The athlete wants to have a sense of how the actions will feel when everything goes just perfectly as planned.  In your class, what does designed perfection look like?  Decades ago, a popular book titled Psycho-Cybernetics (by Maxwell Maltz) described the potential benefits of this type of visualization. 

For me, creating an organized structure for my class is difficult without a clear picture of my desired reality.   How do I envision that last day of class each semester?  Everyone has their own dream ending but here is mine.

I see myself walking into the classroom on the last day of the semester.  The students are in their seats, attentive and ready to go to work.   I select a student at random and ask that person to address a particular question about the topic assigned for that day.  There is no hesitation.  The student gives a reasonable, thought-out response to my query.   The student has obviously read the assignment and, moreover, has given the issues being raised serious consideration.  The answer is not superficial.   The student has thought about the topic.  The student is not afraid to be incorrect.  The student is not worried about being the subject of laughter or ridicule.  In that room, a feeling of mutual respect exists between the teacher and the students as a group as well as among the individual students.  This is a team effort.  I ask a second student to comment on the answer presented by the first student.  The second student has listened carefully to the previous response and begins to discuss, question, and elaborate on specific points that were covered.  The student compliments the first student for answers that were well conceived but is also willing to criticize the validity of specific points as long as the first student is not personally degraded.  A third student raises a hand to defend an assertion made by the first student.  A fourth student raises a hand to pose a question in hopes of clarifying an answer that was offered.  A fifth student raises a hand to compare the current issue to ones we have discussed earlier in the semester.  And, so it goes.  Every student in the room is engaged in the conversation and the exploration of the topic.  No one asks "will this be on the test?"   Understanding is the goal and not memorization.

In my desired reality, the classroom experience is a guided conversation in which we, as a group, explore a particular topic.  The students are asked to prepare in advance and they do so.  They are asked to think and they do so.   They are asked to listen and they do so.   They are asked to respond and question and they do so.  They are asked to get involved and they do so. 

The teacher is asked to guide, prod, and encourage and does so.   Both groups are expected to enjoy the give and take process that leads to thinking and learning.  The daily class experience is an intriguing exploration and not dreary torture.  Speaking strictly for me, this is an educational experience worth having (if it can be created).

Of course, this is just what I want.   What you want for your classes can be entirely different and even more valid.  The decision is up to you.  However, no one reaches the goal if it has not been envisioned in advance.

Can any desired reality come true?   Two things are absolutely necessary.   First, I have to know what I want to accomplish.  Any teacher who does not have a firm grip on what that last class session is supposed to look like will never get there.  Second, from the time I start communicating with my students, everything I do has to help achieve this reality.   Students will never conform to the reality you seek without clear guidance.   This vision is just a daydream if you are not willing to “guide, prod, and encourage” your students in that direction.

It all starts with a clear understanding of your desired reality.

So, here is your (obvious) assignment.   Take some time and think deeply about the last day of your fall classes.   What reality would you like to see on that day?   When you walk into the last class in November or December, what would be the best outcome that you could possibly want?  Take some time and write it down.   That helps to make the goals more concrete.   

If you can dream it, you can create it.

Once you know the reality you seek, start asking yourself how can you start moving your students to that point by the end of the fall.   Make good use of your summer.    






Friday, June 2, 2017

FOLLOW UP EMAIL

Last week, I sent an email to my students about making good use of their summer.  I suggested that they read a book that Bill Gates had recommended in Time magazine, Business Adventures by John Brooks.  I was clearly trying to serve in a mentoring capacity by recommending an activity that was never going to be on the students' test.  I hope some of them take me up on the assignment.

I liked that idea so I posted a short discussion of it on this blog (May 28, 2017).   We seem to have difficulty in getting everything covered in a four-year education.  We need to find ways to increase what a student can learn during the college experience.  Making good use of summer is one place to start.

