I Was Conned

I just discovered that last year I was conned by a student. Boy, was I taken in–big time. My response to her heart-rednering story had been dictated by my heart. I believed a clever and dishonest student who went to such great pains to pull a sting on me. I was set up. She had made false entries in her journal; she had others pretend to be someone else on the telephone; she had believeable reasons for missing class and not participating in the projects; she lied to the other members of her community who in support of her became unwitting accomplices; she lied to me. Like Jabez Stone, she had traded her soul. She had devalued and disrespected herself in quest of the holy grail of a lousy grade she needed to transfer. Too bad she didn’t apply her energy to better purposes. I gave her another chance at another place. I acted with sympathy, understanding, and generosity. I had misplaced my trust. Some would say I was dumb to do it. She would sneer that I was a push-over. I discovered that she had duped others professors. That didn’t ease the feeling of having been violated. I have to admit that I didn’t like my life being invaded with a lie. It was like the feeling when our life savings were embezzled by a friend a few years ago. And yet, I honestly felt more sympathy and disappointment for her than anger towards her. I honestly am saddened for her and not for me. She hurt herself, not me. She lost her integrity, I didn’t and won’t. This lousy habit of deceit she is developing will come back to bite her in one way or another. That I guarantee.

Would I do it again? Would I give another student a second chance. You bet. I presently am, and their continued commitment to their promise is making it easier. I’m not pursuing perfection or waiting until I’m perfect at what I do and what I believe. I’m not waiting until for students to act perfectly as paragons of virtue before I risk making a mistake in judgement. What she did has bearing on me only if I give her permission to grind down my bearings. I cannot and will not. However tough it is at this moment, I won’t let her have a bearing on another student at another time in another situation. I must take one person at a time without listening to the whispers of her ghost in my ear and without letting them push me over the edge into the black abyss of insulating preconception about and stereotying of “all students.”

This isn’t the first time and I’m sure it won’t be the last. Whenever we extend our hand in encouragement and support, we take the risk of getting it slapped away–or bitten off. But, if I kept my hand in my pockets, I’d stop being a teacher. There’d be no relationship, no friendship, no connection, no hope, no faith, no belief, no love. I’d violate my promise to Kim and the nail polish on my right pinky would lose its meaning and be reduced to mere gaudiness. No, my hand will continue to out there. It must. Think how darkened I would be, how less my world would be, if I no longer set out each day to make it a “make a difference” day, if I no longer set out to lighten the life or brighten the day of a student. That horrible thought gives me strength to handle this without surrendering; I can rebound from disappointment. I’m not going to over-react. I’m not going to let her shake my faith. It’s not easy. It’s a challenge. It’s tempting to take the easy way out of this and protect myself from the next time. Then, if I did, I might hurt some needy student just because I didn’t have an emotional resilence, an inner strength to cleanse my inner self of some toxic feelings, and a bounce to rebound back from disappoint.

I think if I let her make me into a cynic that would be a far greater tragedy. I would be defeated rather than merely having lost. I would get stuck rather than sucking it up and moving on. I would choose to cling to dejection rather than merely accepting rejection. No, my skin is thicker than that. I’ll trust the Chinese advisers to the Emperor, “And this, too, shall pass,” and continue to believe truly that most students out there are good people. I refuse to become so suspicious of a student’s plea that I refuse to help for fear of being fooled again. Surely, that would be foolish, for if I did, I’d have a bigger problem than being occasionally taken in. I am not going to let a coldness and distance creep into my soul and make me so cautious and callous that I will turn a deaf ear and blind eye to a plea for help. If my free-flowing kindness keeps a less than honest student in business, so be it. I can live with that. I can’t live with being a person so on guard that my caring and compassion shrivels and puts an honest student out of business.

Ms Trombly, my high school secretarial arts teacher, would have told me to listen to my compassionate instinct to be empathetic and embracing, not to listen to any egotistical instinct to be outraged and disengaged. “Louis,” she once told me, “learn shorthand, not shortcuts. They’re not the same.”

Make it a good day.



We are witnessing a failure of infrastructure. No, not the electrical blackout in the northeast. I’m talking about something darker: the regrettably “Bliss-fulness” of collegiate sports. It is something that must concern each and every one of us and from which we should not and cannot hide in the proverbial pristine ivory tower. I am talking about our explicit or implicit, vocal or tacit support of the high-roller, high stakes, high-risk, high-reward rackets of high school and collegiate sports that tolerate–and even often abet–cheating, criminality, lying, bribing, intimidation, cover-up, hypocrisy, and all manners of corruption. I’m talking about hordes of supposedly educated, “should-know-better” academics and non-academics who are prostituting themselves for a slice in a multi-billion dollar high school and collegiate sports industry. Above all, I am talking about a refusal to accept personal responsibility and blaming it all on the devil of the system.

Unless we choose to respond to moral and ethical misdeeds with courage, integrity and honor, our individual and collective morality actually gets weaker, and we all become larger partners in high school and collegiate athletic crime.

