On a personal note: My students this semester knew I was writing about my experience teaching while serving as a college president. Several times as we approached the end of the term, I shared with them that I had learned a lot this semester and would miss them. One student in the class expressed surprise -- he had not thought about my learning during the semester. This last column is an effort to explain something about the co-learning that transpired. In a sense, this is a “thank-you” note to my students.
They say that if you really want to learn something, teach it. Even though I have now led an institution of higher education for almost three years, leadership was not a subject I studied in any systemized way. Perhaps I chose, consciously or not, to teach a course in leadership and gender because I wanted and needed to learn more about leadership.
The old saw is right. I did learn. What follows are three of the many lessons learned.
Lesson One: Reassess Regularly
We undertook an exercise on the first day of class in which students wrote on index cards the three essential qualities they thought were most important for successful leaders to possess. They then sealed the cards in envelopes addressed to themselves. I did the exercise with them.
My start of the semester three words were: Problem Solver, Inspirational and Open (defined as flexible).
Our last class involved revisiting the envelopes and considering whether now, after all the readings and conversations and exercises, we would change the initial words chosen and select others to replace them and if so, why. At the end of the semester, I did not even recall my chosen words from the first day of class.
The majority of the class wanted to change at least one or more of the initially chosen three words. I was among those who wanted to change two completely and one partially.
My new three end-of-semester words were: Creativity, Strength, and Openness (defined as capacity to grow and change).
What does that alteration in word choice say about what I learned?
I believe it signals that, because of the course and my conversations with students, I was regularly reflecting on what it takes to lead, particularly in a changing world. It suggests that my approach to leading is evolving. I would hope that if I were to complete the same exercise a year or two from now, I still might change some of the words. Leadership is not easy; neither is reflecting honestly about it.
I remember a program I attended decades ago when I was a new law professor. David Vernon, a senior and much beloved law professor at the University of Iowa, was charged with speaking to us about our prospective scholarship. He said something that has stayed with me: Whatever you write now, no matter how good you think it is, you should re-examine it 25 years from now and if you have not changed your mind about that early piece you wrote, you have not grown sufficiently as a scholar.
Not bad advice for professors and presidents: one’s thinking really does change over time, and it is not a reflection of lack of quality at the beginning.
Lesson Two: Mentors Reside In Unexpected Places
I recently had to write remarks for Commencement. It is something I like to do but I was struggling to find the right way to explain what it means to succeed and how we should define and then measure success in our ever-so-complicated world. I was searching for some pithy words written by a famous person, some insights, some something that would provide new graduates with guidance.
At this same point in time, I was grading exams. One of the students wrote about success as part of her final exam answer, and she referenced words from an interview she had conducted earlier in the semester as part of the class. The person interviewed was a Southern Vermont College Trustee.
Inspiration struck: At Commencement, I would use the ideas spoken by an SVC trustee and written by a graduating SVC student. The student and trustee had become, in essence, my teachers. Another example of co-learning. The quoted trustee’s words were:
“I believe we need to encourage innovation and risk-taking; they are imperative to success. You cannot only look toward well-known leaders for great ideas. You can generate them yourself. In addition to taking risks, you cannot be afraid of failure. It is important to take chances, be brave and have confidence in your beliefs.”
The only thing I added to the student/trustee message in my remarks was that I knew our students could carry out these important tenets; I knew it based on my personal knowledge of them, knowledge gained as their professor.
This reinforced for me the obvious point that leaders always need mentors but it also gave me a new twist: sometimes leaders find unlikely mentors in unexpected places -- including a classroom.
Lesson Three: Be bold.
As a professor, I had always been puzzled by exams and was concerned on two fronts. First, I wondered whether any exam I wrote was actually a good measure of the learning I wanted students to do during the semester. Second, I thought that the studying for the exam was often more important than the exam itself. While teaching law, I fantasized about having 100 first year law students enter an exam room and read something like this when they opened their exam:
There will be no exam in this course. You have studied for the exam and that is what counts. Thank you for working hard to master the material we covered this semester. I enjoyed teaching you. I have two hopes: I hope you learned more than you expected, and I hope that what you learned stays with you as you enter your chosen profession.
Of course, I never did that -- for lots of reasons. Law schools tend to be pretty conservative places. There is often no graded work during the semester and so no way to give any grade other than through a final exam. I suppose, too, that some of the more competitive students might have had their feathers ruffled -- perhaps with good cause.
But the real reason I never did this was that I was not daring enough.
When it came time to write my take-home exam for my course this semester, I thought that if there ever were a time to be daring, it was now. So, I gave an exam of the sort I wished I had been able to take as a student: I gave the students identical gray bags, each filled with five distinct objects, and I presented them with a set of problems involving a stodgy clothing manufacturer that was in financial trouble and asked them to solve the problems using the items in the bag as inspiration. One student suggested creating a line of hip baby bunting inspired by the large brass safety pin that was in the gray bag and a line of doggy duds inspired by the spotted Dalmatian-like thread that was also in the bag. Not bad.
That exam experience made me appreciate that I cannot be afraid to try something out-of-the box as a president. If there ever were a time when being daring was possible, it is as a leader.
I appreciate that it is easy to take the opposite approach -- to be conservative and even timid, particularly in tough economic times. But, as the exam I gave my students showed me, leadership is about being bold and it took teaching a course on leadership to embrace that reality more fully.
I will not be teaching a course during the 2009-10 academic year. It is not because the experience was unmemorable or unproductive. It was both enjoyable and productive, and judging from the course evaluations, the students had similar positive experiences.
Instead, I will teach without a formal classroom, as part of what I do every day. That way, I won’t have the preparation struggles I experienced this past semester; I won’t need to grade papers throughout the semester and exams at the end; I won’t be conflicted about competing events and scheduling snafus.
That said, I plan on remembering the exam that I always wanted to give as a professor and the one I actually did give as a president.
That should keep the professor part of me contented -- until academic year 2010 --11. I have already asked the provost to schedule me to teach again. I already know the topic of the course: leadership.
Karen Gross is the president of Southern Vermont College.