Monday, November 9, 2015


Over the years on this teaching blog, I have talked many times about the importance of experimenting in order to improve as a classroom teacher.   I often claim that my true motto is:   EXPERIMENT    EVALUATE    EVOLVE

Some experiments work in class while others fail miserably.   You have to keep trying new strategies to see what you can learn.   Today, I want to describe an experiment that took six months to complete.   And, although I cannot prove it, I personally believe it was a wonderful and glorious success.  

I often say that great students simply know how to be great students.   Other students find greatness mystifying.  They seem clueless about the essential steps that would lead to their being better students.   I have argued that the first class any student should be required to take in college should be “What It Takes to Become a Great Student and Why I Should Seek That Goal.” 

Last April, after students had registered for my fall classes, I sent them all their first assignment by email.   Receiving an assignment four months before the first class tends to lead to a lot of student eye rolling.   To fight off that cynicism, I tried to make the assignment interesting and helpful.  

Here is what I wrote to the students (a bit edited for length).   I wanted them to spend some time over the summer thinking about the characteristics of a great student and actually put those thoughts to paper.  Here is that first email assignment.

“Okay, I have your first assignment for the fall semester.   And, I dearly hope that you won’t go running away in horror and panic simply because I am giving you an assignment four months before the first class.   I actually think you will enjoy this assignment.   More importantly, it might make you a bit better student going into the fall semester.  There are three steps to this assignment.

“(1) – For many years, I have written a blog about teaching, primarily about how I teach here at the University of Richmond.   A few days ago I wrote about the characteristics of great teaching.   I want you to read that blog entry because it explains why I do some of the weird things that I do.   Reading this one essay should take under 5 minutes.   I want you to read the whole thing but I want you to focus on 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 12.   Those are the characteristics that will impact you the most in the fall.  And, I want you to start thinking about greatness.

“(2) – I want you to spend time over the summer talking with someone (your parents, a trusted high school teacher, a friend, a co-worker, a stranger on a bus) about the topic:   What is the purpose of a college class?   At the University of Richmond, you have to take at least 35 courses.   What are they supposed to accomplish?  Surely, it is not so that you will memorize a bunch of trivia just to enable you to pass a test.  Given the cost of the University of Richmond, that would be a darn expensive test.   Surely, it is not so that you can get a first job that you might well quit within the first year.   The goal has to be longer than the first few months after you walk across the stage at graduation. 

“It is very hard to put in a lot of work on a college course if you are not sure why anyone even takes a college course.   You are going to be stuck with me for a semester.   What am I supposed to do for you?   What do you want me to do for you?   In many cases, your parents are paying a lot of money for you to be in my class – why are they doing that?   What do they believe is the purpose of a college course?   You ought to ask them. 

“(3) – Some time before the first class in the fall, I want you to write a short essay and email it to me.   In one paragraph (or more, if you wish), I want you to tell me what you believe are the characteristics of a great student.   You might well be a great student but, if you are not, you surely have known great students here at Richmond or in your high school classes.  For you, what are the characteristics of a great student?

Believe it or not, all but one of my 59 students for this semester wrote essays and emailed them to me describing the characteristics they perceived in great students.   I responded that I wanted them to save the essays because we were going to use them during the semester.   I said no more and have not mentioned this assignment again until about two weeks ago.  At that time, I gave the students a completely optional assignment.   Here, once again a bit edited, are my directions:

“Back during the summer, I sent you an assignment.   You asked to do a couple of things and then write an essay about the characteristics of being a great student.   I figured you have been a student for most of your life so ascertaining greatness is something you are well equipped to do.   As I received these essays, I stored them on my computer and sent a note instructing each student to keep a copy because we would use them at some point during the fall semester.   I assume that you still have your essay stored some place. 

“This is an optional assignment.   I want you to take your original essay on the characteristics of a great student and write an essay (of whatever you think is an appropriate length) where you evaluate your work so far this semester in Accounting in comparison with those characteristics.   I am not looking for baloney.   I want honesty.   I think self-assessment or maybe self-reflection is a helpful exercise.

