Saturday, March 31, 2018


The spring semester is rapidly ending.  I have little time left to work with my current group of students.   I always want every semester to end on a surge of energy.   Especially in the spring, classes can drift into mass lethargy where everyone just begins to go through the motions.  Education is too important for that conclusion.   Everything goes better when it ends with enthusiasm.

Recently, I emailed all my students in hopes of encouraging them to redouble their efforts even as spring began to warm the earth and flowers began to appear.   I am trying to establish a strong mindset here at the end of the semester.   They are young and strong.   With the right mindset, they still have time to move mountains.  I have a motto, "if you are not dead, things can always get better."

Here is the email I sent to my spring students.

We have four weeks left in the semester – roughly 12 hours that we will be together.   It’s not much time but it is enough time to push that grade up.

Let me make a suggestion.

I listen to books on CDs as I drive around town.   A few years ago, I was listening to an audiobook in my car:  Wild by Cheryl Strayed.   It is long and complex so I will not include a detailed synopsis here.    However, at the beginning of this autobiographical work, the author believes that she has lost control of her life (at least in part because of the death of her mother).  She decides to focus on a genuine challenge in hopes of regaining inner peace and balance.  In that circumstance, I might have taken up a hobby like pottery.  With virtually no experience to guide her, Strayed chose to walk 1,100 miles alone through the mountains of California and Oregon on the Pacific Crest Trail.  Even now, the level of that challenge seems absurd.  Although she faced horribly frightening experiences during those months, she ultimately succeeded.  She was not the fastest hiker, actually one of the slowest, but she made it.  Along the way, she faced enormous challenges, but figured out ways – often by herself – to get through them successfully.

One day, I was listening to Wild as I drove to campus.  The author was getting ready to begin her incredibly long, difficult journey.  Not surprisingly, she lost her nerve and almost quit before marching off resolutely to the starting point.  In describing her emotions, she wrote a line that is so insightful that I pulled my car over to the side of the road so I could write it down. 

“Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves.”

Shakespeare could not have said it better.  “Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves.”  For me, this was the most brilliant sentence I have read recently.  The words have stuck with me like an arrow for months.  And, the sentence is even more relevant if you begin to swap out the word “Fear” for other words such as “Joy,” “Excitement,” “Hate,” “Love,” and “Success.”   We are very much a product of the stories that we tell ourselves.   I believe that.

We have four weeks left in this semester.   My guess is that all of you would like to finish strong so you can learn the material and make the highest grade possible. 

What is holding you back from reaching your potential?   I suspect a large barrier to your desired level of success is a list of the stories that you tell yourself about this class.   Be honest – what stories linger in the back of your mind about this class?   Which of these sound like you?

--I’m not as smart as the other students.
--I’m just not very good with numbers.
--I’m tired of being a student so I’m going to coast out with as little work as possible.
--I prefer to sit and listen and this teacher keeps asking me questions, which is annoying.
--I’m good at memorizing.   I am not very good at thinking.
--The class is in the morning and I am not a morning person.
--I’ve got other classes that take up much of my time.
--I am never going to need to know this material so why waste my time.
--I don’t really know what I want to do in life so why spend so much time on this course.
--I want to have fun with my friends and don’t want to waste time on this class.   College is for fun.
--I’m really terribly shy and don’t like to speak in class.
--I always seem to know the material until I get to a test and then I panic and make stupid mistakes.
--No one really cares if I make above a C.   Mediocre is good enough.

And, all of those are absolute nonsense.  They are designed to hold you back.   They are designed to give you a dull, mediocre life.   They are designed to take you off the hook and have an excuse to be lazy.   Those are the wrong stories.  They will never lead to success in anything.  That mindset makes you an average person.   You are smarter than that.  Come up with better stories and you will come up with better results.   I cannot guarantee that you’ll make 110 on our third test but I honestly believe you will do better.

What stories should you be telling yourself?

--I will be the best prepared person in class next week.   I will analyze every question in advance and be ready with an answer.   I might not be able to do this for an entire semester but I can do it for the next week.
--I will write down questions in class that I don’t understand and go ask the teacher immediately.   He is paid to teach so let him earn his money.
--I will enjoy the energy and excitement of the class discussions.  I will look forward to this class. 
--I will pray that the teacher calls on me in class because I am ready to be a leader.
--I will work the extra class problems as soon as I get them.
--I will start keeping a diary of the amount of time I spend studying each day just to see if I can slowly raise that average.
--I will not worry about whether the material will ever be important.   I will learn it just for the sheer joy of adding knowledge to my head. 
--I will be better at time management so that I am ready for every class and can still have time to enjoy life outside of class.

I simply believe you will do better if you have better stories.   Positive stories create positive results.  You have to have stories that give you the strength to do the work now and do it well.   You have to overcome the bad stories.

That is not easy.   I fully understand.   But better stories really do make for better students.

