Friday, June 17, 2011

Summer Time – Time to File Away Those Names?

I have mentioned several times on this blog that I would strongly urge anyone who wants to become a better teacher to keep a blog. There are always two reasons for that piece of advice.

First, I just feel that working out your thoughts on paper is very helpful in establishing what you really think and believe. Until I see it on paper, I’m never sure how I feel. Thus, I was delighted to read the following in Time magazine last week from the renowned historian David McCullough. “The loss of people writing—writing a composition, a letter or a report—is not just the loss for the record. It’s the loss of the process of working your thoughts out on paper, of having an idea that you would never had had if you weren’t (writing). And that’s a handicap People (I research) were writing letters every day. That was calisthenics for the brain.”

Second, keeping a blog gives you a chance to share your ideas with folks around the world. The Internet is a marvel in that way. I can sit here in Richmond, Virginia, and have a slight impact on education in dozens of countries. School is out for the summer in many places but, last month, this blog had nearly 1,300 page views. What struck me as most interesting was that the top 10 countries for accessing the site were: United States, Malaysia, United Kingdom, Spain, India, Israel, Iran, Ukraine, Canada, and Australia. As a wonderful example, there was an average of approximately one view per day for that entire month from the country of Iran. I am so appreciative of everyone who reads my thoughts here.

You probably have as much to say about teaching as I do, if not more. People cannot benefit from your ideas if they have no way to read them. Go blog.

I have just finished my 40th year as a college professor. From the first day I walked into a classroom, I have always wanted to be more than a teacher. What I tell people is that I want to be a mentor to my students. I think that type of relationship with students was prevalent decades ago but has become less and less the norm in recent times. Yes, I do know that a lot of professors work closely with their brightest students but I have always felt that 100 percent of the students could benefit from having a mentor.

What is a mentor? I looked up “teacher” in an online dictionary and got “one who imparts knowledge.” Sounds cold and mechanical, doesn’t it? I envision a person standing in a large lecture hall explaining to 400 sleepy students how to split an atom as each one writes down exactly the same words in exactly the same order.

The word “mentor,” though is defined as an “experienced advisor and supporter.” I don’t have any interest in being a friend to my students but I do hope to be an advisor and supporter. I want to be a mentor.

Okay, how do you go about giving advice and support? Well, here is one way. I had 62 students in the spring semester. We worked hard. Hopefully, they learned a lot. Obviously, I tried to show them that I wanted them to learn accounting. And, I tried to help them learn as much about accounting. But, I also worked to let them know that I wanted more for them than just a knowledge of accounting. College (I believe) should be more than the imparting of content.

Usually, after each semester is over, it is easy to file away the members of a class into your memory bank and assume they are no longer your responsibility. I think that is more of a teacher attitude rather than a mentor attitude. After the last day of class, I write one final email to say “If I can ever be of assistance, please let me know.”

But, I don’t want to leave it at that. So, last week, I sent the following email to each of those 62 students. I won’t have any of them in class again but I wanted to continue to influence them a little bit. Interestingly, a number of them wrote back to chat about books they were reading and recommend movies that I should see. I think that’s why I decided to become a college professor.

To: Students from the Spring Semester

Hope your summer is off to a great start. As with the rest of the world, it has been terribly hot here in Richmond but we all hang out with the air conditioning and manage to survive.

Now that your summer vacation is about 1/3 over, I wanted to take a moment to urge you to do stuff over the summer that will make you smarter. You are at a stage in your life when your mind is fast developing so make the most of that. You ought to make it a goal to come back to school in the fall smarter than when you left in as many ways as you can. You are forming a foundation for the rest of your life. Build that foundation well.

Go to museums, go to plays, go to art galleries, take in an opera. You never know when you’ll discover something unexpectedly wonderful.

And, think about business. I’m always interested that students want to go into the wars of business and high finance (and those really can be wars) but aren’t inclined to do any real work to get ready for the battle. Here’s a story I read today about Warren Buffett and his education.

“Buffett was very interested in learning about business and its workings. In his graduate years, he studied under Benjamin Graham who is considered the father of Value Investing. Under Benjamin Graham’s training Warren Buffett learned value investing. It is said that Benjamin Graham was so perfect in value investing that he never used to give A grades to his students as he was never satisfied with their answers. But when Buffett joined him as a student, he was forced to give him A grades again and again. Buffett learned to master the art of reading and analyzing financial statements of companies. He could analyze Balance Sheets and Income Statements faster than anybody else in his college. One day somebody asked Buffett about the secret of his success. He said ‘when everybody was else was reading Playboy, I was reading the balance sheets of companies.’ Even today his major time is invested in reading financial statements of companies around the world.”

So, read a lot. Read the Wall Street Journal every day and just marvel at what goes on in the world of business and high finance. But, don’t just stick to newspapers. There are lots of things to be learned out there in the real world. I am currently reading “The White Lioness,” a mystery that is set in South Africa and Sweden (and unlikely duo) and also reading “Too Big To Fail,” and I suppose everyone knows what that is about. Good stuff—expands the brain cells.

