The 1st Habit of Highly Effective College Instructors

Applying Stephen Covey’s 1st Habit to College Teaching


While working on this post, I thought about something, a decoration that is prominently displayed in our home. It is a handsome placard on which the words of the Serenity Prayer are hand-lettered. Not familiar with the Serenity Prayer? It is generally accepted that theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote this prayer for a sermon he delivered roughly 75 years ago. There are a variety of adaptations, and Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) has created a version used as part of their program. The version on our wall reads, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can change, and wisdom to know the difference.”

So why did I think of the Serenity Prayer? Actually, I think of it all the time, especially right after I do something really stupid. (I could use a tad more wisdom.) But this time I thought about it because the Serenity Prayer is another way to convey the meaning and message behind Steve Covey’s first Habit – Be Proactive.

Habit #1 – Be Proactive

In Steven Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, the first habit is to be proactive. Being proactive means taking responsibility, never being satisfied with the status quo, always seeking to do better. If you constantly look for ways to make situations better, for yourself and for others, you have the positive energy Steven Covey talks about.

On the other hand, are you an adjunct who fulfills your obligations in proportion to the meager salary they pay you? You don’t need much time to prepare your lessons; you know the material. You lead a busy life, so they can’t expect you to check your e-mail and return phone calls every day. The college picked the book for you to use. If your students can’t understand the sample problems, that’s not your fault. You tell them everything they need to know and test them to be sure they learned it. What more can your dean expect? Do they want you to be a nursemaid to these students? No way. In the words made famous by the late great comedian Freddie Prinze you tell yourself, “Eez no mai yob, man!” If this is you, you may be driven by the negative energy that characterizes the reactive people Covey talks about. And if this is you, I have good news. You can save yourself some time and stop reading now.

Still with me? I thought you would stay. 🙂 I was pretty sure you were a positive energy person. So many of my adjuncts are. They go above and beyond, doing all they can, much more than I ask, to help their students succeed. The trick is to focus that energy where it will do the most good. Here’s what Steven Covey says about that.

Covey encourages us, “to become more self-aware regarding our own degree of proactivity” by looking at, “where we focus out time and energy,” (p.81). Reactive people focus on their problems and concerns. Proactive people focus on the things they can change. The diagram below illustrates Covey’s point. We all have concerns – our health, job security, family. These are represented by the red circles of concern. To some degree we all exert our positive influence on concerns within our control. This is represented by the green circles of influence.

Do you want to be a highly successful college instructor? One way to achieve that goal is to practice Habit #1, to be proactive. Question: Were all the proactive, positive energy people in the world born that way? “Gee Mom, I did my homework, washed the dishes, and put my baby brother to bed, but I’m not tired yet. Is there something else I can do?” That doesn’t remind me of anyone I ever met, not even my own wonderful children. We all have room to improve. That is why I modified Covey’s model to illustrate how we can go about becoming more proactive.

Before moving on, I would like to share a few excerpts from his book that further illuminate Covey’s message:

  • “Between stimulus and response, man has the freedom to choose.” (p. 70, with credit given to psychiatrist Viktoy Frankl)
  • “Reactive people are driven by feelings, by circumstances, by conditions, by their environment. Proactive people are driven by values – carefully thought about, selected and internalized values.” (p. 72)
  • “Taking action does not mean being pushy, obnoxious, or aggressive. It does mean recognizing our responsibility to make things happen.” (p. 75)
  • “A serious problem with reactive language it that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. People become reinforced by the paradigm that they [have] determined, and they produce evidence to support the belief. They feel increasingly victimized and out of control, not in charge of their life or their destiny. They blame outside forces – other people, circumstances, even the stars – for their own situation.” (p. 79)
  • “It is the nature of reactive people to absolve themselves of responsibility. It’s so much safer to say, ‘I am not responsible.’ If I say ‘I am responsible,’ I might have to say, ‘I am irresponsible.’” (p. 88)
  • “The power to make and keep commitments to ourselves is the essence of developing the basic habits of effectiveness.” (p. 92)


When it comes to applying Habit #1 – Be Proactive – adjuncts and new full-time faculty are at a distinct disadvantage. In Covey’s book, there is an implicit assumption that highly effective people have the wherewithal to create and maintain a large inner circle of influence. They do what they know they can do. They have access to the required “tools of influence” – knowledge, resources, incentive, permission, time, etc.

Through no fault of their own, adjuncts may not understand the scope of their power and authority. They may have more influence than they imagined. Or they may apply the wrong influence, perhaps something that works at their “day job” but fails miserably in a college setting, something like threatening to fire a student for not coming to work class. (You can’t tell me you never wanted to fire a student. We all have at one time or another.)

Few new adjuncts have the experience to identify all the potential influential decisions they might make. Furthermore, a new faculty member’s frame of reference is limited, which means he or she won’t know what is normal and what needs to be addressed. Let me give you some examples of what I mean:

  1. A math instructor receives complaints from his students They argue that he does not spend enough time explaining quadratic equations. “I have so much material to cover this term and only so much time,” he thinks. “I must move rapidly. If they don’t get it, they should spend more time studying.”
  2. A new geology instructor is disgruntled because his students are not motivated. He tells himself, “That’s why they call it Rocks for Jocks, and I just need to accept that. There’s nothing I can do.”
  3. An English instructor tries to mask her disdain for a young male student who frequently makes inappropriate, and sometimes offensive, remarks. “My students are all adults, and they have heard this stuff before,” she rationalizes. “Besides, part of my job is to protect their right of free speech.”
  4. A new part-time electronics instructor thinks that one of his students is coming to class while “under the influence.” “Wow, times have changed,” he sighs, and then thinks to himself, “I have no right to pry into his personal life. As long as he stays in line, his problems are … well … his problems.”
  5. A young biology student is literally in tears as she talks to her instructor about the test she failed. “I was never good at taking tests,” she sobs.” Her instructor tries to give her encouragement, but inside he thinks, “So what does she expect me to do about it? I feel bad, but I can’t do the studying for her, and I can’t go easy on her either.”