Almost everyone is screaming to change the system in ways that acknowledge and accept what is, that the cheating becomes cheating no longer, student-athletes are no longer students, amateurs are no longer amateurs. Many want to submit to what the system has become rather than fight to make it what it should be. It’s the same ole, same ole. Everyone wants to change the system because no one wants to change themselves. It is wishful thinking to think that things will change without us changing. We make our own bed and then act as victims when we sleep in it–and continue to sleep in it. To paraphrase Pogo, we blame the system and the system is us. So, I say we first have to change ourselves, for nothing will change until we each change.

Unless we can handle that simple truth, unless we hold ourselves accountable, unless we understand and accept the role our choices play in the things that happen throughout collegiate sports, we are emotionally and morally immature. We live in the child’s world of “It got lost” rather than walk in the adult world of “I lost it.” No one improves anything by failing to take responsibility. To the contrary, the failure to assume responsibility is to surrender our ability to respond to circumstances, to choose our attitudes and actions and reactions, and to shape our lives. That is little more than self-imposed servitude–even slavery–to circumstances and other people.

The fundamental problem, then, is not the infrastructure of high school and collegiate sports. The seminal problem is the infrastructure within each of us. We have neglected our own infrastructure! Temptation is invited through the door that we have deliberately left open, and we have supped with it over a ten course dinner. Someone once said that we are each living on the honor system, that we are each responsible for our own moral decisions, that we each weigh the consequences of our behavior, that the results of our moral actions are with us everyday, and that the results of our ethical choices play themselves out every day both in our inner and outer worlds.

We have not taken good care of integrity, authenticity, honesty, trustworthiness, trustworthiness, fairness, responsibility, morality, ethics. That is critical, for, to paraphrase Pogo, the system is us. We allow the compromising system to compromise us only because we already have compromised ourselves, and have thereby compromised the system.

It’s true we each are only one. Nevertheless, we each are one. The fact we each are only one shouldn’t prevent each of us from doing what we each can do to break this vicious circle. This situation needs each of us to do something. If we each don’t heed Edmund Burke and if we each keep on silently doing nothing, collegiate sports will continue to be even more “Bliss-ful.”

Make it a good day.


I Want To Talk About Some Colleagues

They say that the first six weeks of the first semester of the first year is generally a make it or break it time. It is the most critical period for both students and an institution. It’s the window of found or lost opportunity when the students decide to choose you or loose you. You want to retain students? Care. Don’t just say it, live it. Live it not in some bunch of quickie meetings, but be there every day in every place. Yet, we’re so careless about our supposed caring. Our welcome can be so unwelcoming.

Most of the first year students are in a state of rapid transformation. They’re in a constant state of continuous adaptation. They’re being fired at from all directions. They’re nervous, unsure, frightened, emotional. Most of their mooring lines are being cut. Like the molting process nearly every aspect of their outer lives is changing in unexpected way and going in unprepared for directions. But, they’re still the same teenage high schoolers and home bodies they were a few weeks earlier. Their DNA codes haven’t mutated. They expect new experiences, but they’re not really ready for the impact of everything they encounter all at once. As their dreams get hit with reality, they feel tied up by the very ropes they’re supposed to learn and hold on to for safety. So, what do so many of us do? We’re electric eels. We take these “kids,” and they are kids, who are struggling with the cultural shock of often massive and unexpected sudden newness and shock them still more into almost total numbness and paralysis. We throw them into such impersonal, unsupportive, and uncaring situations. In barrages of incessant meetings and reams of paper, they’re peppered, showered, inundated with all kinds of information, warnings, advice, regulations, procedures, policies, so much of which runs off like water on the proverbial duck’s back. We so often throw them into the largest and most faceless, uncaring, unwelcoming, and nameless “herd” classes. The first year classes, those core courses to which we give Liberal Arts lip service, appear to be the ones far too many academics and administrations care the least about.

On the other hand, there are people on many campuses who are involved in it probably are more aware of first year student needs, more sensitive to their individuality, and more attuned to their confusion. The First Year Experience Programs are committed to the belief that a new student’s growth and academic experience are enhanced when on-going special attention and support are provided, when they are mentored in the process of assimilating into the institution’s culture. And yet, I have to question the sincerity of most institutional support because on far too many of our campuses these critical programs seem more tolerated than respected, thrown off to the periphery rather than placed at the core, and seen more as the solution of a temporary retention problem than as the fostering of a committed, core educational value.

I bring this up for a couple of reasons. The first reason is some comments made during an internet conversation I been having over the past few weeks with a some faculty from institutions all over the country. I had mentioned in passing that several years ago I had decided to forego teaching senior and graduate course and teach only the first year history classes. I had mentioned that I thought those first year classes were the most important classes on our campus and yet treated so matter-of-factly. And, I had mentioned that this semester all four of my classes are linked to our First Year Experience Oasis program. Boy, did I get it. “Why would a senior professor of your caliber ‘lower’ himself to teach only freshmen surveys?” one disbelieving professor asked me. One sneering comment followed another: “Those programs are such a waste of limited academic resources.” “They don’t teach a real subject.” “They’re just remedial curriculum by another name.” “They don’t belong on a university campus.” “They coddle students, hold their hand, and wipe their noses.” “They’re an example of how we’re dumbing down requirements and letting anyone in.” “Our administration ought to get real instead of patronizing a fad.” I smiled at the comment that “those in our First Year Experience program are only teachers, not professors.” But, the ones I love the best fell into the category of “In my day…….” God, you’d think to get to classes some of them had walked unaided up steep hills barefoot in deep snow–both ways!