“If you wish, you can also say that you have decided that your original characteristics were wrong and talk about how they should be changed.   But, after you settle on the characteristics of a great student, I want you to assess your work in this course to date based on the characteristics YOU selected. 

“Then, I want you to tell me what changes, if any, you plan to make in this course over the remainder of the semester.   I often refer to these as ‘half time adjustments’ which I think are extremely important (in a class and in life in general).   Einstein said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.   So, what is your game plan for the rest of this semester?   Again, I am not looking for nonsense.   I am looking for an honest evaluation and assessment of changes you want to make (if any).

“Based on what I think of your paper (quality of writing, honest evaluation of how you have done so far, reasonable plan for the rest of the semester), I will add up to 3 points to your grade on our second test.”

Okay, I offered three points on one hourly exam in exchange for an honest self-assessment based on their own chosen characteristics of greatness.  (Three points is the equivalent of raising their overall class average approximately one-half point.)   How did it go?
--53 of my 59 students completed this assignment.
--Virtually all of the students wrote at least one page and most students wrote nearly two pages or more. 
--Almost all of the students were extremely insightful as they discussed their progress to date.   Of course, I have two test grades from them already so they know that I have a pretty good understanding of how they are doing.   I think that makes them more insightful.  

I will include some of my favorite comments at the bottom of this blog essay.   The comments were very interesting plus I was able to write back to them.   When a student wrote, for example, “I just feel stupid” or “I never take time to prepare,” I could respond to them personally.   That’s something I don’t get to do as much as I would like.   I will have over 80 students next semester – it is hard to give individual feedback.   I was glad to have the opportunity.
Maybe I am just being overly optimistic but I think all three of my classes have gone extremely well this semester but most especially since they completed this optional assignment.   It is easy for students to get in mental ruts and put their work on auto-pilot.   They start doing the same thing over and over without thinking.  I wanted them to stop and contemplate their own efforts to date and decide whether adjustments could be made that would improve results.

It took six months to get through the entire cycle of this exercise but I loved reading what they had to say and getting the chance to respond.  Reading their thoughts was fascinating.   

This is one experiment that you might want to try.   I certainly believe it helped some of my students.

Here are a few things mentioned by my students in their optional essays that caught my attention.

“I originally thought that I knew the meaning of hard work and discipline, but this class is unique in that it has pushed me to a new level of understanding.”

“The biggest trap now would be getting comfortable and losing the sense of urgency I have developed.”

“Frankly, I hate studying accounting.   I dread it every single day and I put it off until the last possible minute.”  

“This class is helping me understand how to be adaptive and I am trying to apply this to other aspects of my life.”

“Truthfully, I can handle my grades suffering in a few classes during this transition (to a more critical thinking based approach) but I cannot handle the mindset I am currently stuck in.”  

“I do not think the right question is ‘What are the characteristics of a great student?’   Instead, the question should be ‘What are the characteristics of being a great human being?’”

“I can acknowledge the attitude I should have, but adapting that attitude to my learning has proven to be a completely different and much more difficult task than I expected.” 

“I very rarely go over my notes or ask questions after class, and I must focus on following up classes better in order to improve as a student.”

“I feel like a total hypocrite.”  

“I need to get more sleep.   The more rested I am the more energy I have and the better I learn.”

“I have failed myself by not even bothering to ask you what you think I should do.”

“I can recall a few times where I have challenged the material we learned by asking why things happen the way they do, but I want to work on doing this more.”

“It has been a struggle in terms of finding the balance between school work, extracurricular activities and relationships, which are equally important to me.”

“Before the first test, I let my ego get to my head and I do not believe I tried to improve myself after each class.”

“A small group of 5 or so students including myself meet for a half hour to 45 minutes prior to class to discuss the material that will be covered in class that day.   I believe this really does help me walk into class prepared.”

