Category Archives: Teaching

Guess What? I’m GOOD at Something!

If you’re good at something and you know it, is it tacky to acknowledge it?

I’m not suggesting that you display a lack of humility or brag about your abilities. That is clearly rude.

But if you have struggled with self-esteem issues most of your life-if you have honestly felt like you weren’t good at anything-and then evidence begins to mount that suggests that you ARE talented in a certain area, is it okay to accept it? Is it okay to step out of the shadows and say, “Hey, I’m good at something!”?

I think it is…

I have faced this struggle for many years.

As a kid, I was frequently picked on and beat up by the neighborhood bullies, no matter where I lived. It seemed like whenever we moved to a new place, the bully radar would go off, and they would come flocking to my front porch.

When you consider that I went to six different schools between kindergarten and my senior year of high school, there were a lot of bullies who took their turns beating me up. As a result, I always suffered from low self-esteem…

And I never believed that I was good at anything.

This belief persisted throughout my youth and early adulthood, and well into my career as an educator. For the first several years of my career, I was a high school teacher in Gary, Indiana. My students all liked me well enough, but I never thought my teaching ability was anything special.

Then I started teaching at a university…what a world of difference that made.

Faculty members at universities are required to focus on three things: research, service to the university, and teaching. It is the utmost desire (read: requirement) of the university administration that each faculty member be very good to excellent in at least two of these three areas. Since I am not a researcher, I have focused on service and teaching.

Since we are “encouraged” to be very good to excellent in these areas, there are a number of metrics that are used to measure our progress toward these goals. We are evaluated every semester by our students, we are required to submit an annual report to the administration that details all of our service, teaching, and research activities for the past calendar year…

And there are awards…

In 2001, one of my students nominated me for the top university teaching award. I decided not to apply. I didn’t think that I could win. Awards were for the really great teachers…

A dear friend, Dr. Robin Hass, encouraged me to apply. She had won the award previously and was the chair for the teaching committee. She told me that she had heard good things about my teaching. Robin was an exceptional teacher for whom I had an enormous amount of respect. I applied, more out of respect for Robin than because I thought I could win.

I won.

I’ll never forget the day that I ran into Robin in the stairwell and she told me that I had won the “Founder’s Day Teaching Award.” I was stunned…I honestly thought that I had no chance to win. And I thought that it was probably a fluke.

But I was grateful.

A year later, I won another teaching award, and a couple of years after that, another. Other faculty members started asking ME if I could observe their classes and write a teaching recommendation letter…even some of the Ph. D.’s! And as I looked at the people who were asking me to write letters for them, I realized that they were people for whom I had a great deal of respect…because they were excellent teachers.

And now, these people that I believed were excellent teachers were asking ME to write THEM letters of recommendation as they applied for other teaching awards, as well as promotion and tenure. Now, I may not be the brightest bulb in the box, but even I could see that there was a connection here: good teachers don’t ask bad teachers to critique their teaching.

So I’m a good teacher…I accept it. And I am grateful for the abilities that God has given me.

And now I seek to serve others through teaching whenever I have the opportunity.

What about you? Do you have a skill, a talent, or a gift that you have never fully shared because you just didn’t think you were really good enough? Are you hiding your abilities from those you might really be able to help because of fear or insecurity?

Keeping our talents to ourselves is selfish…the greatest act of generosity is to give freely, expect nothing in return, and celebrate with the recipient when our gifts are received.

So will you be selfish? Or will you be generous?

Choose. Now.


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Redefining Myself


I have A.D.D.…It’s self-diagnosed, but I’m pretty sure I have it (My wife will tell you that I am a hypochondriac, but that’s a topic for another blog).

I can’t focus on anything for more than 4 or 5 minutes before my mind is racing off in another direction. It makes blogging extremely difficult. And, as badly as I want to write a book, I don’t know if I will ever be able to stay focused long enough to do so.

That’s a cop-out, and I know it. But it’s MY cop-out, and I’ll thank you not to judge me for it.