My friend Bob Jensen (retired teaching legend from Trinity University) sent me a note about his own version of this summer assignment.   In all honesty, I liked his idea better than I liked my idea.   We live in a time when things evolve so rapidly that our students need to be ready for a changing world.   Bob's suggestion recognizes that challenge and how to address it.

I passed it along to my students as a follow up email.   I really hope some of them will take me on this idea also.   It really could make a difference in their lives.  Here is how I introduced his suggestion to my students.

To:   Accounting 302 Students

From:   JH

Last week, I sent out an email suggesting that you follow the advice of Bill Gates and read Business Adventures by John Brooks over the summer.  I am a big believer that the main problem that college students suffer from is procrastination so I hope you didn’t put that suggestion in the “think about it later” file.  Do it or don’t do it but don’t defer it to death.

As some of you might know, I have long maintained a teaching blog where I discuss how I teach my classes.  So, I posted a discussion of that particular book recommendation.  The posting has already been read by several hundred followers. 

A friend of mine named Bob Jensen responded with what I thought was a fabulous idea.   Dr. Jensen is retired from Trinity University and is a genuine legend in education.  I always pay attention to what he has to say but I thought this was an especially good idea.   I’m going to pass it along directly to you.   I have not tried any of the links he lists but I am sure Google can get you there if need be.  I just thought this was a genius idea for how to spend some of your free hours over the summer.  Talk about making yourself more marketable.  

​From Bob Jensen
“That is a good post. However, my number one recommendation would be for students to take advantage of summer months to learn how to code.  Coding is not something we stress in accounting curricula, but I read recently that ‘if you know how to code you will never be unemployed.’  That is generally true even if you must work at home.

“Coding is becoming a skill increasingly important in virtually all disciplines, even accounting.

“Here are some of the free services for learning how to code (just a sampling of the many alternatives)

Free Code Camp --- http://www.freecodecamp.com/

Bob Jensen's World Library Links at
http://faculty.trinity.edu/rjensen/Bookbob2.htm#---ComputerNetworking-IncludingInternet
​ 
Khan Academy Computer Programming --- https://www.khanacademy.org/computing/computer-programming

DevArt: Art made with code --- https://devart.withgoogle.com/

Learn How to Code for Free: A DIY Guide for Learning HTML, Python, Javascript & More  ---
http://www.openculture.com/2016/03/learn-how-to-code-for-free-a-diy-guide-for-learning-html-python-javascript-more.html

Python Programming Language --- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Python_(programming_language)

Learn Python Programming Language with a Free Online Course from MIT ---
http://www.openculture.com/2017/05/learn-python-with-a-free-online-course-from-mit.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+OpenCulture+%28Open+Culture%29

Free eBooks on Computer Programming from O’Reilly Media ---
http://www.openculture.com/2017/05/36-ebooks-on-computer-programming-from-oreilly-media-free-to-download-and-read.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+OpenCulture+%28Open+Culture%29

CS For All: Introduction to Computer Science and Python Programming ---
https://www.edx.org/course/cs-all-introduction-computer-science-harveymuddx-cs005x

“I used to teach Fortran (loved it) and Cobol (hated it) but times have changed and left me in my retirement dust.  Recommend that virtually all young folks learn how to code in the newer coding ‘languages.’"



Sunday, May 28, 2017

MAKING GOOD USE OF THE SUMMER



When it comes to my classes and my students, I worry about many things.  Perhaps worrying makes me a better teacher.  Here are two things I at worrying about at the current time.

--I worry that students will not make good use of the 3-4 months they have off each summer.   I know that college students are very busy people.   Many have jobs or internships.  Others are taking summer classes.   However, learning simply cannot cease for such an extended period.   That is not a good use of available time or brainpower.  Learning should not be limited to formal classroom experiences.   College students need to be getting themselves prepared for what educators refer to as “lifelong learning.”  In our fast moving society, that becomes more and more important.  No one can afford to stop learning at 22.