“Humans are creatures of habit and similar to inefficient lifestyle choices that settle in out of sheer repetition.  Bad academic choices can settle in if we don’t remember why we’re going into that classroom every day.”

“I was so nervous on the first day of class of getting called on and not knowing the answer that I was actually shaking.   I was like this for a few more classes before I realized that getting an answer wrong in class was not the end of the world.”

Wednesday, October 21, 2015


As I write this entry, I am in the middle of giving my second Financial Accounting test of the semester.   The students are sweating away at this very moment.   If you would like to receive a copy of the test just to see how another teacher asks questions, drop me an email at

I was asked recently to give a presentation here at the University of Richmond to explain my long-time use of the Socratic Method.   There was clearly a lot of curiosity because faculty showed up from all across campus:   biology, chemistry, computer science, English, history, law, political science, and more.   I sense that our faculty members (or maybe just faculty in general) truly want to look at alternative ways of teaching in hopes of getting away from a lecture and memorize model in order to move more toward the development of critical thinking skills by the students. 

Or, maybe they all just came for the free lunch.

I had a marvelous time.   The conversation and questions were great. I always think more faculty conversation about teaching has to make for better student learning.   

In hopes of getting the group talking and thinking before the session, I sent out a preliminary “assignment.”   I thought you might enjoy “doing” the assignment also.   I have edited this a little but it is clearly intended to push the faculty to ponder how well we are doing as a university.   You might share this assignment with your colleagues and use it as a basis to talk about your school.

Here is the assignment I emailed out to this group:

 I am sending this note to the folks who have signed up for my upcoming presentation on the Socratic Method.   I am especially thrilled that we have folks from all over campus who plan to attend.   I think we should have campus-wide conversations more often.   I am looking forward to discussing alternative teaching methods with you and providing a demonstration using nine of my current students.

Short assignment:  I have a very short advance assignment for you—it should take about 5-8 minutes.

(1) – Go to the following URL and listen to the first two lines (just the first two lines) of a famous song sung by one of the great singers/song writers of our time.

Okay, I assume that the sentiment expressed in these first two lines does NOT apply to the education here at our school.   But, maybe I am just being naïve and gullible.   Maybe, I have been fooled by the PR.   How do we know that the first 21 words of this song do not apply to us in 2015?

(2) – Go to the following URL and read one single comic strip written by one of the great comic strip writers of the last 50 years.

Okay, I assume that the sentiment expressed in the last panel of this comic strip does NOT apply to the education here at our school.   But, maybe I am just being naïve and gullible.  Maybe I have been fooled by the PR.   How do we know that this last panel does not apply to us in 2015?

(3) – Read the following short passage from one of the most important education books by one of the most famous educators of our time (from page 32 of Our Underachieving Colleges by Derek Bok):

“Although attacks on college professors seem overblown, there is a subtler problem with faculty behavior that contributes to most of the shortcomings discussed in this book.   However much professors care about their teaching, nothing forces them or their academic leaders to go beyond normal conscientiousness in fulfilling their classroom duties.  There is no compelling necessity to reexamine familiar forms of instruction and experiment with new pedagogic methods in an effort to help their students accomplish more.” 

In other words, “good enough is good enough.” 

Ultimately, isn’t that the curse of the human race?   Whether you are a bank teller, a minister, a college student, a politician, a taxi cab driver, a cook at Taco Bell, or a college professor—don’t we all kind of fall back on “good enough is good enough?”

Okay, having made that extremely cynical comment, I still assume that the sentiment expressed in Bok’s paragraph does NOT apply to the education here at our school.   But, maybe I am just being naïve and gullible.   Maybe I have been fooled by the PR.   How do we know that this paragraph does not apply to us in 2015?

PS – One final question to ponder:   If the faculty as a group here at our university decided that our goal was for 100 percent of our students to move up to a higher form of thinking on Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning Domains, how would we go about achieving that vision?   (I realize that is a simplistic question but I imagine you get my point.)   Now, at least for me, that is a question worth pondering.

