What Do You Want On Your Tombstone?

It is early in the semester so I want to ask you to consider a question.

Several years ago, Tombstone Pizza ran a series of television ads that asked the question “What do you want on your tombstone?” Although the company was trying to sell their pizzas, the ads also made people think about how they wanted to be remembered. Not a bad question to ponder.

When I give teaching presentations, I often ask the members of my audience to write down in one or two sentences exactly how they would like to be remembered by their students. My point to them is that you cannot be the type of teacher you want to be unless you really know how you want to be remembered.

Afterwards, I’ve had dozens of people tell me they had never thought of the question until I asked it and, then, it really made them think about their teaching from a new perspective.

Several years ago, the seniors here at the University of Richmond were holding an awards ceremony and they voted me “the most feared professor in the Business School.” That was fine; I understood how they might think that. However, later in the same evening, they also named me “the professor who cares the most.” Okay, when you put the two awards together, I kind of liked that. He is mean to us because he cares. Well, it wouldn’t be my dream description but I still kind of liked it

So, I thought about the question more seriously. How do I really want my students to remember me? If you were to ask me, it would be “he is the professor who pushed us the hardest to think and learn” and “he is the professor who cared the most.” Not one or the other but both. If by the end of the semester I could get those two comments, I think I would be satisfied. Even here early in the semester, those two already serve as a goal for me personally: push them as hard as I possibly can but make sure that they know that I care about them and their future. I don’t want one without the other; I want both.

So, my challenge for you is to sit down and ask yourself this question. When you next go to class, how do you want these students (not some dream students but the live ones sitting there in front of you) to remember you? Look into their eyes and ask yourself that question. I think if you can come up with a verbal description to answer that question, you will have taken a real step toward having a great semester.

A student who came to my office this afternoon made me think of this. She had been in my class some time back and we were just chatting. I asked her about her classes and her response was “all of my teachers this semester seem to throw up Power Point slides on the screen and then kind of read them to us. I’ll remember these teachers as Power Point people.”

I’m not sure that’s how I would want to be remembered by my students. Which raises the question, again, here at the beginning semester: What do you want on your tombstone? How do you want your students to remember you?

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