The 7th Habit of Highly Effective College Instructors

Sharpen the Saw

In his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey shares his thoughts about leading a well balanced life.  This is what “Sharpen the Saw” is all about.

As I read and reread the chapter entitled “Sharpen the Saw” I pondered how I was going to make this real and relevant for college faculty.  What am I going to say?  It could be a short article.  It may be difficult for me to provide the 1,500 to 2,000 words you normally see in my articles.  What?  Did I hear someone say that would be a good thing?

Your P/PV Ratio

I am going to start by taking you back to something Covey discussed in the first part of his book.  He talks about Production (P) and Production Capacity (PC); and he uses Aesop’s fable, The Goose With the Golden Eggs, to illustrate his point.  You know the story, right? In Covey’s terms, the golden eggs were the production, and the goose had a production capacity of one egg a day. The farmer was so excited about production that he got greedy and ignored production capacity.  He cut open his goose so he could get all of her golden eggs.  He put everything into his quest for product without concern for the poor goose’s production capacity.  By the way, Aesop’s moral was, “Greed oft o’er reaches itself.”  I will summarize Covey’s moral this way:  You need to lead a balanced life.  Specifically, he said, “Effectiveness lies in the balance – what I call the P/PC Balance.”  In other words, an effective person must balance both aspects of his life.

What is your P/PV ratio as an instructor?  Well, if a lesson plan is your production then the knowledge, skills and time you put into the lesson dictate your production capacity.  If your P/PV ratio is high, that means you are teaching one heck of a load or you are putting relatively little time into preparing for the teaching you are doing.  Every go to class unprepared?  Scary!  Ten minutes of skimming through the textbook and it’s time for your 3 hour Monday evening class to begin.  That’s a P/PV ratio of 18, 16 if you take two 10-minute breaks.  Will your students figure out that they are not the only ones unprepared for class?  Maybe this should be a 3-break class today?  Ya, three 50 minute breaks leave 30 minutes to fill.  Hey, you knocked your P/PV ratio down to 3!  Good job!

By the way, does this remind you off anything?  Maybe that old rule of thumb you tell your students?  You know.  You tell them they should study 2 to 3 hours for each hour in class.  P is their performance in class, and PV their production capacity (e.g. reading, studying, writing, and practicing).  Guess what?  That’s a P/PV ratio of 1/3 to 1/2.  Wow, that is still a lot lower than yours!

There is no universally optimal P/PV ratio.  What is right for you may leave someone else unprepared.  It is, however, important is to understand the concept.  If you want to be a good instructor (P), you need to invest in your ability to teach (PV).

Principles of Balanced Self-Renewal

Let me turn back to the Sharpen the Saw chapter. The chapter subtitle is Principles of Balanced Self-Renewal.  Steven Covey puts it this way; he says, “Habit 7 is personal PC,” (p. 288).  It is the way in which we create production capacity for our life.  Each of us should seek balance in our lives, balance in the ways we attempt to maximize our personal production capacity.  He goes on to explain that there are four dimensions in our lives that must be balanced, and regular renewal is the key.  The following figure is my recreation for the graphic Covey uses to explain them.

The four dimensions are Physical, Social/Emotional, Spiritual, and Mental.  Covey writes, “Although renewal in each dimension is important, it only becomes optimally effective as we deal with all four dimensions in a wise and balanced way.  To neglect any one area negatively impacts the rest,” (p. 302).  Covey points out that the four dimensions are interrelated.  What we do in one realm impacts another.  For example, working out to improve your physical health usually helps your mental health.

There are four things I want you to take away from all this:

  1. You need to balance the four dimensions of your life;
  2. You need to balance what you produce with the time, effort and resources you expend developing your ability to produce it;
  3. You need to fit teaching into your life in a balanced way; and
  4. You really need to read Covey’s book to get a full understanding of Personal Renewal.