I argue vigorously that our first year teachers deal more with the reality of our campus than do most academics in the ivory towers of their classroom. I answered all these snickerers by saying that these servant teachers (most didn’t like that description) teach the most important and most demanding of subjects: students. I told them that not only do they belong on our campus, they belong at the heart of our campus. They do the truly important task that far too many of their colleagues feel is of no importance. In fact, I went so far out on the limb to say that in my personal and profession vantage point, they do some of the most important work on campus, especially if you’re interested in retention.

The second reason was a planning lunch I had last week and will again in the coming weeks with a bunch of neat people in and involved with our first year program with whom I’m working. These people aren’t just neat people. They’re care givers. They’re outstanding teachers. They’re underrated and at times I’ve heard them too often berated. To me, they are, however, top rate. Too many faculty think what they do is at best non-professional. For me, their professionalism is far beyond question. These classy people certainly aren’t second class.

They are the too often hidden, sometimes dismissed, sometimes neglected, generally ignored “second son,” often treated “second class”, “cellophane” teachers in the First Year Experience program. They run what we call our “Oasis” program. In many respects, they are an oasis, a nourishing water hole, for most first students in the program. They are the right kind of people. They are the right knowing people. They are always aware people. They are heavy investors. They know that they have to know and understand each student; they don’t wear blinders and are acutely aware of others besides themselves; they are willing to invest as much of their time and energy as it takes to help a student achieve; they look beyond themselves; they look beyond their own needs and desires.

You know, only two of the eleven of these professionals have a Ph.D. I guess that explains by they’re just not smart enough to know that struggling to help each and every student is impossible. I guess that explains why they rely more on their common sense rather than follow common academic thinking. I guess that explains why they doubt the doubts of the doubters and are not discouraged by the discouragers. I know they’re told they have to be out of their minds to be stirred by such unattainable dreams. They’re smart enough, however, that they listen to and accept such naysaying advice. They have gone out of their minds! They’ve gone deep into their hearts and souls, and they wind up being where all the naysayers and doubters and discouragers never have been.

Talking with the likes of Pat, Sherry, Diana, Wonny, John, Jim, Calvin, I think I know what makes and what does not make an outstanding teacher. Know-what does not solely make for an outstanding teacher, although that is important. Know-how does not solely make for an outstanding teacher, although that, too, is important. Know-why does. Outstanding teachers have a purpose; they have a “WHY” branded on their soul; they have an absolute sense of mission. They know what an education is all about. For them, it’s purpose is to spread arete. It is their compass, their true north, for whatever direction they take. Arete, their “why,” their purpose, is the blueprint for the application of their know-what and know-how. They are what I’ll call “areters” (I’ve got a Ph.D. and I can “jargonize” with the best of them). If “arete” is the word the Greek philosophers had for the process of self-actualization and striving to reach your highest potential, if it is the highest of values, these people struggle to get students into the spirit of arete, to help them thinkarete and feelarete and doareete. And if, as Aristotle argued, arete is the way to achieve true happiness, publishing that book doesn’t rule their happiness; getting that research grant doesn’t rule their happiness; even getting that degree doesn’t rule their happiness; touching that student does.

We’re told somewhere in Proverbs, “as he thinks in his heart, so he is.” They think in their hearts what I once called those four little big words: belief, faith, hope, love. That’s all the see and, as Deepak Chopra reminds us, that unswerving perception of each student makes them who they are. They are go-the-extra-milers, for they know that the magic and the miracle are in the extra mile. They leave the comfort zone behind for the breakthrough. They render more and better service than is expected of them without complaint of “workload.” These teachers are nurturers. They are mentors. They’re safety nets. They’re always there for a student in need. For them, everyone has potential. Everyone belongs in their classes. No one is a loser. No one is worthless. No one goes nameless. No one is left behind in the shadows. Their classes are cluttered with creativity, vision, and imagination. Their classes are loving and nurturing worlds of adventure, worlds of adaptation, worlds of growth, worlds of transformation, and worlds of discovery. Boredom and routine are not their companions. They are a classroom dose of NoDoze, not of Nytol. They get up excited each morning and can’t wait to get into the classroom. For them teaching is a calling.

They come closer to each and every student than most faculty, treat each students with respect as individuals, and talk about them as human beings. They add to the stature of the student as a thinking, feeling, contemplating person. They embark students on unending voyage of discovering new interests and powers within themselves. They belt them down during the up and down and jolting roller coaster ride of that first year. They understand that education is not just a preparation for a career, but preparation for a meaningful life as well.