Monday, October 5, 2015


The September 16, 2015, issue of The Wall Street Journal provided a wonderful essay by Jason Stevens titled “A Professor Who Put Teaching First.”   He writes about one of his professors (Peter W. Schramm of Ashland University) who recently died.   I found almost every word to be moving.  However, here are two sentences that were really wonderful:   “His office was always full of students wanting to tear off a bit of wisdom . . .  Schramm taught his students how to think and live well, how to be prudent and judge wisely, how to seek the just and the true.” 

Words like those were what made me want to become a college teacher way back when I was a young person.   For me, kings and presidents could not have a more important and interesting life than Stevens describes.

Reading this essay started me thinking.   Do students today still talk about their college teachers in such glowing terms?  In some ways, the description of Professor Schramm sounds like something written from the 1960s.  (or maybe the 1930s.)

As I travel around the country providing teaching seminars, the most common complaint I hear from faculty is “No one really cares whether I teach well.   The students do not want to be challenged to work or think.   As long as students don’t riot, the administration doesn’t really care.   Why should I try to get better?   Why should I work any harder?   Students don’t appreciate good education.   They are looking for the easiest way out of college.”  

Trust me.   Over the last few years, I have heard more than my fair share of cynicism.   But, is it true?   Does anyone really want better teaching today?   Is that just a myth carried over from the past? 

I decided to do an experiment.   Recently, two of my former students returned to campus to participate in a program.  A current student asked them what had been the toughest part of transitioning from college to the working world.   Without hesitation, they both responded “having to be responsible for the work of others; we were never trained to do that.”  

I wanted to address that issue.   A few days later, I asked the students in my junior-level accounting class to write a short paragraph about the best teacher they have had here at the University of Richmond.   I gave them no guidelines—just tell me about your best teacher.   Later in the semester, we will use these essays to help the students think about what works well when you are responsible for other people.  How do you get other people to function at a high level?  

The only restriction to the assignment was that they could not write about me (although halfway through a very difficult semester, I doubt they were inclined to do so).   And, in case you are wondering, this was a non-graded assignment.   The students had no reason to feed me answers they thought I wanted.

I was fascinated by what each of the 25 students had to say.   Many wrote long descriptions of great teachers.   These were lovely and inspiring.   Below are highlights.   I hope they touch you as deeply as they did me.  More importantly, the next time you are becoming cynical about the education process think back to what students continue to say about their best teachers.   They really do appreciate what you do for them.   It is 2015 and not 1965 but students still love and respect great teachers.

“He has been everywhere and done everything so I find talking to him to be very interesting.   He encourages students to come to his office by luring them with all kinds of book recommendations.  I think he fully understands that in order to return his books you have to come back.   He takes a keen interest in people and he listens to what they say and how they say it.   Not many people, let alone professors, are capable of doing this.   When you stop by with a question about an assignment, you’ll end up having an hour’s conversation about Somali pirates, the etymology of Schadenfreude and how coyotes smuggle Mexicans across the border.   This spontaneity and insatiable hunger for information is both fascinating and inspiring.”

“This class was the most challenging and terrifying course in which I have ever enrolled, but I learned more from that class than any other course in college.   Starting the weekend before classes, the professor emailed my classmates an open-ended assignment:   a blog post.   Students were expected to produce written assignments on their own without exact outlines.   This expectation forced me to develop my confidence (i.e., to become an adult) and because he was a harsh grader, students constantly pushed themselves to produce better work . . .  In sum I believe that he was the best professor I have had because he (1) forced students to work without having the teacher watch ‘over their shoulder;’ (2) he constantly pushed students to work harder; and (3) he was able to establish a personal connection between students and the class material.”

