Saturday, August 28, 2021

Assessing performance in a pandemic


A few weeks ago, I was chatting with a friend who was preparing for her performance review. She oversaw a major academic program but was discouraged because “There was so much I had wanted to achieve. I just didn’t get things done.” As she beat up on herself for not achieving the growth she had hoped for, I was at a complete loss for words. Didn’t she remember that we were one year into the COVID Pandemic? A time when normal expectations had been set aside by all? It made me reflect about performance evaluations during a black swan event like the pandemic.

I recalled Nassim Taleb’s book: “The Black Swan”. In the foreword to the book, Nassim paid homage to the mistreated heroes of history. Those individuals who “saved our lives, who helped us avoid disasters”. He explained this with a hypothetical thought experiment where he asked us to imagine a courageous law maker, who just before Sept 11, 2001, enacted a law that required cockpit doors in a commercial airliner to be bullet proofed and locked during flights. While this law would have prevented the events of 9/11, no one would really know that (since no one expected the events of 9/11 to happen) – the legislator would get no credit for it and may even have been vilified for increasing airline costs, for preventing interactions between passengers and pilots and for a host of other things. As Taleb points out, history has been supremely unkind to these unsung heroes whose performance lay in preventing events that could have been so harmful.  But since we didn’t anticipate the events occurring, we never appreciated those people.

Coming back to my friend who was disappointed about her performance. In these pandemic times, we may need to rethink the way we evaluate performances. For instance, during the pandemic we saw significant anger against academic institutions (for instance the numerous petitions and confrontations for tuition refunds), significant erosion in employee morale, psychological impact on employee well being and so on. In the case of my friend, none of this happened in the unit she supervised. Employees and students remained relatively satisfied, and work went on, for the most part, in a normal fashion. From my point of view, the nonoccurrence of negative outcomes during the pandemic was a singular achievement and something to be exceedingly proud of.

But even stepping away from the performance evaluation situation. In these pandemic times, I meet so many self-motivated individuals who are stressed because they are currently performing at a lower than desired level. When some of them share their frustration with me, I am reminded of valuable advice I once received. In the third year of my PhD program, a time which was critical for getting publications and completing my thesis, I was hospitalized with a liver ailment which made me fall behind. I was frustrated and any time I could, I would try to put in long hours to make up missed work. But my body was just not ready and I would fall ill again. Charles Manz (my thesis advisor/friend and mentor) called me in one day. Using a hockey analogy, he gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever received. “While playing hockey, we all want to go out and shoot goals. But sometimes things don’t go our way and we can’t do that. At such times, just play defense! Prevent a goal from being scored against you. Do that and you will get a chance to score goals later.”. I took his advice and focused on getting better. And it worked out well for me. For all those struggling in this pandemic, I hope you can be kind to yourself. Play defense if needed and a chance to score goals will show up in time.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

O The People we meet...

I’ve traveled a lot and encountered people in different parts of the world. Each encounter in some ways has shaped my worldview. Recently, the ongoing racial protests and incidents made me reflect on some of those experiences. I am sharing three experiences from the time I was in the corporate world. They date back 30 years. The faces in these memories are hazy, the names altered and in two cases I am not sure of the exact dates. But I think they are relevant today so hopefully it will be worth the few minutes you take to read them.

1992. Or maybe 1993. I had landed at the Cairo airport in Egypt. I found that a nationwide strike had been called and that my meetings would be delayed. I was young and reckless. So, instead of hunkering in my hotel, I found a driver willing to take me to Alexandria and set off for the three-hour drive. In the heat of the summer, we were driving through the Sahara Desert when our car broke down The highways were deserted because of the strike but finally, an old farmer in a beaten pickup truck trundled along and towed us to a nearby village. The only mechanic in the village agreed to look at our car and we found that our oil pump had blown with no hope for an early replacement part.