You know, there’s a lot of smarts out there in academia, but outstanding teachers such as the ones with whom I have lunch have something that is regrettably too often in short supply and is not automatically provided by a Ph.D.: the courage to do things differently, the courage not to fit in, the courage to stand up and stand out, the courage to lead rather than follow. It’s their courage that make difficulties lessen or disappear and obstacles weaken or vanish. They are not afraid to look like fools because they know they’re not doing anything foolish. This is not to say they don’t have fears; this is to say their fears don’t have them. This is not to say they don’t have pain when things don’t go right; this is to say they don’t imposed suffering on themselves. This is not to say they don’t worry; this is to say they worry about students, not about their worries, their fears, their pains. This is not to say they wouldn’t like to be sincerely appreciated as more than a solution to a temporary retention problem; this is to say that in the interest of the students they are willing to brave patronizing, disinterest, and disapproval. They themselves are the makers of themselves.

Damn, I’m proud to call them colleagues. I’m prouder still if they’d call me one of their colleagues. Of all the faculty on this campus, they have the most right to have what I call a “healthy pride.” They have a pride that’s rooted in the knowledge and feeling that they’re doing and accomplishing something good for someone else. Their form of daily, numberless acts of courage is rarer than that found in the heat of battle. And yet, it is only that kind of vital character that is essential to change in an academic culture that yields so slowly and painfully to change.

I wish my Dean, Vice-President for Academic Affairs, and President would give these noble, dedicated, committed, courageous, persevering, hard-working academics much more public acclaim, acknowledgement, and recognition than the little they have received. They truly deserve it. Their work is that important, and everyone should stand up and take notice. They are the ones who make the most lasting impression and the most lasting difference in both students’ lives and the life of the institution. We ought to recognize these unsung teachers who impact lives in the trenches with everyday caring. They are our silent heroes more than most on campus. And, for what it’s worth. I appreciate and salute them. Surely, we can learn, at least, to see them as equals, to stop merely tolerating them and to start respecting them.

Make it a good day.



Well, It’s about to be here and I’m still gushing, really gushing.

The first day is about to be here. First impressions are about to be here. I love it. I’m going on a blind date with over 160 students. It has an air of expectancy, of thrill, of fun, of enjoyment, of vitality, of opportunity, of excitement, of adventure, of discovery, of newness, and a “growing” for it. No “ho-hum” routine about it for me. Not a cold “just another day, another dollar” for me. Nothing back-breaking for me, just ground breaking. Not just an administrative hand out the stuff day for me. For me, this day is to give each student a starting hand. Not a “I’d rather be in another place” place for me. For me, it’s the best place to be. Not a mournful “yuk.” For me, it’s a shouting and exhuberant “yes!” It’s a singing and dancing “wow!” It’s and exciting and jubilant “let’s go!” My juices will be roaring at a Level 5 rapid rate in a few days.


And, talking about blind dates, actually two things are just about here. Monday is the first class of the Fall Semester and Thursday my angelic Susan and I will be toasting our 37th anniversary with 37 pieces of french fries by Wendys. Actually, I personally prefer to celebrate the anniversary of that all important first date, almost thirteen months earlier to the day, that literally last minute blind date with a teenage sophomore which I, a graduate student with nothing but my impending doctoral orals on my mind, did not want to go on. On that day next month, alone, by the fish pond, I will, as I always do, raise a glass of wine, with glassy eyes, deeply thank the good Lord for whatever I inadvertently did on that first date and whatever first impression I made that caught Susan’s eye and got her to agree to a coffee clutch the next night an hour before her dorm curfew, and the night after that, and the night after that, for eight weeks until I asked her to marry me. That first date set the tone for all our years of dating and courting that have since followed.

I bring this up not only because it’s on my heart and mind, but because as part of the ritual of getting my juices going, I’ve been going over and over the student journals from the previous semester. As I read those lines, I noticed once again something very interesting in the first entries, many intermittent entries, the final entries: the lasting impact of the first day of class, the first blind date the students and I had with each other. That first day of class is almost almost mentioned in the confidential letters the students from one semester write to the student of the incoming semester. And like that blind date I had with Susan, the first day in class I start the process of breaking barriers, building bridges, creating relationships.

That first day of class! How do I feel? What do I do? What do I say? Until about a decade ago, I was a talker and chalker. I used to be a hander outer and a getter outer. I spoke and they wrote. I wrote my name and office hours on the blackboard, preached an oral syllabus, told them name of the textbook, told them how many reports and exams they were going to have, gave them “you got to” and “you’re responsible for” speech, and sent them on their way. Every now and then, more now than then, I presented my first lecture. I it a homer administratively and struck out with them personally.

