Friday, June 5, 2015

TERM'S END THOUGHTS and How to Engage Me at Your School


The teacher who is indeed wise does not bid you to enter the house of his wisdom but rather leads you to the threshold of your mind.
~Khalil Gibran, The Prophet

The deep purpose of education, in its best sense, is to support people in developing the capacity to live well together in the world.
~ Emily Lardner:  The Evergreen State College, Washington Center for Improving the Quality of Undergraduate Education. 2005.

I wanted a perfect ending . . .  Now, I've learned the hard way that some poems don't rhyme, and some stories don't have a clear beginning, middle and end.
Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and  making the best of it,  without knowing what's going to happen next.   Delicious ambiguity.
~ Gilda Radner, 1946-1989 American comedienne

Executive Summary  During 2008-2011, more than 250 Hawaii Pacific University faculty--both full time and part time--signed on to a web-based faculty-support program called Adjunct Success.  Through this program, faculty had available a series of 16 web seminars (live and in recorded archive), a bimonthly newsletter and many other resources.  The author of this program, Richard Lyons, offered in 2008 some end-of-term counsel that highlights adjustments to consider at this time when students stress out right along with some of us.  His newsletter advice is so concise, timely and on-target that I asked permission to reprint it below in mail I sent monthly to faculty.
Seven years later, it remains excellent counsel.

By Richard Lyons, Faculty Development Associates
Originally published in the bi-monthly e-newsletter of Adjunct Success, and reprinted by permission.

As the term enters its last few weeks, it is common for some students to demonstrate signs of fatigue and a loss of momentum. Telltale signs might include:
  • Arriving late to class, often in a flustered state;
  • Missing one or more classes when their previous attendance was exemplary;
  • Failing to meet due dates for assignments;
  • Being under-prepared for in-class assignments;
  • Submitting assignments that don't meet their previous standards, and/or yours;
  • A decline in mental engagement and participation in classroom discussions;
  • A decline in spontaneity and/or sense of humor.
Remembering that today's students are often working too many hours and trying to maintain balance in other aspects of their lives, try to practice Stephen Covey's "Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, then to be Understood." The key to overcoming barriers to students' acceptable completion of this course is proactive, helpful communications. Talk with individual students - especially to those whose loss of momentum has been most dramatic, and to the class as a whole, to develop a grounded perspective. At this point in the term, students frequently perceive doom in not only yours, but other courses they are taking. Consider making slight adjustments in assignments that will be perceived as demonstrating understanding for students' welfare, without markedly lowering your standards. Often, students will perceive even a slight relaxation of high standards as a huge stress reducer.
In addition, examine your plans for the remaining few class meetings. Consider modifying activities to induce added energy into each by:
  • Shortening the length of lectures;
  • Using more visuals, such as video clips of current news events, to increase the relevance and applicability of course material in students' minds;
  • Employing more collaborative learning activities in which application is made of concepts studied throughout the course;
  • Scheduling an upbeat guest speaker who can synthesize course material studied throughout the term;
  • Provide informal feedback to each student more frequently;
  • Adding humor when appropriate, e.g. "top ten reasons why . . ."
We can probably all recall a time when we "hit the wall" -- physically, intellectually, and/or emotionally. And we can also probably recall a coach, mentor, or teacher who helped us get over that overwhelming obstacle. Becoming that kind of supporting person for your students during the last class meetings will enable you to have a long-term impact on their academic and career success.


Do a Quick Self-Evaluation of Teaching  At least one class before you do the required end-of-term student evaluation, consider a quickie of your own:   a fast stop-start-continue, perhaps done on index cards:  A + What worked best for you in this class?  A -  What made learning here difficult for you?  On the card reverse If you were making a recommendation about something I could change, what would that be?  [Even if you haven’t done regular self-evaluations, doing this can blunt the useless and sometimes hurtful end-of-term “bombs” that sometimes appear in written EOT comments.]  When you share the results with students, offer your own view of what worked best.  (At the link just below, you’ll find a variety of templates, including a quickie recently contributed by Malia Smith.)

Establish a goal for one teaching change in your next classes   Plan to try a new strategy, observe a colleague, ask a potential mentor to observe you.  Consider regular self-assessment in your next class: Self-Assessment of Teaching Builds Trust & Provides Practice-Improving Data=    (this will redirect to the new location at HPU’s web site)

Find out what students learned in your class   Students learn much more than content in your class; they often also discover or build/enhance skills in how to learn, from us or from each other.  Often they enhance self-awareness of their own learning strengths and challenges.  Why not ask them to identify their major learnings?  This could take the form of the simplest of one-minute papers, or a “letter to a future student.”  What was your top learning, about content or about your own learning process, that would help you if you started this class again, and that you could pass on to other students?  Sign if you wish, and I’ll acknowledge you as the author; or comment anonymously.  In doing this, you’re giving them an opportunity to reflect on the most helpful parts of their experience; an opportunity to serve future students, and a document you can make part of your teaching portfolio.  The same kind of experience could be generated by a journaling exercise.



