Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Why Teach? This Is Why.

In 2003, I taught a number of classes at the Katherine Gibbs School of New York. These included Advertising, Sales, Finance, Economics and Mathematics. Having attended college and graduate school with some of the hardest working, most highly motivated, most competitive students in the world, and having just taught a class at the prestigious Stern School at NYU, it was a culture shock to encounter a classroom of students whose attitude towards school was, for many, jaded, wary and frustrated.

While virtually all of my classmates and students at Harvard, Wharton and NYU saw their attendance at these schools as part of an educational plan created years ago and never questioned, my Gibbs students had graduated high school but had not gone on to college. Enrolling at Gibbs was, for them, a first step towards getting a college degree, or a way to actualize a dream to own their own business, "become a CEO," create a line of licensed products, or simply move out of their role at the checkout counter of a retail chain.

Teaching these classes - particularly the large ones - was often frustrating and surprising. There was cheating, lying, real or forged doctors' notes for missed classes, no-shows for exams, and in-class cell phone usage, talking and eating to contend with. In addition, there were competing drains on their time - families, work, and, in one case, an unwanted pregnancy. But, as many teachers will tell you, among the frustrations, there were also gems. Students whose lives were truly touched by their interaction with me and my enthusiasm and commitment. Students that I exposed to experiences that were commonplace to me but first-time opportunities for them - such as seeing a video of a ballet dancer (I don't remember the context) or even an office environment. And many were affected by the opportunity I offered them to excel - without cheating.

At NYU, I often drilled students with practice questions for exams. I made a game out of it. During these Jeopardy review sessions, I would go around the room, presenting each student with exam-type questions. I would continue to feed each student questions until they got one wrong. Then I would ask the rest of the class to try to answer the problem and teach the topic to the rest of the class. If no one could adequately explain the answer, I would take some time to review that topic - therefore pinpointing the subjects that needed the most explanation. And, of course, there was candy involved, thanks to the generous budget of the Marketing Department.

At Gibbs, I would drill a student until he or she got the question RIGHT, keep score and reward the high scorers with magazines and other loot from my publishing jobs. And for the Gibbs students, not only were they given the questions in advance in the form of problem sets but ALL the exam questions came from these problem sets. So if they mastered the problem sets, they could master the exam. In fact, for my first class, the largest, I provided the actual exam in advance. Students had a direct roadmap to acing the exam (some with a 100% score) if they so desired. Many did not, which was disappointing and somewhat perplexing, but some did, which was a confidence-boosting, elation-creating and often first-time accomplishment for the student, one that did not come from cheating but from preparation.

Another opportunity I offered for success was extra credit. Seeking out and taking advantage of extra credit was a no-brainer for me - a habit my father had instilled in me at a young age. It still shocks me that there were students at both NYU and Gibbs that did not answer extra credit questions on exams - particularly because they were usually giveaways in which it was hard to give a wrong answer.

Well, in my current endeavor to digitize all paper in my apartment - a daunting task that initially freed up a lot of shelf space in my closet that is now populated by shoe boxes, making me wonder whether my purchase of a high-end scanner was an enabler or gateway for shoe purchases. But I digress. The point of this 6am entry is to share with you some of the interesting and inspirational responses I received from my students to these extra credit questions and to the questions I asked at the beginning of the semester in an effort to get to know the students and have them identify a goal towards which they were working.

Without further ado, here is a sampling - as written including spelling. But one last caveat, these papers do not include the questions, so I will have to surmise them from the answers.


1) What did you learn from this class and how will it help you professionally?

"I have definitely learned that listening skills are important. In the past, I was a bad listener. I would interrupt a relative or a friend when they are in the middle of their sentence. And at the job, I definitely did evaluative listening because I tried to listen but did not try to understand. Since I started my "Principles of Sales" class, I am practicing active listening; I must say that it is difficult, but it will get easier with practice.

Professor, I was not practicing active listening when you told the class about the elevator [I pointed out that two bells means the elevator is going down, one bell equals going up], but I will try to remember. I would also like to tell you that you have truly been a great influence on me. You have patience and tolerance and therefore, empathy. This I have also learnt in this class.

This will help me in my professional life because I want to have a sales career; I am in a sales career, and I will need to practice active listening so not only will I hear the words of my customers or prospects but I will also feel their emotions and sence their thoughts. I will be aware. This will help me personally because now I wouldn't get yelled at by my relatives and friends for interrupting them."

"From this class I have learnt to deal with customers in a better manner and how to explain the feature benefit and the advantage. I also understand what is takes to be a good salesperson not only wanting to make money but to satisfy the customers with what they need."

"Before I took this class, marketing is very abstractive. For business, most important things are production and selling. Those are what I have though before I took this class. But I have learned selling is a part of marketing and we can not separate marketing from any business."

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