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When do teaching techniques lapse into questionable
A reader laid off from her newspaper job applied for a
license as a substitute teacher. In her state, she says, new substitute
teachers are highly encouraged, and in some districts required, to take a
one-day training class. The class is conducted by an educational organization
located in her state.
Most of the attendees in the class the reader took had
education degrees. Some were new graduates and others former teachers.
During the class, the trainer revealed that she had a
highly effective classroom management technique she wanted to share. When she
is in the classroom, she writes the numbers 1 through 60 across the top of the
blackboard or whiteboard. She tells her students that if they cooperate and get
through everything in that day's lesson plan quickly, she'll let them have a
few minutes at the end of the class to talk together. The plan is that she will
mark off a number as they make their way through the lessons. As soon as they
get to 55, she tells her students, they can have their free time.
The secret, she tells her trainees, is to mark off the
numbers quickly at first so you get the kids engaged in the scheme. Then you
stop marking off the numbers until they remind you.
"You'll never hit 55," she tells her trainees.
When the bell rings for the end of the period, she instructs them to tell their
class, "Sorry, we'll try this again tomorrow."
Several educators in the room were thrilled with this new
technique, says my reader - who was appalled. Then others shared additional
methods of lying to students and tricking them into staying engaged. "It
seems this is something they are taught as educators," my reader said.
The reader was so upset by this class, she says, that she
considered dropping out of the substitute teacher program because, "I
can't do what everyone else seems to think is the smart thing to do."
Anyone who has ever stood in front of a classroom full of
pre-adolescent or adolescent children knows that a technique to engage the
students in the course of study that works is gold. If the trainer had used the
1 to 60 technique honestly and was genuine in her offer to give her students a
break if they finished a day's assignment in a timely fashion, she might have
had something worth emulating.
But since she went into the exercise with the intent of
never letting the students reach the magic 55, it's a dishonest gesture. The
students might work to keep up their end of the bargain, but the deal is fixed.
Sure, they get a full lesson plan and might be paying more attention than they
otherwise might have. But why lie? Why not engage the children and honor the
commitment you seem to be making? Why not let them hit 55 and get a break if
they worked hard to get there?
Lying to or misleading kids to get them to do what you
want them to do hardly passes ethical muster. The right thing is to find
techniques that work to keep students engaged, but to never lose sight of the
lesson you send about honesty and honoring commitments.
Scott Thompson, the CEO of Yahoo, earned an accounting
degree from Stonehill College in Easton, Mass. His degree was not also in
computer science, a program that didn't begin at Stonehill until after Thompson
graduated. Yet, in Yahoo's filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission,
Thompson was identified as having earned the degree in both majors.
Filing false information with the SEC about the CEO's
background is not a particularly wise choice given that it violates the
Sarbanes-Oxley Act and, as such, runs afoul of federal law.
But in spite of the fact that the erroneous academic
credential has been featured as part of Thompson's public biography for years,
the Yahoo CEO has said that he did not know about the error until it was
pointed out by a Yahoo investor who wanted Thompson removed from his position.
Before Yahoo announced on Sunday, May 13, that Thompson
was leaving the company, there was already fallout from the incident. One of
the firm's directors, Patti Hart, who chaired the search committee that
ultimately pinged Thompson to become CEO, stepped shortly after the resume
embellishment hit the press.
If Thompson knew of the embellishment and did nothing to
correct it, then he, like many executives before him who have been caught with a
resume that didn't reflect reality, should be held accountable for not
correcting the error. Ten years ago, I wrote about the president of the U.S.
Olympic Committee stepping down after it was discovered that she did not hold
the Ph.D. she claimed to have earned. In that case, the fake credential had
nothing to do with the skills the person needed to perform her functions, nor
did they run afoul of any federal laws.
If others posted the information about Thompson and knew
that he did not hold the credential, then they, too, should be held
But what if it becomes clear that it's impossible to know
who knew what when? What then? Should anyone be held accountable?
Yes, they should. And in this case, the ultimate
responsibility lies with the boss. If Thompson truly didn't know what was in
the SEC documents regarding information about the degree he earned, he should
have. Granted, being a CEO of a large, public company is a consuming job and it
may be impossible to keep track of every aspect of every detail that's involved
in running the company.
But when it comes to personal information that is being
presented, the CEO should be held accountable for knowing that it's out there
on company documents and that it's accurate.
Would the search committee have offered Thompson the job
if it turned out that he had a degree solely in accounting rather than a dual
degree in accounting and computer science? Perhaps. Based on his extensive
experience and documented accomplishments, what he majored in in college more
than 30 years ago seems hardly likely to have mattered.
It's often the small stuff that does a fellow in. Making
sure that how you're represented is accurate, particularly when it's your
company doing the representing, is essential. Not just to avoid getting caught
in a misstatement, but mostly because it's the right thing to do.
