Moving from Good to Great

I spent a semester at another university and was asked to do a special seminar on teaching for the faculty. After the second session, I asked the participants in my faculty workshop to record an insight that would be of high value to their peers.  I indicated that I would compile their insights and feed them back to the class.

On the list were many potent observations.  There was one that I found myself continually rereading.  The participant was sharing a surprising conclusion that dawned on him after two sessions: “This course is not going to provide any ‘how to’ or practical examples on how to improve my teaching.  The course is rather going to ask me to come up with my own ideas and reflect on my own assumptions.”

The statement was accurate.  I was not going to give them any fish to eat.  Instead I was in the business of teaching them how to fish.  I wanted them to discover the answer to these questions: Who am I? What do I really want?   What assumptions are keeping me from becoming who I really want to be?

Shortly after reading the statement, I had a phone meeting with a speaker who was going to come to our campus-wide teaching symposium at the end of the month.  He was summarizing some research he did on effective teachers.  Based on his research, he told me that he now tells teachers that there are three questions that the students are implicitly asking at the start of any course:

  • Who are you (the teacher) and what are you passionate about?
  • How are you going to relate to me?
  • Why should I care about and invest in your course?

An hour later I had a meeting with another one of the participants from my class.  He was a wonderful and curious soul who wanted to improve.  Yet he began by telling me: “I am an accountant.  I think like an accountant.  My job is to teach debits and credits.  That is it.  All this transformational stuff does not apply to me.”

I asked questions and listened until he was done.  Then I told him that at Michigan most of our buildings are named after donors.  Yet we had one building that was named after a teacher.  The man was a teacher of accounting.  I asked, “If all teachers of accounting teach accounting in the same way, how does one teacher of accounting have so much impact on his students that they name a building after him?”

This question captured my friend’s attention.  We then took each of the three questions from my previous phone call as guideline and I asked a lot of specific questions about how he might design not a good, but a great accounting class.

We had a delightful hour.  In that short time he had clarified what he really wanted, challenged his own assumptions, and created a vision he now desired to pursue.  As he walked away I thought of the thousands of students he will teach and how we just altered their lives.  I think many of the students who take accounting from him will end up knowing what they really want. They will be able to challenge their own assumptions, and commit to become who they really want to be.

I also believe that the three questions students want answered at the beginning of every semester are the same three questions that people want answered at the beginning of every corporate meeting. Ultimately, this passage is not about teaching it is about leadership. If we ask how we can design a great meeting instead of a good meeting, give a great presentation instead of a good presentation, and so on, we will lead others where they really want to go

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