I’m not sure when I first learned how often that first day of class is so often a critical “what a day” of missed opportunities. How often the riches of that first day are left buried to lay around like an overlooked, undiscovered, unopened treasure chest. They say you can’t judge a book by its cover. That may be true, but it’s the cover that attracts us and makes us want to look inside. It’s the same with people. We can’t tell what a person is really like by looking on the outside but it’s the outside that makes us want to look inside. As I read those journals and recall the open sharing of the letters and think of that blind date thirty-eight years ago, I know that there is absolutely no one who can say they don’t make assumptions about someone based on those first impressions, whether we like someone from the start, whether or not we trust a salesperson, whether we want to purchase a particular car, whether or not we like the house a realtor is showing us, and whether or not we get a particular job, whether or not we feel we can trust a particular teacher.

And so, beginnings are important and do so influence the continuations. First impressions on that first day, can truly have lasting impressions. You seldom have a second chance to make that all important first impression. That first day, then, is a crucial day. It sets the mood. That first day is when you get the momentum moving and the juices flowing. That first day, with just a little bit of initial effort, can completely change students perspective and expectations. And when their perspective changes, when their expectations changes, when you help them wipe the cloudy haze from their eyes, when you’ve got them, the whole world looks new, different, and full of promising possibilities to them that they never dared dream about.

Those first impressions. They obvious decided whether Susan would say yes or no to my call the next day. It is a shame that that first day of class is so often consumed solely by cold administrative details. I don’t devote that first day handing out syllabus, answering questions about the course, giving sermon-like speeches, lecturing, making first written or reading assignments, and/or dismissing the class early. I struggle to create excitement. After all, almost all students come into that first day of class wanting to know more about me than about what I know or how the class operates. On that first day of class, students are looking me over. They’re browing my book cover. They are in the “take in” mode. They looking for clues. They’re picking up signals. They’re giving me their undivided attention as they’re trying to size me up. What students want to know most is who I am as a person. They want to know if I will be reasonable and fair with them, if I care about them as individuals, and if I care about the course itself. They want to feel that they are human beings and not simply names and ID numbers on a registration roll. They want to know if the class is going to be a boring and laborious gulag or a relaxed, friendly, fun place. In other words, they have four questions on their mind. At the top of the list are: Does he/she care about me? Does he/she respect me? Can I trust him/her? Way at the bottom of the list is: Does he/she know his/her stuff?

For me, then, that first day of class is the day, more than any other day, I am looking at me through the students’ eyes. This is especially true of first year students. They’ve had a heck of a few days. Everywhere they’ve turned, they’ve experienced culture shock. They’re already scarred by nips of reality. They’ve found out as they’ve unloaded cars, carried boxes, found a stranger in their room, had their first taste of collegiate “food,” wandered about in a strange place among strangers, that they’re not in Kansas and that this place isn’t the idyll college of recruiting brochures. They’re no longer being are reminding by Mom’s notes on the refrigerator, told to be in by eleven by Dad, they’re suddenly on their own to make their own choices. They’re so unsettled as they struggled to settle in. In the very short time of little less a few days they’ve had a time dealing with traumatic change. They have that look of having shed their old hard and protective shells, they’re exposed and vulnerable in their new soft shells. They’re confused, afraid, dazed by the molting process. They’re looking for clarity, stability, friendship, assurances, support, encouragement. You can see it in their tense, zombied eyes. You can see it in their hesitating and stiff movements. You can hear it in their silence. As I pretend I am walking into the classroom for the very first time, I am very conscious of my responsibility to start breaking their trance and calming their nerves by answering those first two questions in deed and word by establishing a connection with each student and generating an interest, a curiosity, an expectation, and an excitement.

For me, that first day of class is when I have a choice. I maintain an atomistic group composed of isolated and anonymous strangers or I can start transforming them into an organic, mutually supporting, encouraging, and cooperating community of friends. To do that, I feel I must involve students immediately, almost before they set a foot in the classroom, with me and each other. My goal is to start smashing those separating barriers, building those bridges, creating community. I work to start welcome each of them and establish a rapport each of them between me and them, and among each other. I reveal whatever they want to know about me. I generate the climate of the class. I build a sense of community. I convey my excitement and enthusiasm. I commit myself to helping them help themselves start becoming the persons they are capable of becoming, but so often, far too often, never dared dream they could become.

How do I do that? First, I get myself comfortable. No suit and ties for me. My attire is as laid back as my outlook on life. In this wet, torrid weather, I’ll probably go to class in my shorts, Tommy Hilfer pullover shirt, walkers. I’ll carry my blaring boombox through the halls into the classroom. It will be playing an inviting Barry White or a booming Aretha Franklin or the soothing sound track from Crouching Tigers or a rap to make the students feel comfortable. When they’re comfortable, they will relax, be more at ease, be more attentive, be more receptive.

On the first day of class, after I’ve meditated and prepared myself, I arrive early so I can greet each student as he or she comes in. I start with what I call a light golden touch of welcome combined with a lot of humor and shining smiles. I shake their hands, greeting them with a “Welcome. I’m Louis Schmier. Who are you…Glad to have you here.” I continue with a light golden touch. I introduce them to another student whom he or she doesn’t know, “Do you know? Well now you do. Why don’t you all go over there and talk to each other about whatever?” And so, I send them off to move the chairs, face each other, and talk about “stuff.” Lots of noise. Lots of laughter. Lots of movement. Lots of facing each other. Lots of getting to know each other. Even after all the students have gone through this ritual, I let the noise and movement continue. I add to it by moving about among the clusters, sitting on desks, sometimes climbing over them, and small talking with students.

