CETL Podcast - Episode 16 - Jeff Orton


Tony: Good morning! Good morning listeners; Tony Pellegrini and welcome to this iteration or this session of our teaching and learning at Southern Utah University, where we honor and value great teachers and great learners here at SUU, and today we have one of our best, Jeff Orton, from our business department, business college. Jeff could you tell us a little about yourself, about your background?

Jeff: Absolutely! Thanks Tony, appreciate the chance to be here and be involved with this. It’s a wonderful thing you’re doing here it’s awesome for me to be able to listen to other people, so thank you for the opportunity.

Tony: You’re very welcome!

Jeff: My background; I actually grew up here in Cedar City, went to Cedar High, and actually went to SUU, got my master’s- my bachelor’s and master’s in accounting degrees here at SUU, and then I went to- after I graduated with my Master's I went to Las Vegas, worked for a national CPA firm in their auditing department, so I would travel around to different businesses and make sure they were doing their things okay, was down there for about seven years and then got the chance to come back to SUU as the internal audit director to make sure- basically my job here as the audit director was to sit down with the board of trustees and the president and the leadership here and just to see what kept them awake at night and see how I could help them get the data they needed to make decisions and make sure things were operating okay, and then after about three years of that the audit professor here at the time retired, and so they said, “Hey you’ve got ten years of audit experience, do you want to come and teach the auditing courses?” And, when I was in Las Vegas at the firm, they held national trainings in Chicago, so I would travel back and help teach some of those national trainings. Everybody would come from all over the country to get trained there and so I’d done a little bit of teaching and I thought it would be a great opportunity, and so I made the switch. This is my fifth year so, made the switch just a little while ago, and love it!

Tony: Wonderful! You’ve told me a little about the courses that you teach, auditing courses, and you’ve told me a little bit but I’d like you to tell, just a little bit deeper maybe, and why those are so important and why those are so important to our community, to our society. Would you take a moment and share that? Would that be ok?

Jeff: Yeah yeah, everyone’s favorite person in the room is the auditor, right?

Tony: You've got a lot of friends is what you’re saying?

Jeff: When you hear the word, “auditing” or “accounting” I think two words generally come to mind. Number one is fear, right? And number two is boredom, right? I think the classic joke is, “The definition of an extroverted accountant is he looks at your shoes when he talks to you  instead of his own.” So, as the perceptions of auditing and accounting, or this, “You’re just going to get stuck in a back room, you’re just crunching the numbers” or, “You just come to find what people do wrong.” But, what I’ve found being involved in the profession itself and what I try to bring to the classroom is to- basically my job as an auditor is to make sure- without auditors and accountants, we don't have what we call, “Capital Markets”, which means there are no loans, there are no stock trading, there are no futures. If there was no stock market, how would the country be different?

Tony: It would be much different wouldn't it be?

Jeff: If banks couldn’t lend loans to people how would things be different? So my job as the auditor is to be an independent third party person to go in and make sure everybody’s going what they say they’re doing, and also not just to make sure they’re doing what they say they’re doing, but also give them tips on how to be better, which you can become more of a consultant in that role, you know, you have to be careful with auditing that you still stay independent, but as an auditor you travel around from business to business to business to business, so you get a lot of best practice in the teaching would it would be like visiting a bunch of different classrooms, a bunch of different universities, and you’ve got a whole lot of best practices and knowledge that you can take to that client and make things better. So, the value that that brings is number one, you can make sure people are all on the same playing field and that their reports were true, but number two that you can help the companies and auditing applies to not just companies, but applies to governments, applies to universities, it applies to- you can have accounting and things need to be tracked from every size of community in the world, to every type of organization from Bangladesh to Tokyo to New York to Cedar City to any size, anywhere, any way. It applies everywhere, so it's a pretty important thing in the profession, or in the world itself whether or not- despite the perception that tends to be out there.

Tony: Jeff it sounds like you have a great broad group of students from these different backgrounds or different interests that are interested in business. How do you deal with that diversity of students in particularly maybe with their various learning styles They learn a little bit different. You mentioned different business that need auditing services and you probably get students from different areas. Do you find a diversity in your learners?