--I worry that students will wind up in a program or a major that does not really intrigue them.   College should be a time of exploration when students discover their passions and then set out to follow them.   No one wants to hear a senior say at graduation “I earned a major but I didn’t find it very interesting.”  

As anyone who has followed this blog for long knows, I send out emails to my students over the summer.   Below is one that I recently sent out to the juniors in my upcoming fall class.   I am not sure how many will read the recommended book but I hope some/many do.   It will be good for them and, perhaps, it will help them become more interested in their major.  If nothing else, I have raised the issue of “are you in the right major?”  At the start of the junior year, that is probably a good time to consider that question.

I realize that many readers of this blog do not teach in the business area.   Okay, find a different book.   What book could you recommend that might have this impact on your students?   Surely, there has to be some book available that would work, some book that would be a good use of student time over the summer.  Introduce it to your studies and make it sound interesting, make it sound worth reading.
 **
  
To:  Accounting Students for the fall semester

From:   JH

I was sitting on my front porch a few minutes ago reading the June 5, 2017, edition of Time magazine.  I read something I wanted to share with you.   The magazine had a discussion with Bill Gates, the richest person in the world and one of the most influential.  The conversation was about the books he is currently reading and books he has previously read.   The second question in the article was “What one, two or three books changed your life?”  That question always fascinates me so I studied his answer carefully.   Here is the second book he mentions.


“Warren Buffett loaned me his copy of Business Adventures by John Brooks many years ago.  It’s still the best business book I’ve ever read.  It’s a collection of Brooks’ New Yorker essays about why various companies succeeded or failed.  The essay titled ‘Xerox Xerox Xerox Xerox’ should win an award for most clever chapter name, and the lessons inside the book are even better.  I took inspiration from it while running Microsoft.”


I really don’t worry about teaching you accounting.  I know this confession doesn’t sound like my reputation.  You are bright and I suspect you will be willing to do the work necessary if I make it a fair (and not impossible) amount.   What concerns me is whether you enjoy business enough?   To me, business is absolutely fascinating.   It is like playing in the Super Bowl where you are trying to figure out a product and a manufacturing process and a marketing process and the like that are so well done that people will give you their money.   If you do all those things better than anyone else, then your company wins. 

I have created and eventually sold two businesses and few adventures are more fun and more satisfying. 

If that interests you, the fall will be a great semester.   If that doesn’t interest you, then I’m not sure Intermediate Accounting is the course for you.   You only have one life to live.   I much prefer for it to be in an area that you love. 

I say all of that to encourage you to get a copy of Bill Gates’s recommendation and read it.  Hopefully, it will excite you about business.   No, this is not an assignment.  If you are only going to do what is absolutely required, then I already know you are in the wrong program.   By this age, you should be doing stuff that interests you so much that you don’t have to be bribed to do it.

To be honest, I have not read this book.  Nevertheless, Bill Gates has made more money than I have so his advice is probably better than mine.  If you do read it, come by in the fall and tell me what you liked and what you didn’t like.


Hope you have a good Memorial Day.​






Thursday, April 13, 2017

HERE IS SOME ADVICE YOU NEVER REQUESTED



Over the years, I have written occasionally about the role of being a mentor for my students versus being a pure teacher.   Personally, I prefer to be open to mentoring for those students who might want it.   I think many of them like knowing that there is some rather disinterested person available that they can go to and simply say “I need some advice.”  For example, a former student wandered into my office a few days ago who was interested in talking about Teach for America.   This was a decision that had stressed her out and she began to cry.   We chatted for 10-15 minutes.   She didn’t leave dancing or singing but at least she wasn’t crying.  I did not mind listening and giving my opinion.

But, at other times, I want to be a mentor to my students without even being asked.   I want to butt into their lives just a little bit—especially as it deals with college and their education.   Without any request, I sent out the following email yesterday.   Will any of my 61 students follow my advice?   My guess would be that 10-15 percent will actually reconsider their course schedules.   If that is true, I will have had an impact on their lives over and beyond teaching them accounting.   I love teaching accounting (it is truly a great way to teach critical thinking) but I would like to be more of an influence, more of a mentor—at least to some.  That is how I want my career to be.