I was seated outside the shop, nervously considering my options, when I saw a large bearded Arab driving up in a truck. He looked angry and was gesticulating wildly. I was overcome by my stereotypical fears. The man got out of the truck, looked at me and directed foul invective at me. I was scared. But wait ... how did I know these were curses? And I realized I was being showered with extreme profanities in Punjabi (a language spoken in the North West of India and one that boasts some incredibly creative curse words). The man charged at me... and then hugged me. He drove us to Alexandria and then back to Cairo. I learnt he had worked in Dubai and shared his apartment with two Sikhs (people from Punjab in India). They had become very close and taught him Punjabi (apparently the curse words were all they taught him). And when he heard there was an Indian stuck in a nearby village he wanted to help. Simply because of those two Sikh workers, who years ago had lived with him. I remember ruefully shaking my head about my invocation of stereotypical images when the bearded Arab in this remote village was coming at me. This was a wonderfully genuine man but of a different race and religion. He was simply repaying a favor he felt he owed his two foreign roommates. Something, if I had been in his place, I hope I would have done too.

April 27, 1993. Sometime in the late afternoon I landed at Lusaka’s International Airport in Zambia. Peter, a massive man with a broad smile, was driving the car I had arranged for my visit. He could not stop talking about the young Zambian Football team. They had beaten Italy in the Olympics a few years ago and were hoping to qualify for their first ever World Cup. The team was on its way to Senegal to play an important match. I listened politely and then checked in to my hotel, telling Peter to come in early the next day. I woke up early, dressed and went down to the lobby. Peter was late. I glanced around and noticed an air of gloom. I ignored the newspapers and the TVs in the lobby (stupid mistake for an international business traveler, but I was young). I was thinking of ways to get in touch with Peter (no cell phones then) when I saw him drive up. The smiling man of yesterday looked sad and angry. The plane carrying the Zambian National Football team had crashed. The whole team was dead. He cursed everyone. The Government....God and the bad luck that plagued his country. The smiling man of yesterday was openly crying and desolate because his beloved team was no more. Something I may have done if my favorite cricket team had met a similar fate. And I realized that this giant man of a different skin color and race was just like me.

Sometime in late 1991. I think. I was a young MBA who had been asked to develop a market for paper products in Bangladesh. I had done well, and sales were good. That morning, my documentation person came up to me and showed me an order we had just executed. A shipment of paper had left our factory and was headed to a company in Dhaka. Everything seemed in order – there was a confirmed letter of credit that had been opened by the customer -till I looked at the sale price. I had accidentally offered the product at a significantly lower price – we would make a loss on this order and I had never been authorized to give that sort of a discount. I could be in trouble.

The proprietor of the printing press was Mr. Khan. I met him on my first ever visit to Bangladesh. That first visit was initially stressful. My parents and their parents had lived through the catastrophic partition of India – when the Muslim majority areas of British India were partitioned into West and East Pakistan (later Bangladesh). The ensuing violence killed millions sowing deep discords between Indians and Pakistanis and stories about the evil on the ‘other side’ widely circulated in my childhood (unfortunately they do so today too). I remember feeling nervous as I walked to my appointments in the narrow lanes of Dhaka (Bangladesh’s capital). Ultimately, business was business and I put on a smile and met with potential customers. And found they were welcoming and .... just like any other person I dealt with. But Mr. Khan was special. An older man, well educated and pious. He was a hard negotiator and our meetings stretched long. In many of my meetings he would excuse himself to offer the ‘Salat’ – the five daily Muslim prayers. He always made sure that during that time I had a hot cup of tea and special home-made cookies. His entire demeanor radiated piety and goodness. Over the next few visits, I was invited to his house for meals and chatted with him on politics and life. Nevertheless, when I called him, I braced myself for protests and pushback when I told him I had invoiced him incorrectly. He listened graciously. Then without any questions he said he understood and if I sent him a revised invoice, he would ensure we received the correct payment. And I dodged a bullet in my young corporate career.

A few weeks later I was in Bangladesh and met Mr. Khan for tea. I proffered my thanks for his graciousness. He patted my shoulder. “I’ve lived a long life through good and bad times. I hope I never have to explain to Allah that I cheated someone or took advantage of another person’s honest mistake.” This older man, from another country, and another religion, lived a life that I aspired to. It was humbling.