Jeff: Absolutely, everybody learns a little bit different right? The advantage to auditing and accounting though, is the fact that we need to be able to- our job is to- approach things in different ways. Our job is to approach both business and financial transactions in different ways, and having the diversity of learners means that we can relate with the people that we are supposed to serve in the profession, right? So, having a diversity of learners is actually a really good thing. It allows me to come in and try to find a way to make either the auditing or the accounting topics because they apply to everyone Everybody’s going to face them in everything, no matter what they do in their life, no matter what you major in, no matter what you do in your life, you’re going to come in contact with some kind of accounting or auditing things, and being able to relate everyday things to what those learners will experience kind of pulls things in and it allows them- no matter what their background is, if they come from whatever country, location, learning style they have- it allows me to be able to bring in and try to relate the topics to them, and try to make class as interesting as possible and try to use a variety of learning styles rather than just a straight lecture or a straight flipped classroom where you’re only doing things with projects in class and they do all of the reading outside of class, but both of those have value, whether you’re playing quiz games and things like that in class, try to incorporate pieces of all of those and then maybe on a one-on-one basis and during my office hours when we have the students come in and then I can kind of help them one-on-one that way.

Tony: That is wonderful, and that’s where I’d like to kind of press you to dig just a little bit deeper and share. Unfold yourself just a little bit for us. You’re doing a great job but talk to us for a moment or two about those classroom activities that you feel students really connect with. Like you’ve mentioned you’ve got very specific content that they need to acquire. What are some of the particular methods or styles that you use to be able to really engage and connect with your learners? Could you share some of those that your students have done well with?

Jeff: Yeah absolutely! I’ve got great students in our business school and obviously all the time I'm trying to watch others to get better skills and get better at this myself. Just a couple things that have worked well for me; I have a pretty heavy case study element, but I try to make the material applicable. I know what they’re going to face their first one, two, three, five years in the profession. I’ve been there, I’ve done it. So, my job really in the classroom like in one level I’ll prepare them to be, to experience the things they’re going to experience the first year in the profession. And then in the graduate course up to the third year in the profession. I’ve designed them that way, to be hands-on so case studies is one way, but, the bookstore has been very good to partner with us a little bit. So, one thing we do in my graduate level audit class, is the bookstore allows us to come in at 4:00 and actually go to the bookstore and do an inventory observations so-

Tony: They get their hands on things.

Jeff: So, case studies are hands on, but they’re still academic right? So, it’s a change from just book learning, it’s a step up, but even the step up it’s to do field trips, and they experience things in real life. So, from case studies and those field trips those go really well. We do play some games you know before exams for exam reviews and things. Some people do well with quizzes, we play a little jeopardy game in class sometimes in some of my classes- well, all my classes actually. I’ve also tried to incorporate a lot of video content and things so we do talking and discussions, we do video content, we do games, we do field trips, we do case studies. And so, between some of those, not everybody thrives in all of those areas, but everybody should thrive in one or some of those areas.

Tony: You know, it seems through your experience and education and background you’ve had wonderful connections to be able to become a great teacher, certainly there must have been a little speed bump along the way, some of the way, somewhere along the way, and so maybe for those faculty members who are struggling just a little bit, what advice or suggestions you might have, could you share a moment where maybe things didn’t go in your path just exactly the way that you wanted and how you worked through that particular challenge?

Jeff: I think we all, well, it kind of Ebbs and flows. Sometimes we do really well and sometimes it just doesn’t work out.

Tony: But that’s being self reflective and that’s a powerful tool to be able to use it. I’m sorry I interrupted you go right ahead. 

Jeff: I think there are always going to be students that we- just based on personalities that we- personalities just don’t match up and hopefully most of them you can, right; But, I’ll tell you, my first couple of semesters teaching I honestly couldn't look at my teaching evaluations for about three months because, I finished the first semester, I thought, well, I work like crazy, 50, 60, 80 hours a week just trying to get course content that I had to create for live classes and online classes or videos, everything else. And I was working hard, and class was going pretty well, I felt it was going pretty well but it was clear that, you know, when I started I wanted to just knock a home run, knock it out.

Tony: Absolutely, you bet.