We all cop out on something. Either we lack confidence, or we lack encouragement, or we lack self-discipline, or we lack focus…

I have been using my (self-diagnosed) A.D.D to define myself, to give myself an excuse for not pursuing my passion to write. I start an article or blog post, but I run into a wall, so I give up. I want to be a writer, but I feel like I can’t get the words out that I want to say. I want to encourage people, and I have general ideas for how I want to help others, but when it comes to putting the words into print, I struggle.

I hate that.

I want to tell stories that offer hope. I want to share words that strengthen and encourage. I want to inspire others…to motivate people. I see a future that I love. I want to help others who do not love where they are…those who want to chase after their dreams, but are afraid to do so. So what am I afraid of?

I am afraid to fail. I am afraid to try something and not have it go well. Why is that?

I have become used to accepting failure as an identifier of who I am, instead of what I am doing. But the reality is that if I am not failing at something, it’s because I am not pursuing new adventures…I am not trying new things. I am sticking with the same old routine that got me where I am today-teaching math to people who don’t want to learn it, while gazing out the window, and feeling as if life is passing me by. Life doesn’t have to be that way.


We need to redefine failure in our society. Failure does not define who we are…it doesn’t even define what we did. Failure is a stepping stone on the road to success.

Thomas Edison tried over 10,000 models for the light bulb before he found the one that changed our world. He did not look at the first 9,999 attempts as failures. He considered that he had found 9,999 ways NOT to make the light bulb! And then he found the one way that worked. His success was made possible by the multiple failures he experienced along the way.

My blog is relatively new. I have written about 50 posts. And in every one of them, I can find something that I would change if I were to rewrite it. But each of them has been a learning experience. There are some that I didn’t want to publish. But I knew that I would be shrinking back from my passion if I did not put them out there to be read…to be critiqued…to be criticized.


Jeff Goins says that you are a writer when you decide to call yourself one…when you start believing it yourself. That’s hard for me. I have always identified myself as a math teacher. But I don’t love to teach math…I just love to TEACH. So I should call myself a teacher.

I also love to write. So I should call myself a writer. The beauty of being a writer is that even if no one reads it, I still wrote it. It’s not the same for a teacher.

To be a teacher, I have to have a student, a learner who is processing the knowledge. It’s like the age old question, “If a tree falls in the woods and no one hears it, does it make a noise?” If I teach something and there is no one to learn, have I really taught?

That’s not the case for a writer. I can write an epic novel, a short story, or just a sentence…

And even if no one else reads it…

I still wrote it.

I like that.

So I’m going to call myself a writer.

I’m even going to change my profile on Facebook to make it official…I am a writer.

And even if no one reads what I write…guess what?

I’m still a writer.


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No Longer the Class Clown…

In high school, I was rarely taken seriously by my teachers…

Come to think of it, many people don’t take me seriously NOW…

At least when I first say something.

I’m known to be a bit of a comedian. In high school, I was a class clown.

And I didn’t really mind…because I liked to laugh and have fun…

I still do.

There was one teacher on whom I had to work really hard for her to take me seriously.

Her name was Alice Lauterbur. We not-so-kindly referred to her as “Mad Alice” and she was my Composition and Grammar teacher.

Unfortunately, Miss Lauterbur was the butt of jokes and pranks by many students throughout her teaching career. By the time she was my teacher, she was probably in her late 60’s, and she had been teaching English since before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (I had classmates whose PARENTS had taken Mad Alice for English when they were in high school).

Miss Lauterbur required all of her “Comp and Grammar” students to write a term paper about a famous person. She called it “Aspirations Under Glass” (which makes NO sense…I mean, I get the “Aspirations” part…but “Under Glass?” What the heck is THAT?!?!?)

Anyway, there were a few specific guidelines for this term paper. First of all, we had to have 3-5 different reference sources. Then we had to document each reference quote on a 3×5 card and keep all of them in some specific order in a little brown accordion portfolio holder thingy (I think that was the technical name for it). And finally, we could not write about anyone that any of her previous students had ever written on…

I’m not kidding. Miss Lauterbur gave us a 3-page list of names of people that we could not write on…living, dead, or anywhere in between…if a student had written about someone 40 years prior, we were not allowed to write about the same person.

