Thursday, September 2, 2010

School Week! What Makes a Teacher Great?!

This week, students return to school across America where much energy and effort is focused on improving public schools and student performance.

Despite recent significant financial awards aimed at these ends, my guess is educational transformation starts with parents, and then teachers.

Teachers appear to be the more controllable variable in this equation. To help parents and students determine whether this year's pedagogues show promise, I decided to reflect and investigate to share traits making teachers great.

Peter Senge, in his Book “The Fifth Discipline” states the key trait distinguishing thriving people and organizations is their ability to learn from their experiences. Creating possibility requires learning from our experiences, rather than being defined and immobilized by them. A great teacher creates this possibility.

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 following her eight-year battle with melanoma. On Saturday we played Orange High 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. My mom’s death coincided with the only week of the year when we played two games and took the SAT's.

Thanks to the environment Coach Monica and his staff created, I stayed focused. We beat Orange, led by future NFL star Sam Seale, in the waning minutes of the game. My SAT scores allowed me to be recruited by, and admitted to, the Ivies and Service Academies. We beat Millburn Thanksgiving morning and went on to win our third consecutive championship and undefeated season.

When our season ended Madison's winning streak was 34. We received the Star Ledger Trophy recognizing NJ's top high school football team. To this day, like Hoosiers, we are the only Group II sized school to achieve this recognition. The team needed six more victories to beat the then state record of 39. John Dagon, another captain and our ferocious middle linebacker, and I were named first team all state.

Despite Brown's Coach Anderson professing Brown was a better fit for me than my preferred West Point or Princeton, I missed my mom, Coach Monica, and Madison's special community terribly when I went to Brown. My life transitioned further when my dad remarried one month into my Brown career.

Depressed, I searched Brown's campus my first few semesters for a friendly instructor, administrator, or even staff person, and pulled myself to Barrett Hazeltine's office. Humble, considerate, and friendly, he never forced a solution, but offered support in helping me find my delayed way at Brown.

Multitudes of gifted coaches, teachers, counselors, and professors shaped my transcedence. Three are recognized well beyond their corridors and walls. This article focuses on Barrett, whose name graces Brown University's Teaching Excellence Award.

The following is a condensed version of Barrett's accepting the Robert Foster Cherry Award for Teaching Excellence at Baylor University.

Good teachers are useful.
Why is teaching important? Students are conscious at once of needing to be independent, of wanting to do things themselves, but they are also conscious of how much they don't know, of how much help they need. We, I am speaking as a teacher, meet them at a time when we can be of help, when we can be useful.

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.

Good teachers unveil talent.

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.

Good teachers respect and own their professions’ challenges.

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.

Good teachers make students want to learn.

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 good teacher represents quality thinking.

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. Glancing at a 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.

Good teachers are committed to their subjects and to integrating balance.
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, and 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.

Good teachers are like good parents.

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.

Good teachers foster the desire to meet challenges.
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.

Good teachers are mentors.

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.

Good teachers are dedicated instructors and engage students.

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 to ask other things. In larger classes one can use devices like 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".)

Good teachers help students discover for themselves.

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.

Good teachers see themselves through their students’ eyes.

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.

Good teachers avoid harm.

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.

Good teachers influence.

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 nor studied. Current improvement initiatives will do much to give teaching the attention it must have.

Great parents, leaders, managers, and coaches are good teachers.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Was it a Sign?!

20 years ago this week Linda and I were married.

A dubious omen followed.

I lost my wedding ring on our honeymoon.

We walked to a secluded beach, spread our blanket, and enjoyed each others' company.

It was sunny and hot. The ocean was crystal clear, cool, and inviting.

The ring fit loose on my finger. I was afraid it might slip off during a swim. It went into my shorts' pocket. It was wrapped and placed safely on the blanket.

Not accustomed to wearing my wedding ring, I forgot about it until we reached the parking lot, about a half mile from where we spent these relaxing few hours.

We walked back along the low tide line. Soon after, the ocean covered our trail.

My heart dropped. My fingers felt no ring in my pocket. My hands rifled through my other pockets. Nothing.

Linda looked at me with concern. I was flustered and irate with myself. She was an angel, and is still.

She said: "Don't worry, our jeweler can make a duplicate".

I was depleted, but a voice in me sensed hope.

Returning to the hotel, I stopped at the town's Chamber of Commerce and asked for equipment rental businesses, found one, and rented a metal detector.