Looking back at my childhood, I grew up in a less connected world where the internet did not constantly provide us information. People we grew up with were homogeneous and rumors hard to disprove. And these generated suspicions about people who were different from me. This was the world I had grown up in when I started travelling the world. And I met many people from different continents, nations, and races. A funny thing happened along the way. I found these people were not different at all. In all parts of the world I found good people. People who just wanted to do an honest day’s work and take care of their families. People who wanted to live their lives with dignity and respect. People who said similar things and aspired to the same joys. And yes, people who would never expect to get killed because of their race or religion or caste. In today’s hyper-connected world this should be self-evident but every day I shake my head in amazement. At the fact that we need demonstrations and protests to gain acceptance for what should be obvious – that we are all ONE. Perhaps, more people need to get that hug from that Egyptian man (and his two Sikh roommates I never knew) or share the pain experienced by Peter in Zambia or encounter the spiritual simplicity of Mr. Khan. We’ll all be better for it.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

A Scary 20 Minutes. And a Life Perspective.

It was two weeks ago. The Covid-19 pandemic had locked us out of the university. We were adjusting. I was hosting a Zoom information session for the Walton College’s MBA program. I love doing these, but something did not feel right. I was finding it hard to speak. I was drooling and could not control it. My left eye would not shut. My left eyebrow and the left cheek would not move. Somehow, I finished the session. Then stumbled to my bed. “So, this is it”, I told myself. “It’s a stroke”.

I knew I had to call 911. Yet I did not quite feel the urgency. My brain dove into a pensive stream. Was this the end of life as I knew it? My kids were still asleep upstairs. Would I ever have normal conversations with them again? And with my mom? Would I banter with my students again? Would I take my treasured night walks with my dogs? Go on hikes and photograph nature? And if this were the end of my active life, what had I achieved? Surprisingly, I felt satisfied. On the professional side, forty years ago, if I had been told I’ll be where I was today, I’d have said “I’ll take it”! On a personal level, I could not have asked for a better set of kids. I’ve received extraordinary love from my family. And the love and respect from my friends, colleagues and students has been overwhelming. And at key points in my life, especially at the low points, so many people stepped up to help. A helping hand. A word of encouragement. Yes, at this point when I felt the best of my life was over, I felt satisfied and grateful. And at peace.

A part of my brain chided me. “Shake yourself. Call 911.” And I began to focus on the problem at hand. Something, however, wasn’t adding up. I still could not move the left side of my face. But I didn’t feel sick. My thoughts were clear. The rest of my body was able to move normally. In the current pandemic I didn’t really want to go to an ER. So, I pushed myself off the bed and facetimed my physician cousin in DC. He went over my symptoms. Made me try a few facial movements. “You probably have Bell’s Palsy” he said. “The symptoms are like a stroke. But it isn't a stroke. You’ll still have to see a doctor and get treatment right away.” So, I did. It was Bell’s Palsy! And I got put on some rather strong medication. But in a month or so I should be normal again.

That night I reflected on the experience. So often when I focus on the future I think in terms of my career. Or how I will be perceived by others. Or living alone as an empty nester. I don’t have much control on these things. And yet in the twenty minutes when I thought that my life as I knew it was over, the things that I would most miss were the simple things that I DO control. Getting up feeling fresh and healthy in the morning. Cooking for my kids. Working with students. Walking my dogs. Taking pictures.

And when I summed up my life in those 20 minutes I was satisfied. I just hadn’t known it before. And it seemed I had worried about the wrong things! I did have one regret – had I ever let the people who’ve loved me and helped me know how much I appreciate them? That they meant a lot to me? I hope I never have that regret again. Realizing that I’ll still have this normal life I love, I can’t but believe that every moment I now have is a bonus. A gift too valuable to waste worrying about things I don’t control. A bonus set of moments to appreciate the simple but valuable things in life. A precious gift of time to recognize the people who positively impacted me in life. I hope I carry this lesson forward.