Jeff: I wanted to, you know, you want the praise and the awards right away and not that you need the praise but just to know that you’re doing a good job, you want that right away and that didn't happen. I tried hard and the students were really nice they said, “You’re doing a good job, you’re trying hard.” It’s kind of like an “E” for effort. So honestly I said, “I gotta finish this first one I gotta get all of my classes-” I teach five to seven classes a semester- so I said, “I gotta get all these classes rolled into the next semester you get started before, if I read those student evaluations and they turn out really bad I’m going to be in such a pit I won’t be able to come out and I’ll be off to a bad start. So, honestly I didn’t look at them for a couple (months), which I’m not recommending doing that all the time. The student evaluations are very very valuable, but you have to have a certain thickness of skin, and you have to build that over time, and my first semester I didn’t have that yet. Then, after a couple months I read them and it actually worked out really well. I had one or two that said, “You know, I wish a couple of things could've been slightly different but overall you did really well.” And I realized well, I shouldn't have been so scared of that but I didn’t know going in. So I think my biggest- one of my biggest- recommendations would be know when to read your evaluations, know when you can be prepared to read your evaluations. Realize that most of the students here really try to be helpful with their evaluations. Anywhere you go there are going to be some that are mean, you’re going to get some mean comments and that’s just- we all face them, we all get them- knowing that some of them are mean but if you get one or two mean ones and realize they’re outliers, treat them as outliers. See if there’s some truth of something you can fix in what they say, but otherwise just kind of ignore them, leave them as outliers and then focus on the other ones that provide helpful comments, and don’t be afraid to recognize the good things that you’re doing as well. And I think I’ve had a lot of mentors also in the Business College that have really kind of help me navigate that a little bit and really tried to support me to try to build me up to get where I could, and be quite a bit better.

Tony: That is so powerful that concept of mentorship, you know, looking to our peers, and it’s hard not to compare ourselves to our next door neighbor, to those who are teaching those same classes. Do you have opportunities to reach out-because you’ve been mentored- do you have opportunities to reach out and mentor other faculty or even students?

Jeff: Yeah, I think we all have opportunities to mentor, it’s a matter of whether you recognize and take those opportunities, but I really do, what really saved me, was the fact that I knew the faculty that were around me, even if I did something wrong they would take me in, and they would support me and build me up, and so I’ve tried to keep that same mentality, but in the roll of a mentor you’ve got to realize that even, yeah, you’ve been teaching for a few years and somebody might be never than you, they may still have some pretty good- you can still learn from them, even if they’re a first year or second year person. I’ve seen a lot of that in our business school, we’ve got three or four teachers that have started after me in our accounting department specifically and really been able to watch them and I’ve tried to provide some guidance and support for them, let them know that they have somebody to talk to and we’ve had some good conversations but the flip side is also true I’m actually learning quite a bit from these new people, and sometimes we forget to learn from everybody, the old sages as well as the newbies, and get a new perspective.

Tony: And we really have both of those on our campus. I just am so tickled to be able to have this opportunity to visit with great instructors. Any last words of wisdom for students or faculty that you’d care to share as far as enduring, being self reflective as you mentioned already, any last minute words of wisdom that you’d care to share?

Jeff: I think one of the things that changes that I’ve enjoyed the most about SUU is number one a hands-on learning teaching style but I’ve noticed that if you can get involved with students outside of the classroom- I’m also the director of the Professional Accountancy Club where I take students on trips to Salt Lake and Las Vegas and even around here we bring people on campus to give them jobs and take in networking-but even other events outside of campus, trying to attend football games when my students are on the football team or whatever and trying to support them when I can see them in social settings outside of campus and really get to talk to them one-on-one outside of campus, it changes the entire dynamic inside the classroom. I have a better relationship, we have a fun, they have a lot more buy-in, and they know I actually care about who they are and what they’re doing outside class, it’s not just, “The accounting material is what this is and if you learn it I like you and if you don’t I don’t.” I like you as a person we’ll come to class, we may struggle through a few topics and materials but if we have a relationship you can come to my office afterwards and we can talk about it or whatever, and that changes the entire environment and has changed my entire experience here, and so I guess my advice is to do what you can to be involved outside of the classroom and get to know your students the best you can and your experience with them will change forever.

Tony: And that really, that’s a two way street for students and for teachers. What wonderful wisdom, you know, we are human beings, yes we’re accountants, educators, whatever we may be, but we’re human beings-

Jeff: Even if I’m looking at your shoes when I talk to you-

Tony: We are still human beings and you know I come from more of a K-12 education background we’ve never had to release a teacher because they didn’t know content, they didn't know their accounting, they didn't know their content to teach it was those human skills that you’ve identified that we struggle with. So, those opportunities to engage in those and put those into practice, and kind of a safety net here at the university to make a couple of mistakes if we need to but to learn from those it is wonderful. Jeff thank you so much for your time, we appreciate you and are grateful for your participation on campus and are just enthused to be able to be associated with you very much.

Jeff: Thank you Tony, it’s been a wonderful experience!

Tony: You have a great day!

Jeff: You too!

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