In each case, there are actions the instructor could take to address the problem. What would you do?

Your Homework Assignment

Come up with at least one suggestion for each situation and share it with me. Enter it in the comment section below. I will share some of the most creative ones in a future post.

My Recommendations

  1. Think about your concerns. What bothers you about your job as an instructor? Is there something that would make teaching much more enjoyable for you? Is there something that makes your job more difficult than it should be? Is there something about your students that is troubling? Their motivation? Their performance on the last test? Your concern over their wellbeing? Determine which of your concerns you can deal with and deal with them. Accept the concerns that are clearly not within your control. And, if your Circle of Concern is still too large, you Circle of Influence too small, find another part-time job. Sorry if I offended you, but sometimes the truth hurts.
  2. Do a “Needs Assessment.” List all of your concerns – things you would like to change, things you wish were different, problems you are having, problems your students are having. Then identify potential causes and corresponding remedial actions that are within your control. (In some realms this is called Continuous Quality Improvement.) Here is an example of what this exercise might look like.

By the way, don’t give up if you can’t come up with solutions. Brainstorm! Of course, brainstorming works best when more than one brain does the storming. If you are like me, left alone I may not get past a partly cloudy idea. Share your concerns with others – a more experienced adjunct, a full-time instructor, the dean or associate dean, the department chair, a mentor, whomever. Get their advice.


There are several other approaches you can take. You can solicit suggestions from your students. You can take classes and attend workshops to develop your teaching acumen. I will cover these and others suggestions in upcoming installments when I discuss the other Habits of Highly Successful Adjuncts. So be sure to tune in next Saturday for the next exciting episode of … Sorry, I got carried away.

Oh, want one more thing you can do? You can say the AA Serenity Prayer, the Adjunct Assistance Serenity Prayer that is. You might want to hang a copy on your wall. 🙂

If you found this article helpful and would like to make a donation, that would be very kind of you.

Thank you for helping maintain this website!

© 2010 Paul A. Hummel, Ed.D.

Posted April 3, 2010

About Dr. Paul A. Hummel, Ed.D.

My name is Paul Hummel, and I often introduce myself to others as a recovering engineer. If you are familiar with the Dilbert cartoons, let me simply say that I lived all of that. I started my college saga at Illinois Institute of Technology. Eventually, I earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering and a Master’s Degree in Engineering Management. I worked for many years in industry, and during this time I did some college adjunct teaching. During my career I held several managerial positions in industry, the last as Director of Technology of a division of a Fortune 500 corporation. Then, in 1996, with minimal planning or forethought, I found myself working as a manufacturing consultant on behalf of Elgin Community College (ECC). My career in higher education began to take shape. I fell in love with ECC and with the mission of community colleges in general. I worked fulltime and occasionally taught college courses for my institution and two other colleges. After a couple years I set a goal to move over to the “credit side of the college” and eventually become a college administrator. In 2006, having earned my doctorate in education, I achieved that goal. I was hired by Waubonsee Community College as Dean for Technology, Mathematics and Physical Sciences. I have had the great fortune of working at two excellent colleges. The insights I want to share are drawn from the various college positions I have held. At ECC, in addition to my consulting role, I coordinated non-credit professional development training programs for three years and spent four years advising students in the TRiO Student Support Services program. That position helped me understand college education from the perspective of today’s college students. After seven years at Waubonsee, I retired April 30, 2013. I now devote my knowledge and skills to upgrading and expanding the websites I created beginning with Adjunct Assistance. I have three other websites: College Teaching Tips, Keys for College Success and Lighthouse for Learning. A lot of work lies ahead for me in terms of upgrading and expanding each of these websites, but I could not be more excited about fulfilling the vision I have for helping college instructors and their students succeed.


The 1st Habit of Highly Effective College Instructors — 4 Comments

  1. I am a college math adjunct at a small university in Alabama. I have a Master’s degree in math from UConn. I am married to a Ph.D. in math from UConn and we teach at the same school. I have the benefit of discussing teaching methods with a fellow math teacher at the same school. BUT I can add that my students are not learning math as quickly as I did when I attended college. I can say that the reason may be that they are full-time workers and parents and trying to be students as compared to when I was 18 and I was just a full time student. It is difficult to teach the non-traditional college student. It takes extra time for the instructor. I give the students extra time. I drive 30 minutes to meet them for tutoring on my day off. I always give them appointments. I am under-paid. That is fine since I am not money hungry. I have the time.

    • Great question. Worthy of some serious consideration. I just wished that all students wanted to create an alliance with their instructor. Maybe if they knew how, more would try.

  2. Reading through about being proactive instead of reactive, and taking control of your destiny, these are valuable lessons that we all struggle with from time to time. When I lose scope of my life, remembering to focus on the present, and sending out positive energy seems to really make life better.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.