Post Script.  In the days since this incident I’ve felt a huge weight lifted off me. It seems my thinking is clearer and faster. Work and home are even more attractive and fulfilling than ever before (And that’s saying something given everything we are going through right now). I shared this story with several folks. It was personal. My kids encouraged me to write it as a blog. Its too personal I said. A friend who wishes to remain anonymous called me twice asking me to blog about it. A former student, Megan Iseman, asked me to write it. So here it is (thanks to these folks). A personal experience that has affected me and that I want to share.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

In Partial Defense of Disorganization

I love organizing. As a child I liked alphabetizing the books I had, or organizing my collection of toy cars by sizes, and even my stamp collection. And this focus was especially pronounced with respect to my tax documentation. I maintained separate folders for interest statements, income documentation, charitable contributions and so on. Anytime I gave a donation to an organization I would record it on a spreadsheet and index the receipt and place it in a folder. And of course, I was proud of it. One day I was describing my organizational ability to my friend and colleague (now retired) Nina Gupta. She didn’t seem particularly impressed. And said something that went like: ‘Well, me, I just dump anything tax related into one folder, and figure it all out when I have to do taxes. Seems to work for me’. 
Over the years that conversation came back to me often. And as life grew busier there came a time when I just couldn’t carry on with my wonderfully organized filing system. And there was that first year when I dumped all tax related information into a folder – and still got my taxes done (albeit with no ability to brag about my wonderful organization). Was organization overvalued? It struck me last year when I was reading the book: “Algorithms to Live by” (by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths). After describing some very interesting research with reference to the benefits and drawbacks of sorting and organizing, they made a key statement about what to do when we are not sure: “ERR ON THE SIDE OF MESSINESS”. In some ways this was a Eureka moment!
Now, this is not about arguing that sorting and organizing is NEVER beneficial. Just that sometimes it is not. As Christian and Griffiths point out, when we sort and organize, there are significant costs to not just doing that but to keeping the system organized. This increased organization can speed information search and other key needs. However, sometimes the increased efficiency does NOT outweigh the cost of organization. Turns out that since my taxes are not super-complicated, dumping all documents into one folder is probably the more effective way.
As an educator and an administrator this calls into question so much of what I do and see. Do I really need to alphabetically arrange twenty term papers so that I can more easily enter grades in a spreadsheet? Do I need to super-organize a database that is going to be used only once a quarter? Do I really need to sort my emails into neat folders (As someone who currently has over 30 folders for emails, I did a double take when Christian and Griffiths cited research that shows the answer is almost always no)? And from when I worked in the corporate world, did I really have to pass judgment on that co-worker whose desk was always cluttered with papers? Apparently, research shows that co-worker will usually find needed documents quicker than others!

Monday, September 3, 2018

Our Aspirations. And those of our Organizations

A few months ago I had lunch with Marcus Monk, an alumnus of the Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. Marcus played collegiate football and basketball for the Arkansas Razorbacks and then played in professional sports in the US and Europe.

Marcus grew up in Lepanto Arkansas -- a relatively less developed part of Arkansas. Growing up where he did, he hadn’t seen the opportunities the world offered and it was hard for him to develop high aspirations for himself.  But he had something going for him – He was very good at basketball and football. His basketball talent was spotted and he got to travel for competitions.  He talked about how his visits to North West Arkansas and Dallas impacted him. He saw a world that was full of opportunities. One that he had not seen before. And these opportunities served as the foundation for his aspirations. They motivated him and changed his life.

Marcus had a great college career in football and basketball, had a short career in the NFL, and then played Basketball in Europe. He then returned to the Walton College for his MBA and that’s when I got to know him. While Marcus is known for his sports career I have been so much more impressed with what he has done for the kids in Eastern Arkansas. He started a basketball league for them – one in which they get an opportunity to play and travel to various cities. As he put it, this league gave those kids a chance to see the world, to see what was possible, and to change their lives by building high aspirations (Details of Marcus’ work with the kids is a story for another blog).  At one point during our lunch I asked Marcus whether being in an area with few opportunities made him frustrated as a youth. His response stunned me for its simplicity, humility and depth –“You know, in life, if all you’ve ever seen and eaten is rice, then that’s your world – that’s all you think of eating. You don’t miss anything else because you don’t know anything better exists.”

