Master teacher Yiorgos Allayannis at work in a Darden classroom
The day’s assigned case, “The Weekend That Changed Wall Street,” is meant to provoke a thoughtful and provocative discussion. It is a deep dive into the 2008 bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, an event that shocked the financial world and helped to trigger the severe global recession.
So the first question that finance professor Yiorgos Allayannis scribbles on the blackboard in classroom 190 at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business evokes Shakespearean overtones: “To bail out or not to bail out.”
It turns out that it’s not the only question on this Monday (Feb. 20), but it is the first one asked of the MBA students in this highly popular elective course on Financial Institutions and Markets. Most of the students who raise their hands favor the government’s decision to let the investment banking firm go bust. Only eight students believe it was a mistake.
Cold calling one MBA after another, Allayannis is drawing out the arguments for and against a bailout of Lehman before delving into the intricacies of the commercial paper market and credit default swaps, which are central to the case. When he asks a student why the commercial paper market exists, Allayannis is given a fairly crisp definition: these are short-term loans used to cover inventory expenses, accounts receivables, and the working capital need of investment-grade companies.
“That’s accounting language I don’t understand,” he shouts back. “I want feelings and emotions, poetry. If the market dries up, it will affect the GEs and the Intels of the world. There will be no salaries, no jobs, no company. Where is this stopping? In a park downtown,” Allayannis says dramatically.
In the classroom, he moves around like a human tornado
The 46-year-old, Greek-born professor looks a little like a young Clint Eastwood. He’s trim and tall, just over six feet, with a friendly angular face and light blue eyes. In the classroom, he moves around like a human tornado, whirling this way and that, up and down the tiered steps in the center of the class, waving his arms in the air, raising and lowering his voice as if an actor on a stage. At times, he is nearly breathless and perspiring from the whirlwind of action.
“He starts by drawing you to the edge of your seat with a remarkably passionate and engaging teaching style, and then he keeps you there by driving you to make and defend specific, time-critical decisions rather than accepting easy generalizations” says Nathan DeLuke, who graduated last year.
There is no doubt that he is a master teacher who can make finance—not the easiest of business school subjects—compelling and entertaining. Great teachers are common in many business school classrooms from Harvard to Northwestern. But they are especially common at the Darden School, the only B-school in the U.S. to score in the top 20th percentile of BusinessWeek’s student satisfaction surveys over 24 years for exceptional teaching (see “Business Schools With The Best Teaching Faculty.”)
One of many superstar teachers at the Darden School
Allayannis is one of many superstar teachers at Darden, and his evolution here provides much insight into how this school has made teaching an integral and defining part of its culture. That wouldn’t be such a key distinction except that the faculty at most business schools are so thoroughly focused on research that the quality of their teaching often is inconsistent and mediocre—even at some schools that regularly top lists of the best.
That’s largely because most schools hire and promote faculty on the basis of their publication in scholarly journals that are largely unreadable. Teaching tends to be a nice-to-have attribute in a professor, not a must-have requirement. So the system is geared to rewarding the professors who are highly productive in research and just okay in the classroom.
But at Darden, where instruction is based largely on case studies of challenging business issues–teaching is a must-have part of the life of an academic—equally important as research. “Teaching is at the core of the institution,” says Allayannis. “The teaching environment at Darden is exhilarating. It forces you to be the best that you can be because your colleagues are such tremendous teachers. And teaching is very much talked about and discussed.”
‘Teaching here is a public good. We care about it deeply.’
“The biggest difference is that the social good at Darden is teaching,” says James R. Freeland, Senior Associate Dean for faculty and research. “When you walk down the halls and see the faculty talking, there’s a good chance they’re talking about teaching. At most other schools, the social good is about research. So if you walk down the halls there, you’ll see faculty talking about their research. Teaching here is a public good. We care about it deeply.”
It’s telling that on his CV, Allayannis lists his teaching credits and honors—mostly for exceptional teaching—before his journal articles. It is a long list. He is a four-time winner of Darden’s Outstanding Faculty Award given by students. Five graduating classes have elected him Faculty Marshall, a prestigious honor given to only two extraordinary professors a year. Allayannis won the distinction of leading the graduating students in 2002, 2004, 2005, 2009, and 2010. And last year, Darden’s Alumni Association recognized him as a master teacher who “excels in the classroom, shows unusual concern for students, and makes significant contributions to the life of the university.”
“Yiorgos is considered a ‘rock star’ in teaching among students at Darden,” says Robert Bruner, Dean of the business school. “His classes are always oversubscribed, and each one is memorable. His style is upbeat and purposeful and always engages students and holds them accountable. He makes an indelible impression with the students as he inspires them and forms a warm, lasting bond with them.”