I can do focused, interactive workshops
on active learning and college classroom management
and other topics.

Local expenses (rental car, lodging) as needed, or a small honorarium.

I live in VT and can travel easily and cheaply on the east coast.
During each year I am 6-8 times on the west coast, especially
in Seattle, San Diego, San Francisco, Reno, and Los Angeles.
In mid November I am in Honolulu for two weeks.

I’m not a lecturer; interactive workshops that model
good practice are my focus. Write for references.

phone (cell) 808-781-3294
Michael Dabney
702 Wake Robin Drive
Shelburne, VT 05482

Monday, May 18, 2015

Reposting 5/18/15 Classroom Management Primer for College Teachers and TAs

Reposting of copy originally posted 5/13.  The interactive workshop on which this is based has been updated many times.  See bottom of post for contact information.

This post is meant as a management primer for newer college teachers, or a refresher for veteran faculty who wish to re-tool their approach to building trusting classroom relationships.

It was first delivered as a 40-minute workshop at the June 2010 Lilly Conference in Bethesda, Maryland, with the title Taming the Unruly Elephant:  Tools and Attitudes for Successful Classroom Management,  and later that summer in a 2-hour interactive format, featuring group activities, in July 2010 at San Diego University.  Please contact me at about doing workshops elsewhere.

Mano Singham, Director of the case Western Reserve Center for Innovation in Teaching and Education, has suggested there are two ways to deal with behavior challenges:  
(1) when possible, prevent problems from happening and (2) resolve or manage problems that do happen.   Five principles, briefly elaborated below but each worthy of detailed examination, form the foundation of effective classroom management.

The best strategies are proactive:  things you can do easily to nurture your relationships with students, connect them to each other, and thereby prevent behavior problems from arising at all.  The key:  create a calm, orderly classroom climate right at the beginning and establish a friendly, trusting personal relationship with students.   The perception of trouble forms through the intersection of two personalities; what appears a minor irritation to one faculty member may make teaching very difficult for another.  So, while there is no one-size-fits-all solution, five principles help guide us.

Prevention:  Principle 1   Develop Positive Relationships and Trust

Build trust and empathy, in every possible way; in doing so you will make problems far less likely to happen.  The majority of small conflicts evaporate when you are trusted.  How to do this?Here are a few ideas:

A --  Learn names; meet students outside class early; find out more about them. A vast array of suggestions for how to do these things can be found in an internet search, or developed in a workshop exchange.  (This applies for all suggestions below.)

B -- Make coming for office-hours help a routine and expectation; maybe even make an initial visit a formal assignment.

C --  Know your non-negotiable bottom lines, but:  Discuss expectations with students.  Be clear, but don’t just list in the syllabus.  When they talk about it, they own it.  Thus:

---- What can I reasonably expect of you?
---- What can you reasonably expect of me?
---- What is reasonable to expect of classmates?

Prevention: Principle 2   Get Regular Feedback about Your Teaching   

Self-assessment of teaching is the single most important source of trust and practice-improving feedback; it defuses anger about issues you can’t control, and it brings those you can control to your attention.  Too few faculty do it; be an exception.  Getting feedback builds trust, provides a roadmap for improvement of practice, and ends end-of-term-evaluation bombs.  How to do it?

A --   Collect feedback data regularly, so that it becomes an expected routine.  Never wait until the last week of class.  COnsult print and web resources, or write me for specific suggestions (for which I do not have space here.)  Ask colleagues and faculty developers how they do this, expect some puzzled looks from colleagues, and forge ahead.  

B --   Feed the data, good and bad, back to students.  Acknowledge all feedback, whether you can act on it or not.  Some folks do this in writing as a handout; some do it verbally.  Don’t omit the negatives.

C  --  Act to change what you can, consistent with the overall best interests of the class.  This demonstrates your learner-centered intention.  

Respond or Resolve:  Principle 1  React to a challenge only if you face a real emergency.  When non-emergency:  think, plan and respond later.  

Reactive behavior from an instructor often feeds more objectionable behavior, inviting conflict escalation and negativity.  Instead:

A --   Document, think and plan first.  Move to action only when you are ready.

B --   Don’t refuse, but defuse.  Defer talk with an angry student.   buy time to cool your head, cool an upset student, listen, think, plan, ask for counsel or bring in a third party.  Avoid public confrontation, which can escalate to public humiliation.

Example Language:  I can see how upset you are.  I agree we need to have this discussion, but not here on class time.  Would you like to talk after class, in office hours, or before tomorrow’s class?