Marcus Monk, while on an India Study
Abroad program during his MBA program
at the Sam Walton College of Business
(University of Arkansas).
I’ve thought many times about that conversation. And thought about how we create high aspirations in ourselves, in our kids, and those we work with. There is significant research in the management literature that high aspirations lead to greater motivation and better outcomes for individuals who have them. The amount of life exposures we or our kids experience is certainly one of them. Our supportiveness to our kids and mentees when their aspirations are forming is another. But our support can’t be automatic and blind either. I remember a time when my daughter was in elementary school. She worked on periodic projects for a particular class. She worked hard, but could have worked harder. There were a few errors in her weekly projects for the class. But her teacher was encouraging. And often she would give her an A+ ‘for effort’ anyway. It sounded great. Till one day when my daughter was working on her project, and I spotted an error. I pointed it out. But she said no worries…she would probably get an A anyway. It was a lesson I never forgot. Blind encouragement can also lower aspirations for excellence.

And this leads to an interesting leadership challenge. Organizational leaders today often create visions and aspirations for their organizations. Such visions are designed to provide direction and unity to an organization. But, especially in large organizations, this can be hard. For instance, imagine a health care organization that aspires to be the best in the world in geriatric care. A very noble aspiration. But that aspiration is unlikely to connect to the organization’s internal auditor, who spends her days going through financial transactions. She may have a very different set of goals that can’t easily link to the organizational vision. In fact, several research studies have shown that when organizations have such noble visions, if their employees cannot link their work and associated short term goals with them, it actually leads to reduced employee engagement.

A recent article published in the journal “Administrative Science Quarterly” addresses some of these issues. The author, Andrew Carton, performed an inductive analysis to determine how John F. Kennedy’s Vision for NASA to land a man on the moon (within 10 years) was translated for NASA employees. His research identified several actions that can be taken. One of the proposed actions includes keeping the organization’s vision clear and simple. Too many elements in the vision create confusion. A second factor is the need to associate the vision with clear measurable objectives that help measure our progress towards the realization of this vision.  However, these measures should not solely be distal measures that are to be accomplished over a long period of time.  There have to be clear intermediate markers or ‘stepping stones’ that show the path the organization has to take to achieve its vision over time.

Within the organization, the leaders and managers have to try and link employee tasks and short term goals to these milestones. It is much easier to create the linkages of specialized employee work to these intermediate milestones than to the distal objectives embodied in the vision.  When done successfully, it reaps huge benefits as employees’ aspirations begin to align with those of the organizations, giving their work so much more meaning. A successful effort that uses organizational aspirations to impart meaningfulness to employee tasks, is best summarized in the title of Andrew Crane’s paper.  “I’m not mopping the floors, I’m putting a man on the moon.”

Sunday, January 14, 2018

7 Inspirational Quotes to Guide us at Work and Life

Over the years, I have come across some profound quotations from some very wise folks. They have often acted as rudders as I work through life’s complex issues. These 7 quotes, in my opinion serve as great guideposts as we work through life and careers.
1.   “My goal in life is to unite my avocation with my vocation,
As my two eyes make one in sight.” 
Robert Frost, Two Tramps in Mudtime.
Robert Frost kindled in me an appreciation for poetry – his poems were the first poems I read that were not required for a course. These two lines – the need to fuse what you love with what you do for a living can be a powerful path to satisfaction.

2.    If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There's no point in being a damn fool about it.” W. C. Fields.
I was very inspired by the original tale from Robert Bruce and the Spider. But as I grew older, this variation from WC Fields made so much more sense…For me, it’s always been a balance between persistence and realism. The best outcomes are not easily achieved and failure should not deter us. Persistence clearly matters. But sometimes we may be trying too hard at the wrong thing. In those instances, backing off and going a different direction may yield better outcomes.

3.   “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.” Mahatma Gandhi
These wise words from Gandhi have been the hardest to put into practice. It is a fact that at work and in life people often hurt us – whether through action, inaction, words or snubs. And the desire to retaliate is high. But in practice, avoiding retaliation has always served me better  - It has become so much easier as I grew older as I realized how easily I unintentionally hurt others. And so I don’t retaliate in the hope that others won’t retaliate for my unintentional missteps.