I do this occasionally.  Do you?  Are your courses all about subject matter or do you try to have more influence than that?  I prefer more influence.  But, that is a personal decision.  It is your career.   What do you want it to be?  That’s a personal decision but one you should consider.
**

To my students:  (slightly edited)
I realize registration is over for the fall semester but, of course, there is always drop-add.  

Students occasionally come by my office and chat with me about what courses (other than accounting) they should take.   I have mixed emotions about my own college experience – it was a lot of ups and downs (but part of that was because I expected to wind up going to Vietnam to try to kill people – that puts an odd spin on reading books, writing papers, and taking tests).   However, if I have one special regret, it is the courses I chose to take outside of my major.   I don’t think I quite realized how much those courses would influence the person I became.   I am sure that if I had better judged the impact on me I would have chosen those courses more carefully.

So, what courses should you take if you have an open slot?  Here’s some advice you didn’t ask for.

--I don’t think you can ever take enough math and computer science.  Think how the world is going to change over the next 30 years.   The people who are positioned to do well are those who are ready for all those changes.  I suspect that math and computer science will be the two areas that make you most ready for the world to come in 30 years.  But, for goodness' sake, don’t take just any course – ask around and find out who is the best, most inspiring teacher.  

--For a fulfilled life, you need to be able to find beauty in life.   Take an art appreciation course or a course in great literature.   Your adult life will be so much more wonderful if you appreciate beauty and there is nothing that teaches us more about beauty than art and literature.   And, if you now tell me, “Oh, I find that kind of stuff boring,” I’m going to give you my worst possible insult:   You are reacting like a teenager and not like an adult.  I’m convinced that art and literature become more beautiful as you study them more deeply.   But, for goodness' sake, don’t take just any course – ask around and find out who is the best, most inspiring teacher.
 
--We live in wonderfully interesting times.   Take a political science course.  How does Congress work?   Why do we only have two political parties?   How have politics evolved over the last few decades?   Heck, it is hard to read the newspapers without some basic understanding of politics.  How could any class be more relevant to your life than political science?   But, for goodness' sake, don’t take just any course – ask around and find out who is the best, most inspiring teacher.

--When I talk with former students who have graduated in the last 2-5 years, it is absolutely amazing how many of them tell me “I’m shocked by how much I have to write and how important it is to write clearly.   I never realized that grammar was so essential to a career.  Writing has turned out to be more important to my success than anything else.”   How can a person learn to write clearly?   I have had several students over the years take Copy Editing from the Richmond Journalism Department and they have always raved that they have finally learned how to write.   Here at Richmond, the copy editing professor is fabulous.   He will teach you something you probably do not know—how to write a clear sentence.  

--Find something you have a passion for learning.   Surely, there is something at this university (other than accounting) that you have a passion to learn.  Oh, I hope so.  It would be incredibly sad if you said that you have no passion for any learning.  If that is the case, you might as well spend your life planting potatoes.  Pick something that you really have an interest in and then go for it.  But, for goodness' sake, don’t take just any course – ask around and find out who is the best, most inspiring teacher.


If I had my college career to live over again, I would have chosen a course or two differently each year.   And, if I had done that, I would be a different person now.   More importantly, I suspect I would have been a better person.   Pick wisely.




Tuesday, February 28, 2017

IDEAS, IDEAS, IDEAS



If you have read this blog for any length of time, you know that one of my primary recommendations for improved teaching is the “Three E’s.”   Experiment, Evaluate, and Evolve.   I am not sure anyone can become a better teacher if they don’t take this path in some form.   