On that first day of class, on the blackboard I will write the first of my daily “words of the day.” It will be the underlying and pervading theme of whatever goes on in class: “Be a voice, not an Echo.”

On that first day of class, I hand–well, actually I throw them as if I was back in my youth pitching baseball cards–each student a sealed, confidential letter written by students from the previous semester classes about me, the class, the projects, whatever. They read the letters, read them to each other, and some volunteer to read the letter to the class. They get the real lowdown on me from their peers who have gone through the fires of whatever. More noise and movement, more laughter, more breaking barriers and building bridges, more creating community.

On that first day of class, as they will each day, to help get them into a positive mood, I ask both the students and myself to write on the blackboard what they have found exciting that day–even at 8:00 a.m. Still more noise and movement, more breaking barriers and building bridges, more creating community. That’s me.

On that first day, as I usually do, I’ll sit cross-legged on the table, talking roll by the familiarity of their first name, asking each of them how he or she wishes to be called. If I have students with the same names, as I always do, I assign them a number: Jessica one, Jessica two, Jessica three. And it their “name” henceforth and forever more. I tell them they can call me whatever they wish. That’s me.

On that first day of class, I ask the students stand up and go on a “treasure hunt” for ten treasures, people in the class–including me–whom they do not know, introduce themselves, shake hands, and tell each other why each is a treasure. And still more light golden touches, more noise and movement, more laughter, more breaking barriers and building bridges, more creating community.

On that first day of class, I let the students form their own three-person Communities of Mutual Support and Encouragement according to three rules:

a. everyone must be a stranger to each other
b. the Communities must be gender mixed
c. the Communities must be racially mixed

The noise and movement continues, the breaking of barriers and building of bridges continues, and the creating of community continues.

On that first day of class, I lay down the two inviolable rules of behavior for the entire semester: (1) no one says anything without first introducing him/herself; (2) no one looks at the back of anyone else’s head.

On that first day of class, I sit in the center of the room for an open “what do you want to know about me” session. I have found that my willingness to reveal myself helps break down the barriers and builds the bridges between me and the students. Their questions can be personal or professional. Many are prompted by the contents of the letters they received from their peers. They ask, I answer. I have long ago decided that there are very few self-revelations that aren’t are acceptable, that there isn’t for me many subjects about which I don’t find easy to talk with them about: my family, my painted finger nail, my epiphany, why I don’t lecture, why I don’t use grades, why…., whatever. But, that’s me.

Then, I give them first community building assignment for the following class. Normally, I ask them to bring in an object to tell us how that object symbolizes what they want us to know about them. I’m going to try some new, off-the-wall stuff this semester.

Be comfortable. Be real. Have fun. Get to know each other. And if it takes a second day or a third day, take it. The first day stuff, the “getting to know ya” classroom community building stuff, usually takes us a couple of day. It’s followed by “the rules of the road” exercises that take a few more day. Then, we put the pedal to the metal, the rubber hits the road, as we start getting down to the meaty “crayon, markers, and other things” learning projects.

Breaking barriers, building bridges, creating community, I find it all is well worth the time.

Gotta go order 37 daisies. Have a great first day, and….

Make it a good day.


The Most Important Word In Education

Dare I share another one so soon? But, gosh, lately I’ve been feeling like a Texas wildcat oil well that just came in. I’m just gushing with stuff. I guess my excitement about the coming semester is really building up after a roughly three month reluctant hiatus from the classroom.

What the heck. There I was, “basking” in the hot, humid mid-day summer sun among the front yard flower beds spraying them with a home made natural, noxious, nicotine based bug spray made from boiling chewing tobacco. Coating my superheated body was an equally noxious concoction of sweat, sunblock oil, and mosquito repellant made from being blanched in the hot humidity. My back was to the street. As I whiffed away the gnats, I heard the plodding of a runner. I didn’t look around. I thought it must be a fellow mad dog or Englishman. I heard my name called out, turned, and there was sweaty Nessie. I waved. She stopped, came over, and started talking. Parts of our conversation went something like this.

Between gasping huffs and puffs, she said, “Hey, Dr. Schmier, this is crazy.”

“Running in this humidity and sun?” I asked in a tone of agreement that questioned her sanity.

“No. A bunch of us were talking about you the other day over a pizza. We were singing our Bruce Springsteen project songs. It was a hoot. We were doing that crazy rap stuff about Reconstruction at the table. The people around us thought we had lost it. Then, we got to talking about the class and how we felt about it. We came up with a puzzle for you that we were going to throw at you when classes begin. But, hey, you’re here now. We wanted to know what you think is the most important single word for a teacher or anyone on this campus?”