4.   Alice: “Would you tell me please which way I ought to go from here”
Cheshire Cat: “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”
Alice: “I don’t much care where…”
Cheshire Cat: “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”
Alice: “As long as I get somewhere…”
Cheshire Cat: “Oh, you’re sure to do that if only you walk long enough.”
From Alice in Wonderland

So often in life, I find myself doing things for random reasons – everyone does it, it seemed the right thing to do, or its seems cool…Staying busy could make me feel that I was getting somewhere. I try (sometimes unsuccessfully) to figure out what I need to do. And then I can decide whether a specific action will get me there.
Of course, the last two lines are great when one does not know where to go… just trying something is better than being paralyzed into inaction. And often times the act of doing things helps understand where we want to go.  

5.   “Easy is not the goal.” Ed Catmull in Creativity Inc.

Compared to most of the other quotations in this list, I learnt this one relatively late. Ed Catmull, the co-founder of Pixar, wrote this in the book: “Creativity Inc.”. He was talking about the care they take while making Pixar movies. In one of the book’s chapters he described a choice they made while making Monsters Inc. While making the scenes based on Sully and Mike’s room they had to make a CD Rack…with a bunch of compact disks stored in a tower. They spent hours making sure that each CD in the rack had a title and artwork…something that no one in the audience would notice, and for a scent that lasted no more than 20 seconds. While agreeing this may have been excessive, Catmull made a point that I had come to realize a few years ago…in the things that matter, easy is not the goal. As we perform tasks and activities, it always seems expedient to take an easy way out on some key aspects of the task…don’t worry about the cover page of a report, don’t worry about proper formatting, and so on. But with every such decision we make our work and our activity a little more ordinary – till it loses all distinctiveness. It is a stepping-stone to mediocrity.  

6.    “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.Bertrand Russell, British Mathematician and Philosopher.

This statement from the British mathematician/philosopher Bertrand Russel is one of my favorites. Something that I always try to talk about in a decision-making or a leadership class. Russell was commenting on the fact that any complex situation has many sides to it. Wise people will see those different sides and the pros and cons of various solutions. They will find it harder to be sure that any course of action is the right one. Enter someone who is less wise, who can’t see all sides to the problem. This person bangs the table and says…of course this action is the right one…and the uncertain wise folks are likely to agree with him or her….

7.     Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire  Albert Einstein

This quote from Einstein is something I came across when transitioning to an academic career. It is tempting to focus exclusively on filling the student’s pail with canned information. But Einstein’ vision was powerful – Teachers need to transform students to becoming continuous learners – to always seek the knowledge they need to solve ever-evolving problems. 

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Five Principles that Guide me when I work with College Students

Twenty two years ago I left a corporate career to move to academics. Through my evolution from a PhD student to a Professor, teaching has always been an important part of my job. On this weekend, when I am thankful for all the students I have worked with, I wanted to share a few principles that have guided me when I teach – I believe they have played a big role in my effectiveness as a good teacher.

Love  Teaching and Respect the Students:  Early in my career I had a class with 4 challenging students. They were disruptive and borderline insolent in their interactions. I often found myself designing class sessions to control them, and made rules increasingly tough. At the end of the semester, a few students stopped by and shared their class experience. Only then did I see my behavior as one that had punished the silent majority of good students for the transgressions of the few bad ones.
As I introspected after that semester, I realized how easy it is for young Professors to start distrusting, and even disliking students.  Tenure, promotion and salary decisions (in Business Schools at Research 1 Universities in America) are tied to a Professor’s research output. Teaching rarely factors into these decisions. In such an environment, graduate students and young professors receive advice to avoid spending too much time on teaching. Some, then come to view students and teaching as a nuisance. When a Professor goes into class believing teaching is a distraction and is suspicious of the students, it comes through to the students, who react negatively setting off a reinforcing cycle. I advocate the opposite approach. And in this context, I was profoundly influenced by a remark made by my colleague Alan Ellstrand when he received a top teaching award. He ended his speech as follows:
“Recently, my son Kevin entered the University and as a proud father I followed his efforts. Interestingly, today, when I look around at students on campus, they all look like Kevin.”
I have known dozens of teachers in my career…and if they like and respect students the way Alan does, they tend to become good teachers. And loving and respecting your students often times means accepting that in any class there will be a few students who are disruptive and making sure we don’t generalize their behaviors to the whole class.