For that reason, I am always a bit surprised that I don’t have more people coming up to me to tell me about their teaching experiments.  Oh sure, I get a few emails now and then.  But never as many as I would like.  I think all teachers should be bubbling with excitement (my fourth E) over their current attempts to improve teaching.  Every college campus should be an incubator for wonderful new teaching ideas.  Think how education in this world would improve immediately and dramatically if all campuses served as incubators for innovative new teaching ideas.  Does your campus qualify?  If so, let me know.

Why don’t we experiment more?   I could probably list a dozen possible reasons but, I suspect, one underlying cause is a lack of confidence.
--“Oh, this idea won’t really work.”
--“If this idea was actually good, someone else would have already done it.”
--“I’m probably just wasting my time and I don’t have time to waste.”
--“I’ve tried a couple of experiments over the years and they have not improved my teaching.  I’ll stick with what I’ve always done.”  

We are probably all guilty of boxing ourselves in with personal barriers that limit our potential.  As the famous quote (from the comic strip “Pogo”) explains:   “We have met the enemy and he is us.”  We hold ourselves back.  Okay, maybe you don’t, but I sure do.  

Let’s try a test.  The spring semester is about 4-7 weeks old.   How much have you experimented so far this semester?   Don’t give a random answer.  Make a list of specific experiments so you can truly judge.

If your answer to this question is “not much,” then the next question has to be asked:  “why not?”   I might be wrong but I bet many teachers hold a core belief that the results of experiments will not be worth the effort.   Why work so hard if you don’t think you can make your classes better?

How can you get started?  How can you break out of the rut you are in?  How can you start innovating?   I believe it all starts with generating ideas.  If you are going to teach better (heck, if you are going to do anything better), you need to develop the skill of coming up with ideas.

So, today, I want to inspire you with a story from my campus.  Last week, Marc Randolph (who co-founded Netflix with Reed Hastings) was at the Robins School of Business to speak.   You can read all about the speech at


I want to mention three key passages from his speech.  I hope his words will inspire you to come up with some new teaching ideas and then I want you to go into class and try them.  Experiment, evaluate, and evolve must always start with ideas.

First, Randolph clearly agrees with my assertion that lots of ideas are needed before you are likely to spot good ideas.  One experiment alone rarely hits the jackpot.  Developing and trying ideas needs to be a core part of every course.   According to Randolph “It turns out that success is directly proportionate to how many ideas you try, and the number of ideas that you try is directly proportionate to how quickly and how cheaply you can test them.”   Experiment a lot and evaluate as quickly as possible.

Second, don’t wait around for ideas to fall on your head.  The real key to success is to always be looking for those ideas.   According to Randolph, “Ideas do not spring out of thin air at some mythical eureka moment.  You have to look for ideas.  You’ve got to train yourself to see them when they appear.  The idea for Netflix, for example, did not come from some moment of anguish over a late fee on a movie.  We were looking for that idea.  We looked for a long time, and it was buried in a big pile of bad ideas.  We didn’t even find it in a video store.  We actually had the idea for Netflix while we were carpooling.”  If you wait for eureka moments, you will be waiting a long time.  Unless you are Archimedes, they do not happen often.  Examine every aspect of teaching and think about how each might be done differently.  Search for new ways of doing every task.

Third, don’t be discouraged when you encounter doubters.  At first, every great new idea only makes sense to a very few people.  The rest are locked into the old paradigm.   If you believe that an idea will work, don’t get in a hurry to give up on it.   Randolph tells a fabulous story about the starting years of Netflix when they asked the video giant Blockbuster to buy Netflix in order to create a new type of video company.  Blockbuster had 60,000 employees and $6 billion revenue.  Netflix had 100 employees and $5 million revenue.  Blockbuster officials laughed at the idea of needing to buy Netflix.  Ten years later, Netflix dominated the industry and drove Blockbuster into bankruptcy.   The Netflix founders could have been discouraged but they believed in their vision.  Now, they are the giant and Blockbuster has long since faded into oblivion.  According to the newspaper article:  “’I’m not the kind of guy who gloats about driving a big company into bankruptcy,’ Randolph said with a grin.  ‘I actually tell this story for a different reason, because in some ways it’s an inspiring story, about how a handful of people with no experience in the video business and with nothing more than some ideas, and some persistence, could take down a $6 billion market leader.” 