“Before I even got into the door, I heard a professor scolding a student.  I proceeded to go through the door. Someone had forgotten to do the prep work for the class, a short essay on what we already knew about the subject. We all sat down, and the rest was history (no pun intended). Her teaching style is an intense fast paced discussion for an hour and fifteen minutes. She initially asks someone to summarize the article and then proceeds to press the selected student with a few opening questions. From there, she is able to pick up every opinion and take it in a new direction.  She doesn't use the chalkboard or any other supplemental material to direct the class other than her thoughts and our readings. Although there are many professors with this technique, it's her ability to question and lead a student's initial answers that is so impressive. It kept us on our toes and thinking fast.”

“He was the first professor where I felt I needed to start thinking more critically versus just simply relying on rote memorization . . .  He really challenged us to take what we knew and apply it to ideas and situations. This meant that students needed to do more than just memorize the idea.   You needed to understand what it really meant. I especially liked the project at the end of the year in which we had to use something we had learned throughout the semester and alter it to improve it and state how you could implement it in the real world. I struggled with this initially because I wasn't thinking of how the ideas really worked, but once I figured out how to think critically about the ideas in full, I felt I was able to better grasp the concepts and complete the assignment . . .   He challenged me to alter my way of thinking which I had used throughout both high school and my freshman year.”

 “She was a ruthless grader but always willing to work with students. In my experience with most of my classes, my teachers never usually possessed both of these qualities. The fact that she was strict on grading, at first, made me exceedingly nervous for one of my first college classes. However, I met with her frequently on my rough drafts and she was always willing to scour every detail of my writing. Even though she returned each of my drafts with more red ink than black print, I felt my writing was becoming stronger with each draft. That is exactly what I wanted . . .   I am biased towards her class because I feel that strong writing and communication is a skill that is necessity for all college graduates, but it does not take away from my interest in her teaching style of coaxing intelligence out of her students.”

“His best quality was his work ethic.  He was always up till at least two in the morning to answer emails.  If you emailed him any questions he would respond promptly with in-depth answers and explanations.   Also, every week, he would have an optional study group where we went over the homework problems.  I respected him as a leader because of how hard he was willing to work to help me.  When someone works that hard it makes you want to work just as hard out of respect.  He truly cares about his students and their learning.”

“’These papers are C, D, maybe F worthy.’ As a first semester freshman at college, those words are not particularly encouraging to hear . . .   Transitioning into college is almost as big as transitioning into a job, and although you may not immediately be in charge of other people quite yet, there is one paramount step: you are completely in charge of yourself. Many students may claim to start doing this earlier on, in high school or earlier, but I truly believe that college is the transitory phase of becoming and acting like an adult- which involves making all of your own decisions.  The professor saw the potential in our class, and in each individual. She made it clear that each individual in the class had the potential to do better and get an A, not just ‘better’ . . . Finally, after four edits and what seemed like an entirely different paper, I managed to start making progress in her class . . .  I truly became more conscious of my everyday vernacular, keeping up to par a personal sense of critical thinking and not settling for mediocre responses in my courses.”

“This professor made the class very inclined to discussion. You had to be prepared for each class by reading a historical case. The cases were usually black-and-white, but our discussions were exciting. He expected everyone in the class to have an opinion on all of the cases, he helped guide you into what he thought was actually the more accurate story, and he was not an easy grader. The class was better if you participated because he would yell at students to get them passionate about the subject matter. I’d say what made this professor great is that he made the student feel that his opinion mattered as long as you could back it up.”

“He was my best professor so far for many reasons but a few of them were accountability, critical thinking, and understanding. First of all he always held each and every student accountable for any of the work assigned and if the student had not attempted the work or did not try then consequences would be made. Yes, this may seem harsh, but it forced all of his students to put in the time and effort into the material to actually learn it. Second of all, was his ability to make students use their critical-thinking skills. He would ask questions to push the students and learn above and beyond just the textbook. Last of all, was his understanding. The subject was not easy, but if you put in the time and effort he was always available to help answer any type of question.”

