Maintaining Normalcy

“I just try to keep things normal for them.”

“I just try to keep things normal for them.”

Despite teaching at both Duke and NC State and having an M.B.A. in the wrong shade of blue, CJ Skender, clinical professor of accounting at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, truly embodies the spirit of a Tar Heel.

Skender became a full time accounting professor at Carolina in the fall of 1997, and this spring he will wrap up his 310th course at UNC Kenan-Flagler. With a career that boasts consulting work at GlaxoSmithKline, IBM, ITT Sheraton, Nortel Networks, Siemens and Wells Fargo, multiple scholarly publications and induction into the Wells Fargo Hall of Fame, Skender is undeniably an expert in his fieldOpens in new window. However, it is not simply his accounting expertise that makes him such a memorable professor. Skender also stands out as a professor because of his unique teaching style and unwavering support of his students.

“I teach the way I would have liked to have been taught when I was a student,” said Skender. “I loved whenever a teacher would come in and talk about things like current events, movies, songs, sports, their spouse and whatever else. That made them the best teachers, no doubt, because they showed they were people and not just teachers. So that’s what I try to do.”

Skender’s efforts to show his students that he is a person and not just a professor have become well-known throughout the Carolina community, and specifically in the auditorium of Koury and the halls of McColl.

Skender is known to begin every class with what he calls “Mt. Rushmore” — four songs that he finds relevant that day. For example, the morning after Carolina basketball player Luke Maye made his buzzer beating shot to send the Tar Heels to Phoenix and the  Final Four in 2017,Opens in new windowSkender had the songs “Maggie May,” “First of May,” “Maybe Baby” and “May I” queued up and playing when Maye walked into his 8:00 a.m. accounting class. To honor Kenny Rogers on the first day of online teaching, Monday, March 23, he played “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In),” “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town,” “The Gambler” and “You Decorated My Life,” a song that was popular in August 1979 that he sang to his wife when she delivered their first son, Charles.

He also quoted the late Mother Teresa in his Thought For The Day: “Help one person at a time and always start with the person nearest you.”

And Skender always shows up sporting a full suit — paired with a bow tie if it’s a Monday, Thursday or Saturday and a neck tie if it’s a Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday or Sunday. To keep students on their toes during class, he will sometimes throw out candy for a correctly answered question or show a clip of a movie during “halftime” on days when the class needs a little extra motivation.

“I developed these habits over time,” said Skender. “Some students take to them but others would rather I just teach. I merely want the students to be happy and to learn things. Being a teacher is a journey and not a destination. I try to get better each semester, and I like to think that I do. I would love for the entire class to do well with the material. That would make me ecstatic.”

During this time of uncertainty, the habits of both faculty and students are inevitably changing. Everyone is adjusting to accommodate new schedules and adjust to alternative workspaces and online learning platforms. These sudden changes can be overwhelming and stressful for students. So when Skender started the first day of online class by playing four songs like nothing had changed, his students couldn’t help but smile at the sense of normalcy. He was even wearing his full suit — and a bow tie, because it was Monday.

“I think it is imperative to maintain a sense of normalcy in the classroom during this time,” said Skender. “I am not sure that my students would be comfortable if things were different. There are many students in the class whose lives have been severely affected by COVID-19, so I just try to keep things normal for them. That’s part of my job — to teach the class the way it’s supposed to be taught and give them all the insight I have. You have to maintain normalcy. You just have to.” 

In addition to maintaining normalcy when possible, Skender recognizes the importance of supporting one another as a Carolina community. 

“It is important that students know that professors are in your corner and want what’s best for you and will help you in any way that we possibly can,” he said. “I think that if it’s a two-way street, where everybody is working to support others, it will work how it’s supposed to and we will get through this. We should be helping each other. That should be our top priority.”

Professors like Skender serve as a reminder that Carolina has always been and will continue to be a community of support and teamwork — even in the face of a crisis such as this.

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