Lessons for today.
--Have lots of ideas.  As a teacher, experiment as often as possible.  Make it a central part of your teaching.  There’s no better way to improve.
--Learn to look for ideas.  If you look for them, great ideas are all around us.  But they won’t knock you on the head, you have to be looking.  I cannot stress enough the importance of always watching for new teaching ideas.
--Plenty of people will tell you that your ideas won’t work.  They take pride in finding flaws.  If you truly believe in your ideas, be persistent.  Don’t give up just because people don’t automatically understand your vision.   Experiment, evaluate, and evolve.   You’ll be amazed by how quickly you become one of the best teachers in your building and at your school.


Get the incubator started. 



Sunday, February 5, 2017

TOM BRADY AND THE SUPER BOWL



The 51st Super Bowl is being played tonight.  For a few hours, everyone will stop and watch two excellent teams battle it out for the right to be known as the ultimate champions.  

I sent the note below to my students this morning.   I was not trying to convince them I was crazy or that I was obsessed.   They probably already think that.   I don’t care if they watch the Super Bowl.  What I care about is that they realize that success (whether it is their success or Tom Brady’s success) comes from work and not from watching someone else be successful.   I felt they needed to know that I was going to be upset if they show up for my class tomorrow poorly prepared because they had stared for hours at a television set watching a bunch of strangers 1,000 miles away becoming champions.   I suspect that some people want to feel like champions without having to do any of the difficult work so they latch on to a team or to a  player in an attempt to share that success.  That is not how I want to do it.

I truly want my students to be successful.  (I know them personally.  They are bright.   They are nice people.  I have a reason to want them to become winners.)  I have an idea that their success will not be increased one iota by watching the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons play football.  As long as watching does not get in the way of them being prepared for my class, I am all for it.   It is a nice diversion.   But the second that watching someone else play a game gets in the way of their own personal success, then I am upset.

The same goes for teachers.  If watching Tom Brady play football this evening keeps me from being prepared for a great class at 9:00 a.m. tomorrow morning, then I should not watch that game.  My students must come first.  My students have to be more important to me than all those strangers on those two football teams.   If not, then I should retire so I can have more time to sit on my couch and watch television.

Email to my students:

“There is a football game tonight.   I don't care.  I expect you to be well prepared tomorrow morning.   Tom Brady and all those other players will be well prepared tonight because they desperately want to be the best.   I expect the same from you.   You will have had 71 hours since Friday's class.   That is plenty of time to have found 90 minutes to get well prepared.   I guarantee that Tom Brady will not show up tonight and say ‘you know I got busy watching someone else on television being a winner and that was more important to me than my own chance to be a winner.’   In my opinion, the world will be a lot better off when talented people stop spending so much time watching other people become winners.   Your motto simply cannot be ‘I really want to be a winner but I am willing to let other people out work me.’"


Sunday, January 22, 2017

WHAT I LEARNED FROM BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN



Here are three things that happened to me in the past few days.   Hopefully, at the end, I’ll be able to connect these three stories into a definite point that makes some amount of sense.

One

Last week, I received an email from a professor on the liberal arts side of our campus.  He indicated that after 30 years as a college teacher he was in the process of switching to a Socratic Method style.  He had heard that I had been using that approach for a long time.  He wondered if he could sit in on a class and observe.

Of course, I was glad to have him visit.

He showed up.   He paid close attention to what I was trying to do.   He took notes.   After class, he asked several excellent questions.  We agreed that we would stay in touch.  I would provide advice if he ever needed any.

I was impressed that, after 30 years, he was willing to take the leap to make such a radical change.   Most college teachers settle into a style early in their careers and make only slight adjustments thereafter.   As Einstein said “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results.”  