Respond and Resolve: Principle 2:  Don’t Ignore, Do Respond Thoughtfully to Boundary Violations   
Recurring anger or irritation usually signals that a boundary has been crossed.  Don’t react, but don’t ignore.  Don’t try to make rules that cover everything. Consider, plan and respond.  Ignoring inappropriate behavior (in hope it will go away) gives tacit consent for that same behavior to continue or to escalate.  Guidelines:

A -- Know what you want to achieve.  A good action plan can develop only when your end-point outcomes are very clear.  If you’re not clear, defer all action until you are.
B -- State, re-state or re-set the boundary;   plan wording carefully.  Choose a best time for approach, one that will least distract and upset others.  Do this in private when possible.   Public confrontation humiliates people and damages relationships.
C -- Consult with peers as part of your planning, if their experience might help.  What happened to you has probably happened to others.  Silence is your enemy.
D -- Script and rehearse if necessary.
E -- Plan and explain boundary-cross consequences—what you will do next.  
F-- Avoid threatening language, posture, tone or gestures.  You don’t need to sound angry to make a point.

Example Language
This was used, just as written, with an adult student who was verbally harassing a teacher, and delivered quietly when students were working independently.  The second part was delivered out of view or hearing of others.
- Jim, please follow me to the hallway (do not pause for an answer; get up and go; Jim will follow; this makes the intervention as private as possible)
- When you complain publicly about the work I’m giving you or about my behavior, you affect the learning of others and negatively affect the class culture.  Say anything you wish in private, but please (or I expect you to) keep the negativity out of class.
- Can you agree to this?  (If s/he says “no,” explain what steps you’ll take:  I’m going to assume I’ll get your cooperation.  But if this behavior reappears, I’ll ask the (dean, department chair or counseling staff) to discuss this with us together.

Respond or Resolve:  Principle 3  Develop an Emergency Toolbox    
Consider what might go wrong if all preventive measures fail.  What are worst-case scenarios?  Think through what you might do if one of them happened.

What’s In a Toolbox?  Here are some ideas.

Know what to do and have a plan for when you are threatened or may be in real danger.
This varies by campus and should align with your university’s student handbook or discipline protocols.  Know and keep handy emergency numbers; carry your cell phone with those numbers programmed in; get to know the responders.   

Document, to keep facts straight and to avoid blind-siding a supervisor.  In advance, plan a supervisor backup with whom you can file reports as needed.  (This person might be a department chair, or a colleague.)  Recording significant incidents in writing helps keep memory intact, should back-reference ever be made.

Develop peer relationships for counsel with more experienced faculty you trust.  Silence is your enemy.  Asking for help is a strength.

Develop consulting and referral relationships with student support personnel.  This includes counselors, advisors, or other staff to whom students can be referred.

Crisis in the Air?  There are times that the mood or buzz in a class tells you something is wrong.  When you read this signal, whether the background crisis is real or imagined, there’s something more important than teaching content.  Stop to ask students:  What’s happening?  Then, listen to them.

This post is a simple guide.  
Detailed discussion in small groups, such as interaction planned for a workshop, commonly result in important insights.  In turn, those insights can become the foundation of a personal plan.

My permanent residence is in Shelburne, Vermont.  
I travel often to the New York City and Washington, D.C. areas,
and to the west coast:  Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego.

To inquire about the possibility of a live workshop in your area
please write me

Michael W. Dabney
702 Wake Robin Drive
Shelburne, VT  05482

or call 802-985-0088

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

July 2013 Help Students Find Their Strengths

Encouragement comes in many forms.  One source is the modeling and wisdom of others, often older others.  Nurturance is another.    Left, my cousin John, a longtime resident of the peninsula in the San Francisco Bay Area, is very mobility-challenged but unstoppable.  His answer to “How are you this morning” is “terrific, if you don’t want details.”   Right, a tender moment at my retirement party in January 2012, captured by colleague Kasey Wilson. This photo is a still from a video collage Kasey created as a gift and posted at

There are three dimensions of higher education.  Our mission must be to educate both the mind and heart, to develop both skills and ethics, to cultivate good professionals who are good people.  Our purpose must be to help each student grow in intellect and character, to help each learn how to do things  right and how to do the right things, to help each learn what is necessary for both a productive livelihood and a productive life.
~ Louis Schmier, in POD Listserv post 11/12/08 (lightly edited)

“I will not be able to attend today’s workshop (sorry—I’m overloaded!!)
but could really use some assistance in this area.”
from faculty email to a Teaching Center regarding a workshop on coping with overload, quoted in
Making Time, Making Change: Avoiding Overload in College Teaching
~ Douglas Robertson