That's what a reader wrote me after recounting his
efforts to provide assistance to a young employee.
The reader was the boss of a "rather brash"
young employee who fancied himself a good writer. Part of the young man's job
was to write quite a few memos for my reader. But each time he wrote one, his
boss found himself having to do a rewrite.
After months of the young man not showing any
improvement, his boss spent a good deal of his personal time wrestling with how
he might help him improve.
"Without making any specific edits, I wrote down
general suggestions about a memo he wrote," my reader says. "I gave
him a list of things to consider - his tone, the position of the intended
recipient, the need to avoid repetition of superfluous information and run-on
sentences, and so on." It was, the reader recalls, a pretty long list.
The morning after giving him the list, the reader called
the young man into his office. He asked him to take another look at the memo he
had written in light of the list his boss had given him.
"He was back in my office in maybe two minutes,
handed me the memo back, looked me in the eye, and said, 'I wouldn't change a
word of it.'"
At this point, my reader arrived at his conclusion that
"some people are hopeless cases."
One question raised by the incident is whether it's OK to
make such broad assumptions and give up on someone as being untrainable. But a
larger question is if it is fair to expect that the young man should have
understood his boss's intentions if the boss didn't take the time to be more
specific about his concerns.
The boss did go out of his way to try to guide his
employee, but assuming that the young man could deduce from the extrapolated
list what he should do with his own writing may not have been a particularly
effective method. It assumes that the young man will be able to see that what
the boss outlines on his list reflects problems with his own writing. The hope
is that the young man would have caught on and transformed his writing.
But hope is not a particularly reliable teaching or
training method. Different approaches work for different people.
Perhaps if the boss had been more direct with the
employee and gone over the specifics of what was not working on the memos he
wrote, the message would have sunken in more clearly. Perhaps it was those
"specific edits" that my reader decided not to include that would
have been precisely the technique that worked. After all, the young man was
writing memos for his boss, so it was more than reasonable that the boss should
have those memos reflect a style he preferred.
The right thing then is not to immediately cast off as
hopeless that which doesn't change instantly based on our instruction. Instead,
explore different methods to see which one works the best. If, after several
attempts, the performance fails to improve then it's reasonable to decide that
the employee is not the right fit for the job and to perhaps do a more thorough
job screening for his replacement.
On April 26, Joel Wardscored the winning goal for his
Washington Capitals in a National Hockey League playoff game against the Boston
Bruins. It was the seventh game of a tied playoff series, so fan passion was at
a high. Ward is one of the few black hockey players in the NHL.
Almost immediately, dejected Bruins fans (or those
appearing to be) began tweeting racist comments about Ward. The comments were
ugly and the response from the teams and the league swiftly condemned the
In one case, reporter Bob Hohler wrote in The Boston
Globe that a young man had directed a particularly offensive comment at Anson
Carter, a black man who had played for the Bruins in the late 1990s. Carter tracked
down the tweeter, who turned out to be a college student, and reported him to
his school. Carter received an apology from the tweeter, to which Hohler
reports that Carter responded, "Don't think you can hide behind your
computer and say that to someone."
In a perfect world, the young man might learn that words
have consequences. They have sting - and they can stick with you far longer
than you might expect.
There's no question that writers - whether they be
columnists or tweeters - should think about what they write and the impact
their words might have both to the subject about whom they're writing and on
While racists may rarely stop to think about the effect
their words might have, many reasonable, intelligent people do. Through blogs,
tweets, and assorted other venues, it's far easier than ever before to find a
platform from which to espouse a viewpoint. But a question that often looms
large, particularly among those at the beginnings of their careers, is: Will
something I write come back to haunt me in the future?
It's a fair concern. Published words do stick around a
lot longer than they used to and have the capacity to gather a larger audience
than ever. (Students still regularly enjoy reminding me about a column I wrote
for an online magazine more than a decade ago about the ethics of faking an
orgasm. Others like to point to an ethics column in which I copped to lifting
butter knives from a fancy restaurant or two in my youth.)
Racist statements are never OK. But what about viewpoints
on an issue about which you feel strongly that you fear might paint you in a
less attractive light to future potential employers? What's the right thing to
do when trying to weigh if such a risk is worth taking a public stand on
something you believe is important? The old saw of trying to calculate if the
juice is worth the squeeze is apt.
The right thing is to determine how important it is to
you to get your message out into the world. Not everything any of us believes
rises to the level of needing to have a larger audience simply because in a
digital age anyone can publish or post with ease. Common sense should prevail.
If you believe you'd be embarrassed by what you write, reconsider. Also, keep
in mind that those things you fear will come back to haunt are often not the
ones that do.