The Four Needs

Covey wrote The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People in 1989.  Five years later, he wrote another best seller entitled First Things First.  In this book he revisits his model for personal renewal, and explains that each dimension represents a personal need.  He starts us out with a depiction much like that from the earlier book, although he has shortened Social/Emotional to Social.  He talks about the importance of synergy and the power it has to help us lead fulfilling lives.  As Covey puts it, “It’s where these four needs overlap that we find true inner balance, deep fulfillment, and joy,” (p. 47).  The more synergy there is the more these needs overlap.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everything we did in life addressed each of these needs, all at the same time?  That would really be self-actualization.  In fact, Maslow might need to create a new higher level, maybe something like super-self-actualization.

When you are spending your time in ways that fulfill all four needs, Covey calls this intersection “The Fire Within,” (p. 48).  I have created a version of his diagram (p. 49) to explain this.

If your teaching fulfills all four needs, this is great.  Imagine a fellow with a low P/PV ratio.  This guy works the whole weekend on his class preparation.  He takes a break each day to exercise.  He eats three healthy meals each day.  He mediates on the privilege it is to shape young minds through teaching.  And, occasionally he pets his dog, but only when he feels the need for some “social” interaction.  He is fulfilling all his needs with one endeavor – teaching college courses.

Where am I going with all this?  The “four needs model” is a good one for explaining how you can get the most out of life.  And, it is also good model for the college instructor to use to be sure he or she has properly fit teaching into his or her life.  Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Does teaching help fulfill my physical needs?
  2. Does teaching help fulfill my social needs?
  3. Does teaching help fulfill my spiritual needs?
  4. Does teaching help fulfill my mental needs?
  5. Do I need to sharpen my saw (i.e. self-renew) in any of these areas?

Are Two Saws Too Much?

When it comes to teaching, you really need two saws.  You need one big saw to “cut” through life, one that helps you balance your life and fulfill your needs.  One that helps you establish synergy between your teaching and the rest of your life.  If you keep that saw sharp, you will be a great teacher and a happy, self-fulfilled human being.  You use this saw to build your personal PC.

Craftsman 16” Variable Speed Scroll Saw (21602)

You also need a special teaching saw if you want to “cut it” as an instructor.  It may not be as big and your personal PC saw.  I’ll call it your SCROLL saw.   (No, not like the one on the right, although at $119.99 it is a great value.)  This saw will help you Successfully Create your ROLL as an instructor.  It will help you be the best teacher you can be. So, how do you sharpen your SCROLL saw?  Here are ten ways that come to mind:

  1. Stay abreast of developments in your field;
  2. Attend seminars and conferences;
  3. Read professional journals;
  4. Learn to use classroom technology;
  5. Evaluate new textbooks;
  6. Take a course on how to teach;
  7. Study a book on pedagogy;
  8. Use student feedback to make improvements in your course;
  9. Ask for advice on how to deal with difficult situations; and
  10. Read Adjunct Assistance 🙂

Closing Thoughts

Are you an instructor who loves working with a diverse student population?  Do you value your relationships with students?  If you show them empathy and love helping them learn, then you are making deposits in your Social bank account.



Are you are an instructor who lives for the moment when a struggling student finally gets it.  Do you love the fact that you are helping people to learn, to reason, and to solve problems?  If these things make you feel good about yourself as a teacher, then you are adding to your Spiritual bank account.

Are you an instructor who truly loves the subject you teach?  You can’t read enough.  You love the challenge of creating lesson plans that engage your students.  You continuously seek ways in which to improve you teaching acumen.  If this is you then you are contributing to your Mental bank account.

You owe it to yourself, your family, your friends, and your students to assess how teaching fits into your life.  If it is only a job that helps you meet your Physical needs (e.g. pay the rent, buy food, put gas in the car), you might want to reconsider your career.  If you are an adjunct, you may abandon any thoughts about a full-time teaching position.  But if you are in a full-time tenured professor, you can’t just walk away.  Rather than file personal bankruptcy consider bringing you life into balance through self-renewal.  To get started Covey would say that all you need to do is Sharpen the Saw.  Okay, if you do it my way, you may need to sharpen two saws.

What are you waiting for?  Get cutting!  🙂

p.s. In case you were wondering, there are 1,776 words in this article including the ones in this postscript.  I did it!


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© 2010 Paul A. Hummel, Ed.D.

Posted May 16, 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.

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