Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Great Teachers and Learning Organizations

Does your mind ever wander while you are supposed to be paying attention in a class or meeting?

Do you ever feel "cheated" by apathetic teachers or managers who can’t engage and organize people?

Between fifth and ninth grades I barely made it through school, partly due to clueless teachers, partly due to family problems, and partly due to my sense I lacked control.

Then, when I started tenth graded, a light switch seemed to flip on in my brain. I started reading on my own, interested in learning vs. memorizing test material. Math made sense. I loved structuring equations and finding solutions. I loved learning.

I read everything available about the power of the spirit and positive psychology. And, I was exposed to my first great teacher, beyond my parents, my head high school football coach, Ted Monica.

Coach Monica was a Lombardi disciple. In fact, he helped the Green Bay Packers on draft day for years. He and his football program were highly organized. He was very tough and gruff on the exterior, but we responded to his honesty and underlying goodness. For me, he represented the ultimate definition of a coach, or teacher. He was smart, a real expert in his field and very sharp and perceptive. Coach had a very strong presence and voice, and great eye contact. His quick glare made players shake in an instant.

Few, if any, of the college head coaches who recruited me had his talents.

I flourished under his high expectations and applied his structured approach to my classes. They seemed easy compared to his marine boot camp like (he was Korean War Marine Veteran) triple sessions. I felt like I’d passed a mark to manhood by surviving the many physical challenges. They were balanced. He seemed to know when to cut back, just barely. He kept us hungry to improve, and to learn.

My offensive line coach, Jack Francis, introduced the linemen to training camp by stating: “in order to play at Madison, all you need to be able to do is tell your right hand from your left, and to count from one to ten”. I did a quick self-assessment and felt relieved knowing I could pass his first criteria. Our confidence grew. In truth, we ran an intricate veer offense, but coach kept it simple. We flourished.

During my three years as a starter, we never lost a game and ended our seasons consecutively ranked 3rd, 2nd, and 1st in NJ. When questioned by concerned parents and media about whether all the winning was a good and real teacher for us, as life is full of setbacks, coach would state: they lose everyday in practice. He was right. He had a way of keeping egos in check.

One time, Joe Butler, the star, 1000 yard rusher my junior year (I had three consecutive 1000 yard rushers run to my side; Chris Jilleba in 1977, Joe in 1978, and Steve Doherty in 1979) was feeling pretty confident after a good game and said, after reviewing a missed assignment during film review on Monday afternoons: “sorry coach, my fault”.

No one ever volunteered a comment during films unless questioned by coach. There was dead silence and dread in the room. People feared Joe’s response would summons coach to punish the whole team with sprints, or the dreaded “Green Bays” – 10 consecutive 440-yard sprints with a minute’s rest between each lap. The first 440 had to be run under 2:00 minutes and each subsequent lap had 5 seconds reduced, so the last lap had to be run in under 70 seconds.

Finally, coach said: “No, it’s MY fault, for having YOU in there.” We giggled in relief we weren’t sent to the track, and Joe learned to keep quiet. Needless to say, we reminded Joe of the incident every time someone said sorry.

Coach created an environment where we enjoyed each other. This was a trademark of my high school teams. When we practiced, we were totally committed and concerned with making every collective effort possible to execute. When we played our games, this individual execution was augmented with a sense of trust and interdependency. We felt like 11 people all working as one, like brothers.

Since my days at Madison, I’ve searched to find this feeling outside of my family. Most organizations create incentives so individuals put themselves ahead of the good of the whole. Our Madison teams functioned as one, and it elevated our performance, and results.

Peter Senge, in his Book "The Fifth Discipline" states the key trait distinguishing thriving and surviving environments is their members' ability to learn from their experiences. He states: "Often when things go poorly, we blame incompetent leaders, a downward trend in the marketplace, or customers who don't know a good product when they see one. We usually wait for someone or something to rescue us from our dilemma. What we usually miss is the bigger question: 'What are we, collectively, able to create?'" Creating possibility requires learning from our experiences, rather than being defined and immobilized by them.