Lastly, I went to a great movie yesterday. It was sadly brutal at times but the movie was just crafted brilliantly. Marvelous. I would highly recommend it. It was called “Incendies” and it was in French with English subtitles.

Okay, you are out of my class and you can obviously ignore me. I will just repeat what I have probably told you before: the more you learn, the more the world opens up to you. And, that’s where you start creating a life for yourself that can make a difference.

Enjoy the rest of your summer and don’t get too baked out.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

What Do We Accomplish?

A few years ago a dear friend of mine died at the age of 95. When he was a young man, he worked in the Massachusetts area in construction. He once told me that on many days they would finish their work and step back and someone would speak out in pride “Look at what we accomplished today.”

That has to be a great feeling. You put in a hard and full day of work and at the end of the day you see that you have created something tangible from your labors, something you can be proud of right then. The world is different because of what you did.

I have always thought that was one of the most difficult parts of being a teacher. At the end of the day, it is hard to see what (if anything) we have accomplished.

Oh, sure, we all know that we are changing lives. We all know that we are making a difference. Is that enough to keep us moving forward? At the end of the day, whether we did a great job or a lousy one, things look about the same.

If you are a baker, at the end of the day you can point to the lovely wedding cake you created. If you are a carpenter, you can hold up a table or chair and say “I made this myself.”

But, at the end of a day, your students walk out of the room looking exactly like they did when they first walked in (maybe a little sleepier).

I think this is one of the reasons that teachers sometimes become mediocre. The results seem the same regardless of their efforts. They don’t get the positive reinforcement for their work that comes from seeing a tangible output. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that I believe this has had negative consequences for the U. S. as it has morphed from a manufacturing economy to a service economy.

I was reminded of this last Friday evening when I went to a reception held at our school in connection with the 2011 Reunion. I had the pleasure of talking with former students from 1986, 1991, 1996, 2001, and 2006. Sure, we reminisced about “the good old days” when they were college students. But, more importantly, they told me all about their lives since graduation – the careers they have fashioned, the jobs they have worked, the graduate programs they have attended. For me, it was a moment to see the tangible evidence of my work as a teacher. My influence on most of them had been slight. In jest, I usually take credit for everything they accomplish. But, in truth, I’m just happy to have been any influence at all. They have fashioned wonderful adult lives and they have gone out and made their own difference in the world. I’m pleased that I was able to give them a push while they were in college.

I left the reunion just so proud to be a teacher.

So, if you have been feeling down about your role as a teacher, perhaps you need to find out when the next reunion is slated and plan to attend. Mixing with some of the students whom you have worked with over the years might just be the reminder of what you are accomplishing that you really need to keep energized.

I once compared teaching to playing the role of Johnny Appleseed. You plant seeds and hope that 5, 10, or 20 years down the road those seeds will bear fruit. Maybe it is time to go to a reunion and see what those seeds you helped plant have managed to accomplish.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Man Bites Dog and Couple "Forecloses" on Bank

Here's a classic role reversal story - a couple foreclosed on a bank! It started about five months ago when Bank of America attempted to foreclose on a Florida couple for non-payment of their mortgage.

The problem was, they'd paid cash for the house. So they went to court, and eventually won (they showed that they'd never had a mortgage with BOA).

The judge awarded them legal fees, but after five months, BOA somehow never got around to paying the judgement.

So, the couple's attorney got the sheriff, seized their assets and padlocked the bank branch building. The attorney gave instructions to remove assets like computers, desks, copiers, and any cash in the tellers' drawers. After about an hour of being locked out of the bank, the bank manager handed the attorney a check for the legal fees.

Talk about turnaround.

Read the article here.

update: It wasn't technically a "foreclosure" on the bank - it was actually a default judgment for unpaid legal fees and court costs. But close enough for the irony.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

How Much IS A College Degree Worth?

Here's an interesting chart from Lifehacker. It shows the median salaries (along with the 25th and 75th percentiles for various majors. It's taken from a report created by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce called "What’s it Worth? The Economic Value of College Majors"

Here's an interesting part from the press release Georgetown put out:
The top 10 majors with the highest median earnings are:
Petroleum Engineer ($120,000); Pharmacy/pharmaceutical Sciences and Administration ($105,000); Mathematics and Computer Sciences ($98,000); Aerospace Engineering ($87,000); Chemical Engineering ($86,000); Electrical Engineering ($85,000); Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering ($82,000); Mechanical Engineering, Metallurgical Engineering and Mining and Mineral Engineering (each with median earnings of $80,000).

The 10 majors with the lowest median earnings are:
Counseling/Psychology ($29,000); Early Childhood Education ($36,000); Theology and Religious Vocations ($38,000); Human Services and Community Organizations ($38,000); Social Work ($39,000); Drama and Theater Arts, Studio Arts, Communication Disorders Sciences and Services, Visual and Performing Arts, and Health and Medical Preparatory Programs (each at $40,000).
This isn;t surprising - with the exception of Pharmacy (which is also pretty rigorous and exacting), they're all fields that require a lot of math. To quote classic Barbie, "Math is Hard!". So there's a smaller supply of grads (and there's a pretty good demand for these grads, too).