I turned off the hose. “Love,” I shot back.

“No. We know that. I mean if you could say only one word that says it all, just one word, to a student when he first comes on campus, when he first enters your classroom, when he first comes into your office, what would it be?”

“One word? You gotta be kidding.” I moaned. For a second I facetiously thought that in the future I should only work my front yard at night when no one would see me.

“One word,” she continued. “Not a phrase. Not a sentence. Not a sermon. Just one word. That’s all we’re giving you. What would that one word be?”


“Now,” she said with an impishness that revealed she thought she had caught me.

I thought for a second. “You know what it is.”

“I do?”

“Sure. It was the first word I used on the first day of class as I greeted you at the door and gave you the letter.”

She paused for a moment. “I don’t remember.”



“You got it. ‘Welcome.'”

“Why ‘welcome?'”

“It’s probably the most important least used word in education, second only to ‘love.’ It says it all,” I told her. “Love, support, encourage, hope, worthy, faith, belief, care.” As we talked, we decided that “welcome,” is a word for everyone on campus: staff, administrators, professors, advisers, coaches. It’s also not just a first day word. It’s a second day word, and a third day word, and a fourth day word. It’s an every time word, a “each and every day” word. And, it’s not just a “say to” word. It’s a “show it” and “live it” word as if each and every day is a first day. But, you’ve got to mean it. You’ve got to be passionate about it. It’s got to be unconditional. The bottom line is that it has to be real. You can’t say ‘welcome’ with a snarl in your voice and a sneer on your face. Your voice has to sing it, your body has to dance it, your face has to smile it…”

“What does all that mean?” she asked in confusion.

Whenever I say welcome, I told her, I mean a bunch of things: I will be gracious to each of you; I will respect to each of you; my heart is open to each and every one of you; I’m really glad each of you are here; you’re important and important to me; I’ll do whatever it takes to help you care about who you are and what you do; I want to see you grow to your full potential. I went to explain that “welcome” means an unconditional and sincere greeting of each person without prejudice, bias, preconception. “That includes the brash, the confident, the tattooed, the uncooperative, the body pierced, the shy, the lonely, the loudmouth, the goof off, the hard worker, the special, the friendly, the indifferent, the interested, the uninterested, the easy, the challenging. It means each and everyone, no exceptions.”

“Isn’t that kind of dreamy?”

“Well,” I answered, “dreams are pretty powerful stuff. They’re the key to our choices, passion, spirit, energy, growth. You might say that our dreams always lead the way for each of us. When you dream you are saying to yourself, ‘What if’ and ‘It could be.’ You’ll get and be what you imagine because you follow what you imagine to the places you imagine.”

I went on to explain that I thought imagination is sort of an expression of our desires, and its tough to go against your own desires. Our imagination can go to bright, beautiful, energetic, positive, exciting, extraordinary, selfless, and constructive places; or, it can go to dark, ugly, lethargic, negative, self-centered, hum-drum, and destructive places. I prefer harnessing that incredible power to fertilize my imagination with uplifting faith, hope, belief, and love. If I imagine the best that’s where whatever I think, feel, and do will take me. “I prefer to notice and embrace a student with an ‘I care and believe in you’ then ignore or push him or her away with an ‘I don’t really care and don’t believe in you.’ Then, I find myself in caring and believing places.” Beats gagging on a poison pill of negative grumpy worrying and griping.

“Is it really that easy?”

“No. It’s that demanding. It’s easy to say it; it’s harder to fight for it; it’s even harder to live by it; and it’s really tough to live up to it. If you want to keep on firing on all cylinders, you just have to work through a bunch of what some Zen masters call ‘The Lazies’ that are always there to stop you.”

Nessie sat down on the grass and we talked some more, a lot more about “welcome” and about those debiliating “Lazies.”

Make it a good day.


Sports In Education

Not only is the academic season about to begin, so is the sports season. Talking about the sports season, I’ve had something stuck in my craw for a while that I just have to cough up and spit out. In these stringent, cost-cutting economic times when everyone is tightening their budgetary belt and when everyone is talking about “leaving no child behind,” the local high school bragged that it has just constructed a brand new $100,000 weight room. Our teachers are not getting a raise, but the high school boosters raised $100,000 for a first class weight room. Our teachers have to buy classroom materials out of their own pocket, but local townspeople paid for a brand spanking new $100,000 weight room out their own pocket. The educational budget is being pared down by the Board of Education, but we have a Class A, $100,000 weight room. No one is screaming publically that we don’t have a first class educational system, but everyone is loudly applauding that our $100,000 weight room will give us a first class football team. That hit a raw nerve.