Executive Summary    Among attitudes underpinning college success are persistence and self-efficacy, the belief in one’s ability to reach a learning outcome or personal goal.  Both are learned.  Students often reach our classrooms bitterly discouraged, disspirited and disabled in this respect, troubled by doubting their own competence.  Many don’t understand that people learn different content in different ways and at different speeds, and that one can learn to compensate for deficits by working harder or differently.  In this message, consider how to show students their strengths and how to encourage them to raise their own personal bar to achievement by attitude shifts.  The central issue is to offer hope and prompt change by reducing perceived risk and fear of failure

“Some students are just not cut out for school”    In a moving piece on YouTube, Michael Wesch (a professor of Cultural Anthropology at the Kansas State University) reports hearing this often from frustrated faculty colleagues.  For one view of higher education’s problems and promise, watch nine minutes of an hour-long video (A Portal to Media Literacy) at  in which Wesch speaks to faculty at the University of Manitoba.   Also learn there what Wesch means by “a crisis of significance” in education.  [We have used the first ten minutes of this video as a discussion kickoff in the new faculty morning segment of Fall Orientation.]

Examine your beliefs   What are your own beliefs about student competence?  Skip Downing, a long-time community college instructor and the founder of, has made a career of combining faculty development with student success strategies.  In the item linked below, “Choices of Successful Students,” one of TLC’s FAQs, you can get the flavor of his program.  Oncourse runs an annual conference and nationwide workshops; and Skip tirelessly promotes the exchange of success strategies among faculty:The 8 Habits of Successful Students

Explore its web site for more:, including a self-assessment you can also offer to students:
Teach students to assess and understand their personal academic strengths.   The link just above is a free, online self-assessment tool that prompts thinking about the behavior and attitude variables that underlie success.  Such an exercise could be a good way to open conversation with students about these variables.  From there, students can learn how to determine personal learning preferences.  Many simple, free, online, instant-scored instruments are available on the web, and John Collins, a colleague at the University of British Columbia, suggests asking students to do any three, and then triangulate the results:  In what ways do the three instruments agree, and how do they disagree?  Do the assessments match your self-perceptions?  What areas would you like to work on?  How can one compensate for areas of relative weakness?

Embed skill instruction in content classes.   As you become aware of student skill deficits, you can re-focus on needed skill development without losing content time.  One way to do this:  offer a mini-workshop on some specific skill in the last five or ten minutes of a class: e.g. tips for learning from a text, skillful navigation of a multiple-choice test. By using time at the end of a class, you allow easy opt-out by students who don’t need this help.   If you know the deficit is widespread, use a little class time to build a T-chart, asking students to identify and focus on specific behaviors related to a concept like participation or preparation for class.   The T-chart concept, originated by David and Roger Johnson at the University of Minnesota to help develop team skills, is explained at  Strategies for Helping Students Develop Team Skills and you can develop simple ways of doing this with a class.  

Teach students that attitude is a choice and makes a difference.  Students often are stuck in negative or self-defeating attitudes or behaviors.  In a newsletter from the online Adjunct Success program, Richard Lyons points to the “Eight Habits of Highly Effective Students.”  It is available at

Go S.L.O.W.   Crawl, walk, run.   In “What the Army Taught me about Teaching,” Martha Kinney underscores the importance of scaffolding:  building understanding, confidence and competence in small steps.  For instance, a professor might identify and assign specific steps of preparing a research paper, instead of assigning the paper and assuming that students know all the steps.  The scaffolding concept is neatly explained at and the Kinney paper (which I’ve used as a workshop tool in prĂ©cis form) can be found at

PostScript on Skill-Building:  Some years back, my colleague Susan Van Zanten (then a faculty developer at Seattle Pacific University) commented in her newsletter:  A 2007 survey called “How Should Colleges Prepare Students to Succeed in Today’s Global Economy,” asked 305 top corporate executives what they most wanted to see in a job candidate.  The top three choices were “teamwork skills,” “critical thinking and analytic reasoning skills,” and “oral/written communication.”  While today’s global economy has changed radically, I think it’s a fair assumption that these three skills are now needed more than ever, in areas ranging from ministry to teaching, public relations to medical care, and performing arts to banking.  We certainly can use them in higher education.   How do you help students—undergraduates and graduates alike--develop these skills within your discipline?  Do you explain to students why you assign group work or oral presentations, what the connection is between their learning activities and their future life?  

Honolulu Community College has, over the years, developed one of the most frequently visited faculty development sites on the web.  The organizing brainchild behind this is Jerry Cerny.
It is chock-full of links to practically anything you might need, from The Secrets of Study Success to Five Basic Types of Questions, to Ed Nuhfer’s Knowledge Survey, a way of determining what students think they know about your content without giving a test, to Achieving Success with Adult Learners.
You can find these things using a search engine, but HCC has collected them for you in
a colorful and user-friendly format, in the Teaching Tips Index.