Thanksgiving week during my senior year in high school was a pivotal week in my life. My mom was buried the Friday before. She died late that Tuesday after an eight-year battle with melanoma. On Saturday we played East Orange in a football state championship playoff game. On Sunday, the senior players took a special SAT make up, originally scheduled for Saturday. Then, on Thanksgiving, we played our traditional rival, Millburn High. So, my mom's death came during the only week of the year when we played two games.

Thanks to the environment Coach Monica and his staff created, I barely missed a beat. We beat East Orange, led by future NFL star Sam Seale, in the waning minutes of the game. I took the SAT's on Sunday. My scores allowed me to be recruited by the Ivies and Service Academies. We also beat Millburn, but this was not unexpected. We went on and won our third consecutive championship, and undefeated season. When our season ended, our winning streak was at 34 games. The team needed six more victories to beat the then state record of 39. We ended the season ranked tops in NJ. John Dagon, another captain and our ferocious middle linebacker, and I were named first team all state.

I consider myself blessed for being influenced by great teachers, coaches, and counselors. They enable students to seek the truth, and to enjoy the learning and growing process.

After high school glory, my mom’s death started a series of downward spirals. My first year and a half at Brown was marked with classroom and personal upheaval. I searched the campus for an instructor, administrator, or even staff person, who I responded to like I did to Coach Monica.

I pulled myself into Professor Barrett Hazeltine’s office. Here was a selfless light at the end of the Brown's tunnel of seemingly self-absorbed and self-important faculty and staff. Humble, considerate, and friendly, he never forced a solution, but offered support in helping me find my way at Brown. His demeanor was diametrically opposed to Coach Monica’s approach, but it worked.

Like Coach Monica, Professor Hazeltine was very successful, and recognized, for helping students realize their potential. He is a Brown icon. Brown’s award for teaching excellence is named after him. Both he and Coach exuded concern and competence, albeit with completely different styles.

His classes were engaging and empowering. He was dynamic, yet sincere. Students took leadership roles in facilitating group discussions of real life business cases. We practiced presentation skills, time management, problem facilitation, and continuous improvement. Successful, attractive, graduates would return and discuss their business and life endeavors.

When I see the gold sun on top of Brown's emblem, I think of Professor Hazeltine, providing a warm and enlightened glow over a turbulent organization. Whenever I see or touch a football, I think of Coach Monica. They both influenced their students to create excellence in their homes, in their organizations, and in their communities.

I spend much of my time in organizations helping managers become better teachers.

Below please find some excerpts from one of Professor Hazeltine’s speeches. It’s entitled: “FOR THE LOVE OF THE ACQUISITION OF LEARNING”. It’s hoped you can find some nuggets to apply to your team to impact great performance.

“We can be useful because we can give our students both the confidence that they can learn (and after learning do) and also the knowledge and the wisdom so this confidence is not a delusion.

Teaching can be thrilling because we get to see students come alive - to realize this poem is meaningful, this environmental analysis is something they can do. I fear I, personally, teach to the bottom of the class-- the group for whom education represents high value added, the group that can blossom at a university. Perhaps because I am so impressed and pleased when the less highly regarded do take off. Of course good things do not always happen to those in the bottom of the class and probably the most painful part of the teaching business is making clear what is valid and acceptable and what is not. Teaching can not only be painful, it can also be difficult and risky -one is putting one's reputation on the line every class. We are a profession, like major league athletics, where one is only as good as one's last' performance.

Why is a teacher important? An essential insight for me was that I was not responsible for telling the students everything I knew. I was not even responsible for knowing everything that they might ask me. I was not important to them because of what I knew. They could find out themselves what they needed -- if they wanted to. The important thing a teacher can do is to make learning significant and possible. We should focus on making students want to learn and trust them to do the rest.

A teacher is important because he or she is an advocate for intellectual life. The student, any person in our society, is besieged with choices and advocates for those choices but few advocates duplicate what a faculty member professes. A glance at the newspaper, -or evening TV, makes it obvious how badly our society needs people of intelligence, confidence and conviction.

A good teacher is important also because he or she represents quality thinking. Students need to be able to recognize ideas that are incomplete or inaccurate or insensitive, whether in the popular press or from themselves. The thrill of accomplishment, of learning, is lost when discriminations are not made between high and low quality work. If any idea is respected then nothing is really respected.