“All of my favorite professors at Richmond have been enthusiastic about the subject they teach, willing to help, and interested in getting to know their students as individuals . . .   The funny thing is, for my favorite professor, I had to drag myself out of bed to his class every morning at 9 A.M. and I didn’t even like the subject. He somehow got me to the point where I was excited to complete his assignments (I wasn’t as excited to wake up for the early class though) . . .   He’s passionate about the subject he teaches and always encourages students to participate. If I had any trouble with the material I was learning, he was always open to helping me work through it.”

“He does a great job of leading class discussion making sure that every student is involved, connects what he is teaching to current events, finds ways to make class interesting, and provides timely feedback on papers and other assignments.  He made me excited to go to class even though it was scheduled at nine a.m. on Wednesdays and Fridays.  Also, he was always approachable outside of class.” 

“I enjoyed his class because he ran it unlike any other class I’ve taken.  There is an ongoing project, which required us to make regular presentations on our progress.  This way, he gave ongoing feedback every step of the way.  He’s not afraid to tell you if he thinks your idea is stupid (and he’ll put it that bluntly), which I think is helpful in the long run.  The rest of the class time is an open conversation that loosely follows the textbook, but goes in whatever direction the class takes it.  He’ll often stop in the middle of a sentence to call on students because he wants to hear our ideas.  He brings a very subtle, dry sense of humor to these conversations, which keeps student’s attention and makes us look forward to class and makes us want to contribute to discussion . . .  As a professor, he demands respect on his own account but still makes students feel comfortable and free to voice their opinions.”

“What I liked most about this professor was his philosophy toward teaching. He put a much greater value on learning than he did on grades, which is something that most students and teachers do not do. This philosophy, however, did match up with my personal beliefs, so I was immediately interested  . . .  Through his style of teaching, this professor was able to make me interested in a topic where I had no prior interest.   I believe I learned more in his class that I still am able to remember than any other class I took as a freshman. To this day I still remember things about Pushkin, Belinsky, Gogol, and other writers.”

“I valued him as one of the University of Richmond’s best professors for three reasons.   First, he respected his students.   Every time I visited his office, I could genuinely feel that he really respected me and cared about me.   Second, he helped us form a community within the class.   We worked as a group and we could learn more about each other throughout the course.   Third, he was good at openly complimenting students.   He was able to compliment individual students during the class time.  I am pretty sure he ended up complimenting every one of us in the classroom by the end of the semester.   Also compliments were not generic, but personal and skill specified.”

“This professor would always make his students excited to go to his class . . .  The most important thing he teaches you is about observation. He will give you something interesting to read and some hints and questions to think about and then let you observe the details yourself. Meanwhile, he is open to different opinions, even weird ones. He really knows his specialty area and can pull out any related information to further explore the material with his students.  He is super kind, intriguing, extremely helpful and really cares about his students. He likes to meet with his students and have wonderful conversations about class topics or something interesting. We once had an amazing discussion on The Age of Innocence about his favorite character Ellen Olenska. He gave me passion for literature. He taught me how to see what is beneath the characters and what is observation.”

“He begins class by simply asking each one about how their week is going or how they are feeling that particular day.  He sees and understands that his students are more than just students; they are a friend, a sister/brother, a son/daughter, a mentor, an employee, a volunteer, etc.  With this perspective, he accommodates to the needs of the majority through flexibility and understanding.  He has an undying passion for what he teaches.  He engages his students towards the subject by the way he presents the material in class.  Lastly, the calm and relaxing atmosphere he brings to the classroom attracts students who look forward to his class every week.  In return, the students are so inspired and motivated to reciprocate the efforts and attitude by involving themselves in more classroom participation and increasing their determination level for the class.”

“The professor turns a boring lecture into an interactive one as he makes every single student get involved in the class conversation.   He designs the course such that materials would be more interesting so that students can learn them through doing real case studies. . . .    The greatest thing about this professor is that he puts a lot of effort into talking to his students and getting to them personally.   His office is always open for help, advice, or just a short chat.”

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.