This led to a lot of grumbling among my friends…

But not me.

I knew exactly who I wanted to write about.

This was 1981. I was a huge baseball fan…and one of the hottest rookies in recent memory had just broken into the major leagues in a big way.

His name was Fernando Valenzuela. He was a left-handed pitcher for the Dodgers. He was from a poor upbringing in Mexico, he couldn’t speak English, and he was the hottest thing going in baseball.

Miss Lauterbur told me I could not write about him. She said that my writing skills were too good to be wasted on (insert disdainful tone here) “a baseball player”.

I begged…I pleaded…I nagged…I promised Miss Lauterbur that I would write a great paper that she would be proud of. Eventually, she relented…I think it was because she didn’t think I would take the project seriously if she forced me to write about someone else.

She was right.

I didn’t take much seriously in high school…

But I took that paper seriously.

I wish I still had that paper to look back on…

But I don’t.

I didn’t lose it…Miss Lauterbur didn’t give it back to me.

Or, to be more accurate, she didn’t let me keep it after she handed it back. I got to look at it. I got to read her comments, written in spidery red ink. But she didn’t let me keep it.

She asked me if SHE could keep it so that she could make copies of it to show generations of future students how to write a really excellent term paper.

I was shocked…

I don’t know how many “generations of future students” were left in her teaching career…

But I was pleased to let her keep it.

I received more than an A+ on that paper.

I received confidence…confidence that I could be taken seriously if I gave my best effort to something.

You see, being the class clown can be a great way to hide from expectations-not only from others but also from yourself. And that’s what I had been doing for years…expecting very little of myself and achieving exactly that…very little.

I saw Miss Lauterbur recently. She is in her 90’s now. She volunteers at a local hospital as a front desk attendant. And she remembered me…30 years after she was my teacher.

It was fun to chat with her for a few moments.

But it was also great to be reminded of a time when I learned that I could make an impact with words.

I don’t know how many people read that term paper…

But I hope that someone else found the writing to be inspiring.

Because I know that I did…


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I Said No!

I said no to someone today…

And I feel pretty good…

I’m not good at saying no. So this was kind of a big deal for me.

I said no to a request for a letter of peer review. This means that I observe another faculty member’s classroom, taking note of their teaching style, their interactions with students, and the educational environment that they create (or don’t create) within their classroom, and then I write a fairly detailed letter (presumably supporting their quest for promotion, tenure, or whatever goal they are seeking to achieve). It’s a show of respect to be asked to write one of these.

I said no.

This wasn’t as easy as it might sound. The request came from the dean of their school. This was not a small request.

So saying no was not a small deal.

But I did.

The reason is not because I think the other faculty member is not a good teacher. To be honest, I have never seen him teach. We have met a few times at university functions, and I know that he is committed to excellence in teaching, based on his regular attendance at teaching conferences.

I said no because I read the comments left for me in my recent blog “Are You a People Pleaser?”

I examined my priorities…I reflected on the things I was already committed to. I looked at the time requirements necessary to complete this task within the time parameters necessary. And I thought about the reasons why I would WANT to do the observation.

There was only one reason why I wanted to do it.

Because I didn’t want to let down the dean…

The dean of the other school…

The dean whom I have never met…

Now I have written plenty of letters for plenty of people. And I won’t necessarily say no if this dean asks me again in the future for help with something like this.

But I did today.

I had to…

The teaching schedule was not at a time that was convenient for me…

The service commitments I have already made are far too time-consuming to add another commitment right now…

And that means I would have to dig further into my personal time to do the job effectively.

I said no.

I drew the line at my personal time.

And I feel good about it.

I cordially thanked the dean for the request. I respectfully declined, stating the reasons why I was unable to perform the task, and I recommended another person on campus that I respect and who I believe would do an excellent job.

I handled this politely, professionally, and collegially…

And I managed my personal time effectively.

So why do I still feel guilty?