I have an odd photo here at my house.  It is taped to my wall near my computer.   It is a photo of the cover of a notebook.   It was given to me by a student who did very well in my course about a year ago.   After the semester was over, she sent me the photo and explained, “I wrote this on the cover of my course notebook on the first day of the semester and I looked at it long and hard every day for the entire semester.”

On the notebook, she had written just four words:

“I want it more.”

She told herself the right story and she did very well.  She truly did succeed.

Monday, March 26, 2018


I often think about teaching in comparison to being a coach.  Both teachers and coaches work with a group of people in hopes that those people will accomplish some task particularly well (often under pressure).   There is an ongoing learning experience where individuals in both groups gradually improve (hopefully) over time.   In each case, the whole process culminates in some type of test – sports teams play a game that they hope to win whereas students take an examination where they hope to excel.   In sports, the coach is trying to maximize the team’s chances for a victory.   In education, the teacher is trying to maximize the amount of every student’s understanding so that each person can do as well on the exam as possible.  

I spent my weekend writing a long, complex test for 41 of my students.   I know it will be a challenge to each one.   There is nothing easy about any of these questions but they have worked hard and they are capable of success.  I would really like to maximize the chances for success.

When I finished writing the test, I decided to sit down to watch a little bit of the basketball games in March Madness.   It is hard to avoid these games at this time of the year.

As I watched the teams play, I was struck by how much time and energy the coaches had expended in hopes of getting each player to do their very best.  The best coaches seemed to have taken nothing for granted.   They had done everything possible to help the players perform well.  Hmm, I found that interesting – they had done everything possible to help the players perform well.   Had I done as much for my own students?

I started thinking about my students and the test that they were surely preparing for at that moment.  We had spent an enormous amount of time working on the material but I wasn’t sure that I had helped them to be as psychologically prepared for the test as possible.   Is that my role?   Am I purely a teacher of material?   Or, if I want my students to really do well, do I have more of an obligation than that?  

One of the things I don’t like about testing is that it tends to put the teacher in an adversarial relationship with the students.   We are the coach but we are also the judge and that creates a bit of separation in the minds of both parties.   I’ve always wanted my students to know I was on their side.   I think that helps their learning.

After the last game was over last night, I decided that there really was a little bit more that I could do for my students to help them do their best on the test today.  Instead of going to bed, I wrote them one final email, not about the subject matter but rather about doing their best.   I imagine that a great basketball coach might have done something like this.   And, in all seriousness, are those games on television one bit more important than the success of your own students?  You might disagree but I think not.   One of the first steps in being a better teacher is to recognize the importance of your role and in doing it as well as you possibly can.

Here is the email that I sent out.  I have no idea whether it increased anyone’s grade even one point but, for me, it was worth a try.   At least, I wanted my students to know that I was cheering for them.  I did truly want them to do well.   Before your next test, you might try something similar.   If nothing else, I think it is good for the student-teacher relationship for them to know that you really do want them to learn and succeed.

To my students:

You will have your second test in roughly 12 - 13 hours.   I know I have said all of this before but I want to say it again as you mentally prepare yourself for the battle.

Most importantly, I doubt seriously that I am going to ask you anything that is not already in your head.   Seriously, I wrote each question with one comment to myself, "I think this is in their heads -- it is not really impossible/bizarre/unworkable.  I think they'll know this."  

So, I think the whole key to the test is getting the material out of your head smoothly and onto the paper.   That's all I want you to worry about in these last few hours -- getting the knowledge out of your head smoothly and onto the paper.  

To do that, you know what I'm going to recommend first -- get a normal night's sleep.   Being tired is one of the worst things you can do on a difficult test.   No one functions well when they are tired.   If you normally get 7 hours of sleep, then go for 7 hours of sleep.

Second, stay calm.   I know the questions are going to look bizarre at first.  Take a deep breath and tell yourself, "he wrote these questions knowing us and believing that we can work them.  Getting rattled is not going to help.  Let me read it carefully."  

Third, have confidence.   You are bright people who have made your way into this university, into this school, and into this class.   That didn't happen by accident.   Yes, the material is complicated but it is not that complicated.   Don't blow it out of all proportions.

Fourth, keep your concentration.   I always tell my students, "if the building catches on fire, you don't want to notice until some fireman picks you up and carries you from the room."    I don't care what happens in room 223 tomorrow morning, nothing but that test should make any difference to you.

Fifth, if you get stuck on a question, don't waste a lot of time on it.   Go find another question that you might know better and come back to the "stuck" question at the end of the time.  

Finally, be careful.   I'm always shocked/dismayed by how many points great students just throw away by doing careless things.   If you don't know a question, that's fine, I can live with that.   But don't just hand over points by making careless errors.  

I know you (not the person beside you but YOU) are capable of doing great.   I'll be cheering for you!!!!!!   Go get it!!!!!    Make it happen!!!!!!