We are good teachers, I believe when we show that our subject is challenging, significant, accessible -- when we show that learning is worth doing. We are also good teachers when we show that other facets of life are worthwhile -- concern for others, integrity, spiritual life, a conviction to act on one's belief.

Just as we are representatives of intellectual, moral and spiritual life we are also representatives of our society's culture -- what our society appreciates and believes. Technological developments, television, transportation, medical discoveries, to name a few-- have changed greatly the conditions in which people live, leaving them in many cases without a firm sense of what they are and where they came from. The passing on of cultural values is important especially since many of the institutions that give society its stability are presently having difficulty.

Being a parent gave me much insight into what is important in teaching -- what did I want my own children to become? What should I want for other people's children? I would certainly like them to be intelligent and I would not want them to be ignorant of the arts and of science. I would like them to be responsible citizens and lead a moral life but most of all I want them to be confident and curious -- to want to learn, to believe they can learn, to be eager to do new things, to lead a full life. Nothing has happened to a student while in college unless this sense of what is possible has taken hold and a teacher, better than any other mechanism I know, can nurture this sense. I tell my seniors that if they do not feel good about their ability to meet new challenges they have wasted 4 years and $80,000.

One cannot help noting that at most institutions faculty are usually not trained or encouraged to think of themselves as mentors to undergraduates, instructors, yes, mentors not often. Graduate school and the people we meet expect us to be expert in the subject field. and rarely explicitly pay attention to the values we profess. We are trained to feel best about ourselves when we have delivered a terribly clear and beautifully organized lecture. We do not always realize that students may often learn more from other things we do - perhaps even things we do unconsciously, perhaps especially things we do unconsciously.

Students do deserve, however, clear and organized class room presentations. A scholarly aspect of our profession is just that -- to organize and interpret the subject -- to make student learning more efficient and effective by pointing out fruitful approaches, to show what has worked in the past and what has not. As someone said those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.

It is our understanding, even ask other things. In larger classes one can use devices also -questions, votes (when I bring up what seems an important question I ask for a vote and insist that all participate -"everybody has to have an opinion on this".). My lecture outline handouts have blanks where the student is expected to do something -- complete an argument or a calculation.

I move around the lecture room, coming up to a student in, say, the fifth row and soliciting an opinion from her or him. If all else fails in a dull part of a class one can make a minor blunder, an algebraic mistake, for example, and let the class discover it. I try to find excuses to shake hands because a grade school teacher told me touching is reassuring. Someone else told me the only thing really clear from studies of how people learn complex material is that they tend to remember what they discover for themselves. So I try to structure presentations so students can discover the results for themselves and in the process gain confidence. After all, I won't always be there to help.

How would I, as a student, want to be treated? As a partner in the educational enterprise. It does help to learn names in a big class. Moving away from the lectern or- the blackboard tends to reduce the psychological distance. Giving handouts personally to students creates an opportunity to greet them individually. As a symbolic gesture I often ask the class to decide on some administrative procedures, such as what day the assignments will be due. My own style is to try to find a way to praise every student every day but others may not find that comfortable. At the very least the student should be made to feel welcomed in the classroom.

So how does a teacher do harm? By lowering the student's self esteem so he or she feels the material can never be mastered. By not involving the student in the exercise. By not demonstrating that learning is satisfying and worthwhile. By not making the material clear and absorbing. By acting as if he or she does not care to teach.

People who have chosen teaching have chosen a profession with high rewards and high responsibilities. We do affect greatly, for good or bad, the lives of those we teach. Good teaching is something that requires thought and commitment and practice. Too often it has been taken for granted -- neither recognized or studied.”

If I can help you adapt coaching, learning, and teaching principles to your organization’s management practices, it will be great to chat.


Reyna said...

Good for people to know.

Matt Paknis said...

Thanks Reyna:

Had the opportunity to learn or work under several legends. Although their styles are very different, their underlying common trait is total commitment to and conern for the betterment of their students or teams.

Thanks for your comment.