Friday, January 7, 2011

Here We Go Again

My classes begin anew on Monday and, although I have done this now for 40 years, there is still a real sense of nervous anticipation. One of the great (and maybe scary) aspects about college teaching is that no matter how good or bad one semester is, you have to start all over again with each new class. Whether I was the greatest teacher in the world in the fall or the very worst, that has nothing to do with the young people who will walk into my classroom on Monday at 9:00 a.m. I cannot rest of my laurels. But, I am also not held back by the mistakes I have made. On Monday, everything starts over. It is a brand new semester.

Where do I want to focus my attention on Monday?

Last summer, our school hired a new dean. About two months into the fall semester, she asked to attend one of my classes. We picked a day and time and she showed up and sat in the back. It was an introductory class full of sophomores.

I was lucky. The students that day were great. They had prepared themselves for the discussion and immediately got into the give and take of a Socratic Method class. I barely did anything that day as they debated and argued about the wisdom and rationale for various accounting standards. I posed a question or two and then directed traffic as they hashed out the particulars.

At the end of the class, the Dean was extremely kind as she commented: “Wow, that was impressive. How did you manage to do that?”

My response was just the first thing that popped into my head: “I have spent every minute in this class for the past two months training these students in how to learn and how to think about this stuff. You are just seeing the result of that training.”

Here is my Day One advice to every teacher who reads this blog: Train your students to do what you want them to do. I want my students to prepare, analyze, debate, and be able to justify their decisions. On Day One, I start training them to do these things. Trust me, students do not do these things naturally. If it is going to happen, you have to train them. They have been well trained before they get to you to take notes and memorize.

This goes back to one of my fundamental questions about education. Are we (a) teaching subject matter or are we (b) teaching students how to learn and think, with our subjects serving as a focal point for that process? My goal, at least for the last decade, has been to train my students (to prepare, analyze, debate, and be able to justify their decisions) so that—by the last day of class in April—they are capable of studying an entirely new issue on their own (something they have never seen before) and then coming up with a viable and reasonable resolution on their own.

Consequently, when I think about Monday’s class, I am not particularly concerned about beginning to teach the students my subject matter. We’ve got a long time for that. However, I am very concerned about training them to learn how to learn, training them to do what I believe will help them to understand why this material is important, how it works, and why it works in a particular way.

Will it work on Monday? Who knows. Every semester is new. More importantly, training students is an incremental process that takes patience. If we can make a small first step or two on Monday, then I’ll be pleased.
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One other quick comment. Last night, we ordered some Chinese dinners that I brought home from a wonderful little restaurant in a place called Bon Air, Virginia. My fortune cookie fortune was “People will live up to your expectations of them.” What a wonderful fortune for a teacher to get right before the start of a new semester.

I have great faith in my students. When I walk in on Monday, I will fully believe that those faces starring at me are going to be the greatest students that I’ve ever had. I expect, by the last day of class in late April, that they will have learned an incredible amount about financial accounting. When it comes to education, I am just a complete optimist. Oh, I realize that we won’t leap tall buildings every day but I do think those students are going to be just wonderful and that together we are going to create a dynamic and engaging learning experience. We will accomplish much and actually enjoy the process. (And I get paid for having so much fun.)

People will live up to your expectations of them.

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