On the high school and collegiate levels, coaches violate rule after rule after rule. Fans rationalize away, if they don’t ignore, minor and serious infractions. Coaches and ADs lie on their resumes. School administrators turn their heads the other way, if they aren’t active conspirators. Coaches saddle up to co-eds privately or at riotous parties. Faculty offer “special considerations” to athletes. Advisers and tutors wink at or participate in “academic irregularities.” Coaches cut corners to recruit players. Admission officers bend or suspend entrance requirements for sought after athletes. Overzealous boosters don’t know what a rule is when it comes to recruiting and under-the-table payments to athletes. Too many others on and off campus seem satisfied or scared into silently going along to get along. Too many care more for their own careers and their own institutional take, and are careless with the lives of the athletes. And athletes think they are not subject to the normal rules of legal, moral, and ethical behavior, and become menaces to both themselves and others. What’s going on?

Then, I heard the tail end a quick commentary on this subject on the car radio the other week that got me thinking. I wrote a letter to the local newspaper. In it I said that the answer to my question may be the rampant adulation of playing a good game rather than the deep admiration for living a good life, that getting that score on the field is often more important than getting that score on a test, that making the grade on the team is more important than getting that grade in class. There’s more concern with what kind of players the athletes are on the field than with what kind of people they are off the field. Coaches are paid big bucks, very big bucks, to win and bring in the big bucks, often at whatever cost. They are not paid to develop the character of their players if it interferes with their players playing. They are paid to hone physical skills and talents. They are not paid to cultivate virtuous people. Oh sure, we all know that sports build character. Lately, I’m beginning to think sports creates and perpetuates more characters with weakened if any character than it builds character. The character traits the coaches and most everyone else emphasize are usually limited to those on-the-field “no pain, no gain” aspects needed to bring in the roaring crowds, bring home the championship trophies, and rake in the big bucks: perseverance, endurance, self-discipline, self-confidence, self-reliance, dedication, commitment, pursuit of excellence, resilence.

Coaches and their ardent supporters claim that sport enhances life. That may be true as far as it goes. They don’t seem concerned with preparing athletes for life, especially life after sports. After all, who is demanding that these on-field character values be taken off-field? Far too many, coaches seem rarely inclined to value other character values that make for a good person, a good citizen, a good spouse, a good parent, a good worker, a good business person, a good government official, a good friend: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, honesty, integrity, authenticity, compassion, respectfulness, and fairness.

Understand that I am not anti-athletics. To the contrary, in my collegiate youth I was a student-athlete. I honestly believe sports have a role to play in our schools no less than theater or music or art, a balanced role. I’ll repeat that, a balanced role. And, I admit that maybe, probably, I’m stepping into the realm of hyperbole and overgeneralization. After all, there’s Dean Smith, John Thompson, Coach K, John Wooden, Joe Paterno, Roy Williams and some others who believe they must prepare people for life as much as or perhaps more than merely coaching athletes to win games. Then, I ask myself, “Are they the exceptions to the rule? If not, why are they constantly and so dramatically held up as the models to be emulated if they were the norm? And, why do so many of our ‘look up to’ sports gods seem unworthy residents for Olympus?”

Make it a good day.


A Scary Realization

The beginning of the academic year is just a couple of weeks away. No depressing “yuks” for me, only rising “wows!” I just finished reading Daniel Goleman’s PRIMAL LEADERSHIP and portions of Peter Senge’s FIFTH DISCIPINE for the umpteenth time. They have accentuated the feelings I always get at this time of the year. As happens each year, while the juices are staring to flow and the excitement is starting to bubble, I come to a tempering, sobering, and scary realization: more than anyone else, I am the decisive element in the classroom. More than anyone else, I create the conditions that directly determine the student’s ability to work well. I affect how students will feel and therefore perform. I am the authority figure, the classroom leader, the pacesetter, the role model, the weather maker. It is my personal attitudes and approaches, my assumptions and presumptions, my daily moods that create the climate in the classroom. Like it or not, conscious of it or not, actively or passively, as a teacher, I possess tremendous power to make a student’s life miserable or joyous.

I can be sour or sweet;
I can be pathelogical or theraputic;
I can torture or inspire;
I can care less or care;
I can manipulate or persuade;
I can dictate or persuade;
I can discourage or encourage;
I can obstruct or open the path;
I can diminish or elevate;
I can bore or excite;
I can creat disonance or harmony;
I can curse and condem or bless and edify;
I can be of diservice or serve;
I can grind down or lubricate;
I can be clueless or be clued in;
I can be disinterested or interested;
I can humor or be humorous;
I can be cold or empathize;
I can be deaf or listen;
I can be blind or see;
I can be distant or near;
I can disconnect or connect;
I can disrespect or respect;
I can disbelieve or believe;
I can create hopelessness or hopefulness;
I can humiliate or hold sacred;
I can sneer or cheer;
I can be unaware or aware;
I can insensitive or mindful;
I can hurt or heal;
I can ignore or notice;
I can beat down or be upbeat;
I can hiss or applaud;
I can create crisis or eliminate crisis;
I can heighten or diminish;
I can de-humanize or humanize;
I can devalue or value each student.

It is my choices that decides on which side of each “or” I stand. How well I manage my moods and attitudes affects students’ moods and attitudes, and influences how well they each will perform. That is no small burden. It’s both scary and humbling.

Make it a good day.