If I Challenge You to Become a Better Teacher in 2013-2014, What Is Your First Response?


As some of you might know, besides being a college professor, I am a cofounder and president of CPAreviewforFREE.com.   In that role, I send out email lessons to about 20,000 past and future CPA candidates two or three times each month.   These lessons talk about how to pass the CPA Exam and, hopefully, encourage and assist those candidates in achieving their goal.   I’ve actually written these motivational email lessons now (off and on) for nearly 20 years.  

The following blog entry is adapted from a recent one of those lessons.   Obviously, I’ve changed the goal from “pass the CPA Exam” to “become a better teacher” but I believe that this basic message applies to teachers just as much as it does to CPA Exam candidates.   Success is success whenever you face a genuine challenge.

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Two to four times each year, over the past 10-12 years, I have given presentations around the country on teaching.   I am always amazed by how many capable teachers show up to these sessions and immediately start telling me why they cannot improve their teaching.   Were it not so sad, it would be funny.   Over the years, I have started diagnosing this as the “I can’t do this because” disease.  

--I can’t do this because the students are lazy.
--I can’t do this because I have to focus on my research.
--I can’t do this because I have too many students.  
--I can’t do this because I am paid so poorly.  
--I can’t do this because my dean will not give me the resources that I need.
--I can’t do this because I have always gotten bad evaluations in the past.
--I can’t do this because it is not important for tenure and promotion.
--I can't do this because no else around here wants to teach well.
--I can’t do this because my students have no interest in learning.  

With all these self-imposed barriers, I often wonder how anyone ever manages to become a better teacher.   But people do improve and even become great teachers.   If you want to be one of those folks who really does improve,  it can be done.   Yes, it can!!!   It might not be easy but it can be done.   The excuses might slow you down but you can still get better.

When teachers tell me why they cannot improve, my response is always “well, don’t place too many stumbling blocks in your path.   Let’s start by looking at several places where small amounts of improvement can be made.”   Teaching in college is tough enough without you telling yourself you are going to fail.  

So, let’s practice.   Let's check your attitude.   If I were to get in your face and challenge you to become a better teacher in 2013-2014, what is your first response – would you start giving me reasons why that can’t happen or would you start thinking about changes you might make in order to become a better teacher?

I have long pondered the need of teachers to establish excuses.   For many, it is very much like a chanted mantra:   “I cannot become a better teacher because….”  This tendency seems almost universal.   A lot of humans just think in that negative way.   Every time we start a new challenge in life, especially if it pushes us outside of our comfort zone, we seem to lack faith in ourselves.    I suppose setting low expectations makes failure easier to face.  We make excuses as a way to soften the possible blow to our egos if we do fail. 

However, setting low expectations makes success so much more difficult to attain.   A negative attitude works against you.   It is hard to have the confidence to do the hard work necessary for success if you have already explained to everyone (including yourself) the many reasons you are going to fail.   Who wants to work hard if you don’t believe you can succeed?     People (teachers as well as students) live up to their own high expectations but, just as importantly, they also live down to their own low expectations.  

Attitude is vitally important in achieving success.   People rarely succeed without a “can do” attitude.   No one wants you to walk around and brag about how well you are going to do.   But, a certain degree of “I can do this” is necessary if you are going to take on tough challenges and succeed.

Let me give you an example.    My wife has long wanted to take a pottery class.   I have always resisted because I was convinced that I could never learn how to take a lump of clay and put it on a wheel and turn it into a pot or bowl or vase that could be glazed and fired.   I always assumed that I would produce a wreck and the teacher would look at me and just shake her head in frustration.   I didn’t want to try because I was afraid that I would be embarrassed by failure.   I was afraid of looking stupid.   So, I created all kinds of excuses.   When pottery was mentioned, I found myself starting every sentence with “I can’t do this because.” 

Finally, as I have written before on this blog, we decided to take a six-week pottery class this summer after I ran out of excuses.   I figured that I would produce awful stuff but I’d get it over with.  

And, of course, you can guess what happened.   The teacher was very patient and showed me exactly how to start, how to get the clay centered, how to mold it, how to shape and trim it.   When I did something wrong, she would show me how to learn from my mistake and do better the next time.   It was a wonderful learning experience.

I enjoyed every second.  And, almost immediately, “I can’t do this because” was replaced by “with some help, I can make this happen.”   Becoming a better teacher is much the same.   Quit the excuses and give it a try.

The key was that I stopped putting roadblocks in my path.   I stopped defeating myself.   I let the teacher help me make gradual progress.   And, eventually, I could make some pottery.

After 6 weeks, my wife and I had produced over 30 pieces.   If you want to see them, you can go to the following website and see a few photos that we took:  

http://www.cpareviewforfree.com/resources.cfm?name=article&article_id=83

What is the point of this story about pottery?   When it comes to teaching, stop doubting yourself and start thinking about improvement.   You have to rid yourself of “I can’t do this because” or you will never get one bit better.   Instead, get to work and get better.      

I recently read a book titled “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed.   It was a relatively long book and quite interesting.   But one line near the start of the book really caught my attention.   I immediately jumped up and ran to find a pen so that I could write down those few words.

Ms. Strayed was 26 and had lived a tough life.   Her mother died when Ms. Strayed was in college and she had a lot of trouble getting over it.   She had married and divorced and experimented with some dangerous drugs.

In hopes of getting her life straightened out, she decided to walk 1,100 miles of the very challenging Pacific Crest Trail by herself with little training or experience.   In the book, about the time she gets ready to start this grand adventure, she gets scared and almost backs out.   It is there that she includes the line that I appreciated so much:  
 
“Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves.”

 A line well worth remembering.

If you tell yourself that you cannot become a better teacher, you will become afraid and will not even try.   You are letting your own story defeat you.

If you tell yourself that you are going to keep pushing forward and learning from your mistakes, your chances of improving go up immediately.   Don’t let your excuses hold you back.  

When you look at becoming a better teacher, what story are you telling yourself?   In many ways, that question is the entire point of this blog entry.   What story are you telling yourself?

--The students don’t care so why should I waste my time as the teacher
Or
--If I improve, I’ll have a positive impact on more of my students

--I need to shut my door and work on my research; the students keep me from doing the work that is really important.
Or
--If I improve, I can change my students for the better and there is simply not a much better way to live a life.

--I have always gotten bad student evaluations; that is never going to change no matter what I do.
Or
--I cannot become great overnight but I can make small improvements and if I keep working and have patience, I can become a good (maybe outstanding) teacher.  

 Before the fall semester begins, ask yourself: “What stories am I telling myself about my teaching?”   Am I telling myself stories that are going to make me afraid and hold me back from getting better?   Am I convincing myself that I am weak and flawed?   Or, am I telling myself stories that will provide me with the courage, energy, and enthusiasm that I need to improve?   Am I convincing myself that I am strong and able?

There are no guarantees in life.   But that doesn’t mean that you have to view yourself as chained to failure.  Everyone can teach better; I guarantee it.   Tell yourself stories of courage and determination and, quite possibly, like Cheryl Strayed, you’ll succeed at a very difficult task and become a better teacher.

It is easy to have weak stories in your head.   But your chances for improvement go up dramatically if you can replace them with strong positive stories.

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