When is the last time you visited another class and asked the teacher why he or she was doing what they were doing?  When was the last time you observed another teacher and really analyzed their technique?   What are they doing and how (or why) is it working?  When is the last time you walked up to a colleague and said “I know you are a great teacher.  Can I ask you a question or two that might help me become a better teacher?”

Two

Dr. Shannon Kathryn Orr (Bowling Green State) and Dr. Staci Zavattaro (Central Florida) are coming out with a book soon titled Reflections on Academic Lives.   In this book, they ask quite a number of college professors to look back and describe what advice they wished they had received while they were doing their graduate work.  I provided my answer in a short essay that will be included in their book.  I actually posted my essay – with their permission – some months ago on this blog. 

Earlier this week, I was talking (by email) with my brother and mentioned this new book project.  For many years, my brother was (in my opinion) the world’s greatest middle school principal.  I view my job as relatively easy.  I viewed his job as virtually impossible.  But, he always did it with care and humor and a lot of wonderfully innovative ideas.   He is retired now but he was great at something that still seems to me to be an overwhelming challenge. 

I told my brother about the book being produced by Dr. Orr and Dr. Zavattaro.  I asked him how he would have answered that question.   Here is his response:

“I always tell new people in education to watch every other teacher (or administrator) around you.  Take the time to talk to every teacher you can.  Watch how they deal with parents.  Watch how they deal with misbehaving students.  Watch how they work with their colleagues and deal with time management.  Watch them carefully.  Learn from them.  Then, take what you learn and fit it with your own personality.  Learn from both the good and the bad teachers.  I remember watching my first principal and assistant principal.  I was too young and too green to know that I was watching them, but years later, I took what I learned from them--and many others along the way--and became a better principal.  They were not all great principals, in my opinion, but I learned from them.  Good and not-so-good.   The same is true when learning from other teachers.  I suppose all educators feel this way to some extent, but I like to think that I consciously watched others and learned from them.  Don't be so set in your ways that you can't learn from others.  I have a feeling that many college professors are "set in their ways.”  I saw many professors when I was in college who would not have changed no matter what.”

When is the last time you visited another class and asked the teacher why he or she was doing what they were doing?  When was the last time you observed another teacher and really analyzed their technique?   What are they doing and how (or why) is it working?  When is the last time you walked up to a colleague and said “I know you are a great teacher.  Can I ask you a question or two that might help me become a better teacher?”

Three

I am currently reading the new autobiography by Bruce Springsteen titled Born to Run.   It is great, especially if you are a fan of The Boss.   I am only about 1/3 of the way through the book but one thing has been especially interesting to me.   From his earliest teenage years, Springsteen was obsessed with the desire to become a great musician.  He buys a cheap guitar.  He then watches other performers and comes home to work and determine exactly how those musicians are doing what they are doing.  He is always a student trying to learn.  “Obsession” is the only word that I can come up to describe how much he wants to become a great guitar player and musician. 

I love books like this.  It is too easy to look at someone who is so successful and simply say “they must have been lucky” or “they just had a lot of talent.”  I think that is rarely the answer.   There is something in such people that drives them to keep working.   Interestingly, Springsteen talks about the fact that he didn’t drink or take drugs because those distractions would have gotten in the way of his music.  He was focused.

But, that is not what I want to tell you about.  As Springsteen gets a little older, he forms a band and they drive from New Jersey to California to get work and hone their craft.  One day his band competes with another band for a job.  The other band wins the job.  Springsteen’s comment was classic:  “They were better than us and that didn’t sit well with me.”  Even over 40 years later, you can tell that did not make him happy.   

He didn’t make excuses.
He didn’t blame the person who made the decision.
He didn’t ask for a second chance.  
He didn’t get upset and quit.

He went out and worked to get better.

First, he knew his group had been beaten (“they were better than us”).  Second, that was a motivation for him to do better (“that didn’t sit well with me”).   And, of course, the rest has become history.   

