The $10 Million Question

There is an old question that teachers sometimes ask their students. In fact, I have asked it of my students on occasion. A student will come in and say “I just cannot seem to do well in your course. No matter what I try, nothing seems to work. I’ve tried everything and I keep getting bad grades. I just cannot do it.”

The teacher’s response is straight-forward “If I offered you $10 million, could you make an A in my class? You make an A and you will get a check for $10 million.”

If the student is honest, they usually respond “Well, yes, for $10 million, I would do absolutely nothing but studying night and day for your course and I imagine that I could make an A. I am not sure that I could make 100 but I could get an A. I would become obsessed for $10 million.”

The response from the teacher is obvious: “So, your problem in my class is not ability. It is only a question of motivation. If you could become motivated enough, you could make an A.”

It is a great story because so much of it is true. In the initial discussion with the student, there is the implication that the student cannot do well WITHIN THE CONFINES OF WHAT THE STUDENT IS WILLING TO DO. The student is not willing to say it but he (or she) is willing to study X hours or put in Y effort and when that doesn’t get the desired grade, the student becomes frustrated. Students are usually willing to put in a little more time but what they are looking for are tricks that will get them a better grade with about the same amount of energy or effort. And, when things don’t work, it is always relatively easy to simply fall back on “I just cannot do this stuff.” It is always easy to give up.

Okay, let’s turn the tables. I often give teaching presentations and a few (actually, quite often, many) of the participants will complain that the students simply won’t learn regardless of what they do. No matter what they do, they are disappointed in the results and often get student evaluations that seem too low.

I’ve never done the following at a presentation but at some point I’m going to try it. “Let’s assume that some rich graduate of your school walks in one day and offers to establish a $10 million teaching prize. At the end of the coming school year, every student will be asked the following question ‘rate each of your professors on the quality of what you learned in each of your classes this semester.’ The professor with the highest rating will be given the $10 million prize.” (Let’s assume that no one cheats and bribes the students.)

Would you want to win that prize? Oh, of course, unless your school pays better than mine, $10 million would be an incredible amount of money—much more than most of us make in two lifetimes.

Key question 1 – could you win that prize in your school? What I hope your answer would be is “for a chance at $10 million, I would certainly give it a try. For one year, I would do whatever it takes to get my students to learn and learn deeply. I would become obsessed with student learning.”

Key question 2 – what would you actually do in hopes of winning that $10 million teaching prize?

Once again, I don’t think this is a question of ability. I think all teachers can be great. I want to repeat that thought: I believe all teachers can be great. I think it is a question of motivation. For a shot at $10 million, I think every teacher would do things a lot differently than they do today. (For example, I bet class preparation time would go up significantly. I think a lot more time would be spent on writing and grading tests.)

I think one of the real weaknesses in college teaching today is that there is no real motivation for trying to be great. Yes, we all have personal pride and we all understand the importance of what we do. But, it is tough to rely totally on internal motivation.

But $10 million would be a whole lot of external motivation. So, here is the question that I want you to ponder—if there were a $10 million teaching prize offered at your school, what would you do differently in hopes of winning that award? Make a list of everything that you would do differently.

That list provides you with an automatic roadmap for becoming a great teacher, for becoming the kind of teacher that students talk about 20 years after graduation. That list tells you how you can become the best teacher in your building. There are no secrets to being a great teacher—look at your own list.

Then, try a few of those things starting today. You don’t need to start with all of them. Be satisfied with a few changes. See if they actually do work to make you a better teacher. You have to become a better teacher first before you can become a great teacher.

It is not a question of ability. People give me scores of excuses for not being the best teacher in their building. Forget those excuses. You’ve got to get over that. If someone offered you $10 million to become the best, what would you do?

Then, decide what part of that list you are willing to do first and get started.

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