Returning to our beach blanket site with the detector, wise guys leaving the beach offered me "a few dollars to treat my date".

When we explained we were on our honeymoon and I lost my wedding ring, they offered to help us search.

By then, our initial path from the blanket was under water, so my search started at the blanket site. The tide was approaching the blanket's indentations in the sand. Time was precious.

Linda's ring triggered "BEEP" when we checked the metal detector. Its circular end crisscrossed the site three times. The "BEEP" was my obsession. Nothing sounded.

The metal detector covered each inch of the blanketed area with no response.

Dejected, Linda said: "it's getting dark and the tide is approaching. It's time to give up".

The folks who offered help left, suggesting our ring quest was comparable to finding a needle in a hay stack, but worse since our search area was about to be engulfed with water, and destroyed.

My mind sent me pictures of my perilous midnight climb on a dangerous New Mexico Mountain, last second athletic victories, insurmountable childhood odds and injuries. All these seemingly hopeless situations turned to sweet victories.

And it's been sweet. Twenty years later we have three beautiful children, a loving home, strong bonds with good family and friends, faithful relationships, health, fun, lives and careers dedicated to service, learning, and problem solving, and we have hope.

We also have my original wedding ring. Just before ending the search, I surveyed the area surrounding the blanket's perimeter.

My metal detector sweeps were fast and furious, so the initial "beep" was feint. My heart jumped after hearing it. The detector waved the area again, slower, and the "beEP" was stronger. I isolated the ring's location with the third vibrant "BEEP" and dug my fingers into the sand.

The ring shone bright. It was the most beautiful site.

And, I've been thankful ever since.

Happy Anniversary!

Friday, May 28, 2010

Slow and Steady Wins the Race?

It was beautiful Sunday morning in New England. At six am, Milo woke me for his walk. We then headed east on route 6 towards Cape Cod to get the newspaper.

Returning on the same route moments later, a woman was standing in the middle of the road, staring at a huge lump in my lane.

From my distance, I guessed it was a large dog, fox, or worse, a person. My sense was it was still alive and this is what moved the woman from her car.

I stopped, pressed on the emergency lights, and rolled down my window. She approached my car and asked me to help. She was frazzled and on her way to work when she saw the lump.

I approached and was amazed. At first, I thought it was a young sea turtle. Every year, my family and I wait in moonlight on Melbourne Beach, Florida shores to watch 1500 pound Leather-back, Green, and Loggerhead turtles propel themselves with their flippers, and coded DNA, up the beach to dig massive holes to lay over 120 eggs.

They cover the holes and lunge back to sea. They return to the same beaches where they were hatched to lay their own eggs often after circumnavigating the globe. My brother in law's family also promotes the species' survival and carries, from these holes, just hatched baby turtles to the sea.

The turtle on route six did not have flippers. It had four huge feet with immense claws. It also had a pointed nose and was snapping. It was the biggest snapping turtle I've seen; almost three feet long and over two feet in width and height. The woman was afraid to touch it, and was afraid a car might hit it.

Remembering what I saw on the Nature Channel, I lifted the 30 - 50 pound turtle from its sides. It kicked with great force and its claws grazed me, but did not hurt me. It torqued its neck, but its jaws did not reach my fingers. I placed her on the side of the road where she was pointed.

The woman stated: "ah, it was actually heading in the other direction when I arrived." So, I lifted it again. It went through the same protective behaviors and hissed. I carried her to the other side of four laned Route 6 where a pond and swamp waited for her to lay her eggs. Based on its size, this turtle was over 100 years old. It's tail looked prehistoric. The turtle was safe.

The woman thanked me and we parted. The turtle reminded me of the sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico and in the Atlantic Ocean facing this massive British Petroleum oil spill.

Turtles are known to be slow and steady. A famous fable pits a turtle against a speedy rabbit in a race. The turtle's persistence is rewarded and it wins the race against the rabbit who decides to use its anticipated extra time for selfish pursuits.

People in power at British Petroleum made decisions based on short term cost savings when they decided to fill the oil well pipe with known to be dangerous sea water instead of mud. This led to the nation's worst recorded environmental disaster.

The people in power at Goldman Sachs, and at other financial institutions, made decisions to make short term gains with investment vehicles they knew would hurt some clients. This led to the country's current financial collapse, its worst since the Great Depression.

The people running, and making decisions for, these institutions are not leaders. Like the rabbit, their selfish pursuits disrupted the long term good of the whole.