I love the deep down desire for success that he showed in just those few words “that didn’t sit well with me.”  

What’s the Point of These Three Stories?

Unless you are the best teacher in the world, you have more to learn.   As the sign over my desk says, “the road to success is always under construction.”  

Pick a teacher or two in your building who seem to know and love teaching.  Ask them if you can talk with them about how they teach.   Make a list of questions and get them to tell you how they make the magic happen.  Ask them what you really want to know.  Here are a few questions that really seem fundamental to me that every teacher should want to discuss:
--What do you really want to accomplish in your classes--be as specific as possible?
--How do you get students to prepare for class?
--How do you get students to speak up in class and become engaged with the material?
--How do you test so that the questions fit in with what you want to accomplish?
--How do you help students review and organize material after class before they begin to forget?
--What do you do if you have students who do not seem to want to learn?
And many more.


It seems to me that every teacher can learn something important from other teachers.   But you have to have the deep desire that Bruce Springsteen demonstrated to motivate you to get up and go ask.  Otherwise, it is so very easy to settle into a rut and just stay the same throughout your career.   Where would the world be if Bruce Springsteen had fallen back on that tactic?



Monday, January 2, 2017

THE MESSAGE I WANT TO CONVEY BEFORE CLASSES BEGIN



My classes for this coming semester will start one week from today.   One of my classes will be an introductory course with 24 freshmen.   I want to make sure those students are clear about what I want from them.   So, I sent them an email today and I tried to explain things as best I could.   I want to inspire them without seeming silly.   I want to challenge them without scaring them. 

Here (in part) is what I wrote to these 24 freshmen:

“Over the past few weeks, you should have received quite a bit of stuff from me by email.  Read it all.  Think about it.  I want the coming semester to be absolutely great for you.  I want this to be the best educational experience you’ve ever had.   I want you to learn more than you ever thought possible.

“I like to make things crystal clear.  Things simply go better if you understand what I expect from you and why.  As I mentioned in one of my emails, I will do half the work in this class but you must do the other half.  It is your education.   You have to be willing to do half of the work.  That’s only fair.   Someone is spending $60,000 for this education (either through tuition or scholarship aid) and they deserve a $60,000 education.   Heck, it is likely the only shot at a college education that you will ever have.  You should demand a $60,000 education.   This will be a better university when students go to the administration and their faculty and demand a $60,000 education.


“I have also said this before but I’ll say it again.   I do not want boring students.   I want students who have energy, curiosity, and interest.   If all you want to do is copy and memorize what I say, you probably should have stayed in high school.   I think that is a bad habit that some college students have.   If you drag into class looking like a corpse, don’t expect me to be too impressed.   If you can’t manage your time well enough to prepare for class, don’t expect to learn or get good grades.  This just seems like common sense.  I want students who have a burning desire to know more by the end of the semester than they do at the beginning.   I want students who don’t mind working a bit if they believe there are real benefits to be gained.   I want students who want to be challenged, students who pray that they will get called on.  I want students who want to be pushed out of their comfort zones.   I want curious students—curious is much better than smart.   “How does this work?”   “Why is the number 27 here instead of 9 1/2?”   “Why did this company report this information?”   If you have no curiosity about how the world works, college may well be a wasted experience for you.   My very favorite students are those students who read the textbook/watch the videos/read the newspaper and have more questions than answers.


I will start every class by giving you a handout like this one.  It contains the questions that we will talk about in the next class.  I never lecture.  100 percent of class time is a conversation.   If a student struggles in my class, it is virtually always because they are not adequately prepared for the class discussion.   Preparation really is the key to success in 201.  If I ask you “do some thinking about the first three presidents of the US?” and you pencil in “their names were Washington, Adams, and Jefferson” and nothing more than I know you have not done any true thinking (you are back in the sixth grade).   I am looking for something like “I think Adams was a better president than Jefferson because …” or “Washington is an over-rated president because …”   I want college-level thinking.”