Allayannis routinely gets student evaluations that average 4.8 on a 5.0 scale
As good as he is in the classroom—and his student evaluations average 4.8 on a 5.0 scale—Allayannis takes nothing for granted. Although this is the sixth time he has taught the Lehman case in the past three years and it’s one of 11 of 15 cases for the course he has written, Allayannis awoke early on Sunday to review it. He spent at least two hours working on all the key points over his morning coffee in his favorite chair in the corner of the sun room of his home, his feet plopped atop a ottoman.
His wife, Sarah Corcoran, was still asleep. Good thing. Even she wonders why he works so hard—typically four hours of preparation per case—when he already is intimately familiar with the details. During the early years, Allayannis could invest three or four days to prepare for a case. Now it can vary between two hours or an entire day.
“Haven’t you taught this case before?” his wife will often ask.
Allayannis response: “If you have someone who is a very good athlete, do you know how often they must train? You have to train the muscle. If you want to be good, you’ve got to work at it. The people who are very good at what they do work extremely hard, and preparation is everything. It is hard to cut corners and I don’t want to. Every time I walk into the classroom I need to feel the best I can be.”
A dark roast coffee and a muffin or scone starts the day
On his teaching days, Allayannis follows a comforting routine. Before arriving at his Darden office, a ten-minute drive from his home in Charlottesville, Va., he stops at Greenberry’s for a small dark roast coffee and a cranberry/orange muffin or a scone. It’s a quick detour so that he arrives on campus at 8:15 a.m. where he’ll spend the next hour and one-half reading a hard copy of The Financial Times, scanning the headlines on Bloomberg.com and TA NAE, a news website in his home land of Greece, before rushing over to his first class of the day.
Ten minutes before the 10 a.m. class, he walks into the pale blue, windowless room and carefully lays out a dozen yellow legal pad pages on a desk. The papers are covered with his hand-written notes that map out the proposed journey of this day’s class. Though he will rarely refer to them, the notes remind Allayannis of what he wants to cover, the sequence of questions he wants to ask, and how much time he plans to devote to each crucial point in the case.
He is partial to white shirts and conservative suits, and today he is wearing a light gray pinstripe model, with a freshly laundered white shirt and a bright yellow tie. By the time his class is done, there is chalk dust all over his suit jacket, evidence of the frenetic scribbling he does on one of the pull-down blackboards at the front of the room.
No one in his family was a teacher
Allayannis was not born into the profession. His father ran a lumber business in Greece started by his grandfather. His mother, who died the year he came to Darden in 1996, was a housewife. Jokes Allayannis: “The first generation builds the company. The second grows it and the third one destroys it. And now you know why I am here teaching.”
The first sign that he was destined to teach occurred while he was earning his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering in Greece at the National Technical University of Athens. He found he very much enjoyed tutoring students in different subjects and had a knack for it.
Soon after graduating in 1988, Allayannis came to the U.S. for his MBA at the University of Massachusetts. Instead of landing a typical MBA job in consulting or investment banking, however, he decided to pursue his PhD in finance at New York University’s Stern School.
‘Teaching is an honor and a privilege to shape young people’s minds. Indirectly, you can shape and nation and a world’
The first time he walked into a classroom to teach was in 1995 as a PhD student for an undergraduate class in finance. He was a natural at it, winning the award for outstanding teaching from Stern students within a year. “I enjoyed that very much and the experience solidified it for me,” he says. “I love teaching. It’s really my passion. It’s fun. It’s beautiful. It is an honor and a privilege to shape young people’s minds. Indirectly, you can shape a nation and a world.”
Armed with his PhD in finance, he joined the Darden School in 1996. With the exception of a two-year stint as an investment banker at Citibank in New York, from 2005 to 2007, he has taught at Darden now for 13 years. When he started at Darden, Allayannis often was observed by Robert Bruner, then a professor who has a reputation for being one of the world’s best case study teachers in finance.
Allayannis was teaching the first-year core course in finance, and Bruner strolled in and sat in the back of the classroom. “Bob wrote all the questions I asked the students in the case,” recalls Allayannis., who says he spent many hours in Bruner classes watching him teach. “Not only that, he even saw whether I was going more to the left or the right when I was pacing.
Some important advice on teaching from an important mentor
“The biggest piece of advice I received was when he showed me all the questions I had asked in the class. ‘You see these questions,’ he said. ‘You asked what, what, what and what. Your first how question was asked almost an hour into the case.’ This was like my tenth case at Darden. It was tremendous feedback. It took three years, I would say, to get to a level where I felt things were clicking. I was never a dud. But I wasn’t where I wanted to be.”
Years later, he takes great pride in returning that favor. “We try to coach and guide and share wisdom with our younger colleagues. I tell them if you mess up the first class don’t think, ‘Oh my God. Think about what you are going to do to fix this without dragging yourself down too much. Just move on.’” Of a young professor he is currently mentoring, Allayannis says, “I am so proud of him. It’s great to see him grow.”