Leaders influence positive thoughts, actions, and outcomes.

Like the diligent and well intended turtle in the race, the good in mankind and in the world will outpace these shortsighted, virtue lacking, selfish people in position of authority and their resulting disasters.

It is time to evaluate how we select and groom leaders; those entrusted to make good decisions. It's what I do for well intended organizations. This will be the focus of my next blog.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Priests and Goldman Sachs and Enrons (McKinseys & Arthur Andersens).....Oh my!


This is to benefit victims and survivors; those who are suffering at the hands of organizational members; be they priests, traders, consultants, or accountants, whose deceptive behaviors and incompetent leaders - like fish stinking from their heads, fostered abuse and deceit, self serving protection and power, greed, and quick or disturbed gains over ethical, good, and honest decisions.

Successful survivors follow Four Steps to overcome abuse and fraud.

1. Successful survivors reveal the truth to trained professionals. They share all their related secrets and shed light on the perpetration. Victims often falsely believe the abusive and deleterious behaviors committed against them are somehow their fault. This relates to people who are molested and to people who are duped by phony, and contrived, investment vehicles.

Blame always belongs to the instigator / perpetrator. The only way to melt erroneous compartments and their related power and control dynamics is to share the truth with trained professionals. This lifts a tremendous weight and puts the power back in the hands its rightful owner: the survivor. Bullies hate the truth.

2. Successful survivors identify cognitive distortions based on their victimization. Victims can carry a ton of guilt and shame with them, thinking they are to blame for others' malfeasance. This can generate a false sense of poor confidence. In extreme cases, a victim's psyche may cultivate obsessive thoughts to distract from their extreme emotional pain.

It's important for survivors to speak openly about their abuse, so their internal fears and criticisms can be exposed and their compartments melted, so integrated functioning, and present moment joy, are possible.

Healthy survivors separate facts from opinions and approach life from a rational, realistic, objective, and mature perspective.

3. Successful survivors look at their destructive behavioral patterns, rooted in abuse related cognitive distortions, and make better present moment choices. They make constructive and good decisions leading to positive outcomes.

Successful survivors choose behaviors with present moment awareness. They can identify the connection between behaviors associated with inordinate fears and criticisms and choose behaviors allowing them to live free, where they feel in control of their destinies.

4. Healthy Survivors integrate their "true" sense of self with validating / affirming healthier people. They choose to affiliate with people who share their values and beliefs, and who reinforce their positive identities.

Victims may isolate themselves, as their perpetrators prefer. As a result, they do not cultivate the supportive and constructive friendships needed to grow and evolve into healthy survivors.

Successful survivors form healthy identities by sharing secrets, identifying distortions, choosing healthy behaviors, and surrounding themselves with healthier people who affirm their positive identities.

The next entry will be written as a warning to perpetrators, and their supporting hierarchies; to those who think they are fooling us by projecting images of success, accomplishment, and affiliation when, in reality, their phoniness and destructive behaviors are very apparent. They will be exposed. Justice will be served.

They have little hearts, little brains, and little courage.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Catch People Doing Something Right

Did you ever have a boss who only made her presence felt when something went wrong? Seeing her walk towards me down the aisle made me think to myself, with dread: "damn, what did I do now?"

If a person is only told his faults, he has to learn twice; once to unlearn the wrong thing and once to learn the right way.

As a coach, leader, or manager, it's constructive, and productive, to have a positive association with your people. Imagine if every time I saw this manager I thought to myself, "wow, I wonder what I did right?!"

Brown's Professor Barrett Hazeltine practiced this with passion. If someone shared something insightful in class, he'd race across the auditorium and shake the student's hand, stating: "that's really good", or "wow, you're really smart", in a caring and sincere manner. The student beamed.

In my professional career, associate Joe McCarthy was adept at telling people the specific, wonderful, pieces of their work or contributions. People spent hours with Joe.

In both cases, their offices looked liked deli stands, where students and associates lined up, waiting for insights and, I suspect, an opportunity to be praised. I don't think I ever saw anyone waiting eagerly to meet with my old manager.

If the right behavior is recognized and rewarded, it's likely to be repeated.

So, instead of finding fault, catch people doing something right. It will reinforce the desired behavior, and it will make the receiver's day. It's most impacting when the feedback is specific, timely, and reinforces a core value or goal.

It's easier to attract flies with honey. Have Fun!