Membership Has Its Privileges

Many years ago, an ad campaign for American Express used the familiar tag line, “Membership has its privileges.”

The longer I teach in higher education, the more I have come to sense that new college students believe that enrolling in one of my classes grants a “membership” to some sort of club…

And they expect to receive their privileges.

These expected privileges seem to go beyond my personal goal of giving my students the best teaching that I possibly can. It goes beyond my efforts to return assignments to them in a timely manner, provide frequent and reasonable office hours, and respond to their emails and phone calls, even on the weekend. It goes beyond providing them with a detailed syllabus, a clear set of stated course objectives, and a commitment to work diligently with them to help them attain whatever level of success to which they aspire.

It has become increasingly evident to me that “membership” in my class also includes the right to determine their own personal exam schedule…and the schedule for taking an exam is whenever they feel like it.

Today is a microcosmic case in point. This is “finals week”…and a student (let’s call him Carl) came to my office at 11:00 am, 2 hours prior to his scheduled final exam.

“Hey” (Carl ALWAYS calls me “Hey,” even in the misspelled emails that he sends me). “Can I take my exam early? I have a doctor’s appointment at 12:00.” Carl looked at me expectantly.

Now, Carl has been absent from my class frequently throughout the semester, and he always leaves before the class is done. I never said anything about it, as he is an adult, and he is free to make his own decisions regarding class attendance. So you can imagine his reaction when I told him no.

He looked incredulous…

“But I have to go to the doctor,” he sputtered.

I told him that he should have known better than to make a doctor’s appointment during finals week, especially so close to one of his scheduled classes.

“I made this appointment over two weeks ago,” he replied, quite indignantly.

“Carl, I gave you the date for this final over four months ago,” I said. “It’s clearly stated on the syllabus I gave you on the first day of class. The exam is scheduled from 1:00-3:00 today. If you choose to go to the doctor and you are late to class, you will have until 3:00 to finish the exam, even if you don’t show up until 2:45.”

Carl turned and stormed out of my office, muttering angrily as he went. The fact that I am getting older and my hearing is not as sharp as it once was probably saved Carl from a world of difficulty.

I arrived at the classroom at about 12:45. Several students, including Carl, we’re waiting. Carl came in, hurriedly took his exam, earned his 59%, and rushed out in less than 20 minutes.

I’m sure that I haven’t seen the last of Carl…

I expect to see him shortly after grades are posted…

I’m sure that he will say he had to rush through his exam in order to make it to his doctor’s appointment…

Or that he couldn’t concentrate because he was thinking about how mad his doctor was that he canceled at the last minute…

I expect that he will want to receive an incomplete, or a chance to re-take the final exam, or some form of extra credit, or anything that will help him get his grade up to passing.

And he will expect me to give him what he asks for…because, after all…

Membership has its privileges…


Posted by on December 15, 2011 in Society, Teaching, Uncategorized


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Cheaters Never Prosper…Do They?

I caught some cheaters this week…

Of, course, they don’t think that they were cheating…which makes this story all the more frustrating.

But I’m getting ahead of myself….

I have this class…there are about 40 students. It’s a math class for majors…and I gave them a take home test last week.

That was my first mistake.

When I gave them the test, I told them that they were honor-bound to work only on their own tests…that they were not to receive any outside assistance.

That was my second mistake.

When I got the tests back, I began to grade them…

That was my third mistake.

You can see where this is going, can’t you? This entire scenario is fraught with mistakes. There is plenty of blame to be placed here.

And it’s all on me.

Just ask my students…they’ll tell you that they weren’t cheating. They’ll tell you that my instructions were not clear, that I did not define for them what constituted cheating, and so the assistance that they offered each other was not cheating.

This was not one or two students…

This was six…

And those are only the ones for whom I was confident enough in the evidence to confront them. I had at least 4 other students that appeared to copy off of one another, but the comparisons were not quite strong enough to make a case in front of the Vice-Chancellor of Student Affairs…

Which is something I did not want to do.