“We have first year teaching meetings where every professor goes over his or her plan: ‘Here’s the key points, here’s the most important questions I’m going to ask.’ It’s impressive. You don’t just walk in and teach here. Senior colleagues are helping to guide you with the sequence of questions and how the problems arrive.”
Mentoring, faculty and student evaluations, numerous awards and a culture that makes teaching critical
How does Darden do it? First off, exceptional teaching is highly valued and highly rewarded. Young instructors are routinely mentored in teaching by more senior professors. First-year teaching meetings are held at which instructors go over their approach to a specific case, including what key points they intend to make and what questions they will ask the students.
Student evaluations of each professor and course are treated with the utmost respect. “The course feedback that students give is taken very seriously,” says Evan Smith, a second-year MBA student at Darden. “They are getting 90% to 95% of the students to fill our course evaluations every quarter, and the feedback loop is tremendous. When a course gets a bad evaluation, we hear and we see the professors going back and regrouping. They immediately try to figure out how to improve it. The professors here take the craft of teaching very, very seriously.”
Indeed, those evaluations—done on the very last day of class–show just how good the quality of teaching is at Darden year in and year out. Over the five-year period from 2007 to 2011, students awarded Darden profs median evaluations of 4.55 in first-year core and elective courses and a 4.58 in second-year electives. Though Allayannis’ student evaluation grades average out to 4.8, he has scored a perfect 5.0 several times, especially for his elective course, Valuation in Financial Markets.
How Darden MBA students grade their professors
And then there are the numerous awards, fellowships and grants to bring prestige and prominence to great teaching. Most schools have a token teaching award, but Darden clearly piled on the recognition. There’s the Darden Faculty Marshall award given annually to two professors who the graduating class believes have played a “significant role in our learning and our life and who we would really want to see when we return as alumni.” Last year, Robert Landel, who teaches operations, and Alexander Horniman, who teaches ethics, strategy and leadership, were chosen, breaking Allayannis three-year hold on the award in 2010, 2009 and 2008.
There’s the Faculty Teaching Award awarded annually by student vote. Last year, Landel got that one, preventing Allayannis from winning this honor for the third consecutive year. And there’s the Distinguished Faculty Awarded handed out by the alumni association, which Allayannis did win last year.
There’s the Dean’s Office Recognition Award for professors whose combined course and teaching effectiveness student ratings are in the top 10%, along with the Dean’s Recognition Lunch for professors who have earned the most teaching recognition awards over the previous four years. None of this includes several university-wide teaching awards.
At Darden, however, teaching is not only a classroom sport. It also is played out in how accessible the faculty is to student needs and wants. All faculty adhere to an open-door policy for students who often are invited to the homes of professors for dinner and an occasional poker game. “I can’t count on two hands the number of times I have been to a professor’s house for dinner or other events,” adds Evan Smith. “Professors here love to get to know their students very personally.”
Allayannis, a colleague and their wives, for example, typically auction off a brunch at their home for students who bid at an auction whose proceeds benefit a local women’s shelter. And he often counsels students who want to work on Wall Street or more generally in finance given his experience at Citibank.
Pushing and challenging MBA students
Back in class on Monday morning, after a Sunday snow storm blanketed the campus in white, Allayannis is pushing and challenging his students.
“Do you guys remember where you were that weekend, the weekend that changed Wall Street?” he asks.
The professor tells his students that he was visiting his family in Greece and was on his way to the beach when he heard the news.
Answers one student rather lamely: “I can figure out where I was.”
“That’s a cop out,” Allayannis shoots back, unsatisfied.
‘You are very quiet today. Are you snowed in?’
To one relatively subdued student, he quips: “You’re very quiet today. Are you snowed in?”
But Allayannis keeps the conversation moving at a rapid speed, calling students out by name, and using pithy questions and comments to help the students draw their own conclusions.
He’s frequently connecting issues in the case with previous classes on everything from junk bonds to collateralized debt obligations and referring students to one of the seven exhibits—charts and tables–in the Lehman case study.
Throughout, he’s self-deprecating and humorous. He calls credit default swaps—a financial instrument that insured investors against loan defaults–“the iPad of Wall Street innovation. Everybody had to have it, and yet it was thought of as the dark matter of the universe, Wall Street’s worst innovation.”
‘My goal is to stretch the quant types while still making it relevant for the poets’
“The class is all about engagement,” says Allayannis later. “You need to get everybody’s attention for 90 minutes. My goal is to stretch the quant types in finance, pushing them beyond what they know, while still making the class relevant and clear to the poets. You really have to figure out how to give something to everybody. You have to turn the quants into teachers. They use jargon in the beginning and you slow them down.”
His best advice to the younger colleagues he mentors? “You have to be true to yourself. You have got to find what really makes you and go for it. Let your instincts drive you and then always ask yourself how do I get better? Nobody can be a good teacher without effort, even if you are a natural born teacher. It’s impossible.”