The Teacher is the Role Model: As teachers, we often have (and ought to have) exacting standards for our students. However, when I ask a lot from my students I need to make sure that I ask the same from myself. How can I punish students for late submissions if I come to class late? How can I teach professionalism if I don’t answer their emails in a timely manner, or take forever to grade their assignments and papers? Whenever I have found myself slipping on this, I know that my class will not go well – at least by my personal standards. Students observe their professors. And they will work hard for those they see working hard for them.  Teaching complex material in a simple clear way is a skill that takes time to polish. On the other hand, taking care of the small professional aspects of running a classroom can immediately provide a huge boost to a professor’s class performance.

Know your objectives Most teachers have clearly defined objectives for their course. These are usually in terms of the content taught. However, I try to think beyond the content. Some courses focus primarily on providing information to students. Others focus on building critical thinking abilities, while some focus on training for the use of specific techniques. Knowing what your course is supposed to do is critical. I have known professors go into classes meant to build critical thinking skills and then spend the whole semester in lecture – usually a huge mismatch between the objective and the teaching technique.  
Going further, I focus on what a student needs to get out of EVERY class session.  If the sole purpose of a 75-minute class is to provide information then a lecture may be the right way to go.   So how do I get students excited about the lecture? I may begin with an example or a short video that raises issues about the topic and is gray enough for the students to have a debate. After 10 minutes of such a discussion, the students are far more likely to pay attention to a lecture. When the focus is to help students in critical thinking then I try a mix – some lecture, a short in class assignment, and sometimes a video case. I know from experience, that thinking through the objectives of each class and then planning the class to meet that objective, is something that creates variety in classes (students tell me they appreciate the variety within a given class, and the variety between different classes in a semester), and leads to better learning outcomes.

Preparation: A few weeks ago, a colleague walked into my office an hour before I was to teach and was surprised to see me talking to the powerpoints on my computer screen. I was actually rehearsing how I would introduce a new topic in class.  She was astonished. I had taught this particular class for over two decades.  The fact is that that is EXACTLY why I need to prep. The danger of complacence, using dated examples, and into mindlessly going through the motions is greatest when we have been teaching that long. For me, preparation is key. I need to prep my delivery, the examples I will use, even look over student pictures so that I remember their names. I never like to have a conversation in the hour before I teach – because as I am prepping, I feel myself getting into a zone  - I don’t want that disrupted. On the occasions that I have gone into class without prep, I know that I have not used the best examples, have made mistakes, and have had to correct myself frequently. And I have not enjoyed teaching…and when that happens it’s almost certain the students don’t enjoy it either.

Learn and Evolve:  About a decade ago, I received a series of teaching awards at my university. Yet, I noticed disturbing signals – qualitative comments in my teaching evaluations suggested that I was talking over students, that I was tardy in grading, and I particularly remember one comment that hurt a lot ‘I think he sometimes wishes he was not in the classroom.’ My evaluations were still excellent but the comments were consistent across three very different sets of students. I knew I was slipping.
When I had started out as a teacher, I was happy to read the text desperately trying to stay two weeks ahead of the students. With experience, content was less of an issue. But as I got comfortable in teaching, the need to evolve as a teacher diminished. I introspected and then instituted changes in the way I teach – including a commitment to never teaching a class in exactly the same way. It is only when I try something new, when I fear an experiment going wrong, that I avoid complacency.

I don’t believe that the principles I have listed are the only ways to succeed. And I have not always been true to them. But to all aspiring academics I will say – working with students can be one of the most rewarding jobs there is. It is challenging, some students can drive you to distraction, but if you give thought and effort to it, teaching pays back in many ways. Over the years, I used to get appreciation notes from students at the end of the semester. They meant a lot to me, but after a while I would throw them away. A few years ago I was moving offices. And as I unpacked (on a day when I had had some very hard conversations) I came across a bunch of these old notes that I hadn’t yet discarded. I remember sitting down, reading and rereading them. The bad day was no longer so bad. I never threw notes away again. Today, I have a cork-board displayed in my office and when I get a nice note, I pin it there. Some days when I am not at the top of my game, I walk over to the board and read some of the notes….and the day seems wonderful again. A big thank you to all my students down the years.