I offered these six students a reasonably painless (for them) way out. Since I was dropping their lowest test score anyway, I would just give them a zero for this test, drop THIS score and calculate their grades based on the four previous tests. We would not speak of this again, they would learn a lesson, and we would move on. I told them that if they did not wish to choose this option, they were free to file an appeal, at which point, we would have a hearing with the dean of their department and the Vice-Chancellor.

None of them wanted that.

All of them admitted that they had worked together in pairs on the test.

None of them admitted that they were cheating.

In fact, all of them seemed bewildered that I was accusing them of cheating.

They didn’t think that helping each other on a take home test was cheating…

Or wrong…

One of the students was actually so indignant that she demanded a hearing in front of the dean and the Vice -Chancellor because, even though she admitted that she helped another student, SHE had done her own work, so she was not “guilty of cheating.” She did not view her assistance on a take home test to a fellow student as morally wrong.

You know what is saddest about this story?

It’s not that our society has declined to the point that the intentional violation of rules is viewed as the fault of the rule maker rather than the rule breaker…

It’s not even the fact that some teachers have now resorted to requiring that their students sign a code of conduct contract in order to protect themselves from litigious individuals.

What’s saddest about this whole mess is that the students in my class…the students I caught cheating…the students who honestly don’t feel that they did anything wrong…

They are all studying to become Elementary School Teachers.

That’s not a typo. I’ll say it again in case you think you misread it…

They are all studying to become Elementary School Teachers.

Within 3 years, these students will be teachers themselves, standing in front of a classroom full of children, molding them…developing them… teaching them…

And they have no moral problem with cheating…

They believe that the rules don’t apply to them…

And they are going to pass these values on to the next generation of students…

Students who will one day grow up, graduate from high school, and walk into my college classroom…

Students who will wonder what the big deal is when I catch them cheating…

Suddenly, homeschooling doesn’t look like such a bad option.

At least my kids will know that cheating is wrong.

And if they do it, and they are caught, they will know that THEY were wrong…that THEY are responsible for they mess…

And they won’t blame it on the teacher.


Posted by on December 11, 2011 in Family, Society, Teaching, Uncategorized


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Job Loss

I kinda lost my job…


Ok, can you count it as losing a job if it was only an interim job until they found someone else, but then you decided you liked it so you decided you wanted to keep it but then they hired someone else anyway and you didn’t get to keep it?

Yeah, I lost my job.

I thought it was a job I wanted to keep…I was a UNIVERSITY ADMINISTRATOR…I had my own secretary…I had a big(ger) paycheck. I was someone’s boss…(actually a couple of someones). I felt pretty important. And I didn’t have to teach math anymore. I was happy about that.

Although I missed the students.

But I was important…I was in authority…I was in a position to facilitate change…I HAD POWER!!!

Not really…but I FELT important.

In higher eduction, when a faculty member moves into administration, it is referred to (not so affectionately) as going over to the “dark side.”

I was fine with that. Call me Jon Vader…I was ready to join with the Emperor to bring order to the galaxy….er, the university…

And it was the Chancellor…not the Emperor…

Some people think that they are the same thing…


I THOUGHT that I was happy on the dark side. I did not choose to return to the light side on my own, like Darth Vader did when he saved Luke at the end of “Return of the Jedi.” I was forcibly sent back to the light side. And I was not happy…

Funny thing though…

After I returned to the faculty, I started NOT missing the headaches of administration…the bureaucracy…the red tape…the “someones” that I was in charge of who didn’t want to follow the rules.

And I started working with those students again…those students that I had been missing…

And I came to a startling realization: being an administrator, a leader, and a teacher are not interchangeable skills. Some people have none of those abilities, some have all of these abilities, and some may only have one or two of them. I love to lead and I love to teach. I do not love to administrate.

I do miss having a larger paycheck…

And I miss having my own secretary…that was cool.

But I missed teaching more.

And it took being forced back from the dark side in order to realize it.

Maybe there’s hope for me after all…

I mean, even Darth Vader turned out to be a good guy in the end.


Posted by on November 30, 2011 in Motivation, Personal Development, Teaching


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