Thursday, February 07, 2008

The Perfect Storm/Classroom Edition

Not long ago, the department chair asked me to look at the teaching evaluations and grades for a class taught last year by a less experienced (and non-tenure-track) professor. The grades were similar to ones that colleagues and I had given to this same group of students in previous classes. The evaluations, however, were a bit on the unkind side, to put it mildly, and the chair was concerned.

When I read the evaluations, my heart sank. Then I kicked myself for not being more assertive about helping my younger colleague. From time to time during the semester, I asked her how things were going with her class, and she always said everything was fine. I should know by now that just asking that question isn’t the best way to be helpful, and it puts a junior colleague in an awkward position.

Our department has no system for peer evaluation of teaching, but it should. If there is a system of peer evaluation for everyone who teaches, there is no stigma attached to having other faculty evaluate your teaching. My previous university had peer evaluation of teaching. Sometimes it helps, and sometimes it doesn't, but surely it is better than not doing anything until it is too late for a particular class? I don’t know if I could have helped this colleague by sitting in on some of the classes, but she made some basic mistakes* that might have been avoided with better mentoring.

* Examples: moving the date of an exam without sufficient notice and/or consultation of students; relying too much on PowerPoint presentations; not dealing well with questions from stressed out (rude, angry) students.

I can appreciate how frustrating it must be for students to be in a class taught by an inexperienced instructor, particularly if the class involves difficult concepts. Even so, I think that some of the students in this class were especially unforgiving. It was a challenging class, and this group of students had struggled in classes that were less challenging. When faced with a more difficult course and a somewhat (but not completely) inexperienced instructor, conditions were set for a really bad experience for all concerned. A subset of the students were particularly vicious in their evaluation of the course.

Based on what I’ve seen over the years, requirements for this particular type of extreme negative reaction seem to be (1) a challenging class taught by (a) an inexperienced instructor who (b) does not project a confident image and may (c) lack authority (e.g., non-tenure track faculty, adjuncts, grad students); and (2) a group of students who develop an unforgiving and increasingly negative attitude about every imperfection in the class. The collision of a group of unhappy, confused students with an inexperienced instructor who is vulnerable owing to a lack of status (adjunct or visiting professor) and/or lack of confidence, creates a perfect storm of negativity and an unpleasant learning/teaching experience for all.

Although I think that some of the students could have handled the situation more constructively during the course, this is not a ‘blame the students’ rant. The department should have done more to help the inexperienced instructor during the course, and I should have done more as the unofficial mentor of this instructor. You can’t infuse someone with decades of teaching experience instantly, but it should be possible to provide logistical or psychological (confidence-building) support to help a course while it is in progress.

Once a bad teacher, always a bad teacher? Certainly not. Some people are naturally great teachers, but many struggle in their first few years of teaching. The challenge is to keep your confidence from being further undermined, as that can create a spiral of disaster experiences from which it becomes ever more difficult to recover. If you stay calm and assess what went wrong and what went right, you can fix the problems and get on track for having a more positive teaching experience in the future.

20 comments:

Franglais said...

This post reminds me of a situation I encountered several times, and in all these cases, the teacher was young/inexperienced and female. I don't want to rant about students either, but the herd mentality exists and should be recognized. The herd will go for the jugular more easily for a junior female professor than a grey-bearded teacher. The herd is unforgiving about confidence issues and will easily confuse quality teaching and pseudo-authority from a grey beard. The herd will invariably respect the word of a male professor while it will question the content of a female professor class and challenge her authority.

I am painting a rather black and white picture and the reality is surely in shades of grey (bearded or not). But FSP has pointed out over and over the ways in which her colleagues, close and remote, are treating her (condescending, disrespectful, plainly mean at times). And she is clearly an experienced and extremely successful professor! Given the pointed examples she has shared with us, imagine for a moment how the herd (not restricted to students now) will typically behave with a young, inexperienced, and impressionable professor.

plam said...

Useful things to keep in mind as I'm teaching my first class at this university. I have to say that the recent weather has caused some logistical hiccups that I'd rather have avoided, as well as my inexperience (especially with what you can get from TAs---at MIT, you can have the TA do basically everything but the lectures. Not here.)

Silk Stocking said...

I would not have wanted to be a student in the first class I ever taught. I made a lot of mistakes - I gave the students waaay too much information for an introductory class, required a 7-10 page paper (too much extra work for me; lazy students were bitter), my exams were too long because I was hellbent on testing them on every single thing I discussed in class, I spoke to quickly and ran through slides with too much text (that I didn't rely on, but panicked students couldn't copy it down).

I'm much better now, but it was a process that came with teaching three classes per semester for five years. The learning curve is fast.

We have a faculty evaluation program for adjuncts, but it consists of one tenured faculty member sitting in on one class and writing an evaluation for you. It is usually pointless and the person only stays for about twenty minutes and we never discuss it. Unless the department chair (my dissertation advisor) is the evaluator. Then I get to hear about every pronunciation mistake I made. :)

Susan B. Anthony said...

Oof. I am an inexperienced female assistant professor teaching a difficult physical science graduate course. I have gotten positive feedback from the students so far, but I definitely feel the lack of confidence acutely. We don't have a formal peer evaluation program, but I have been thinking about asking someone to come observe my class and give me some constructive feedback. Sounds like I ought to follow through on that!

Ianqui said...

(2) a group of students who develop an unforgiving and increasingly negative attitude about every imperfection in the class

I'm so glad someone else recognizes this as a reason for bad evals. I've taught the same class for 5 years now, and everything had been fine until last year's class. They simply hated me. I don't think I changed last year in particular (and then reverted back to my sunny self), so it seems like your reason (2) could be the only thing going on. But that can be hard to explain to the tenured people evaluating you!

Dr. Stuart Savory said...

Two points from Germany:-

1) You can get to be a prof without ever having taken a course in pedagogy (is that the right word? I mean being taught how to teach). How about stateside?

2) I get my students to rate me (anonymously) at the end of every single lecture. A downward trend would be my fault. A singular low score would show difficult subject matter which I need to explain better. The usual quality-control statistics can be used. Is that not done in the USA?

Anonymous said...

Okay, as an adjunct professor ("lack of status")...I must comment:

1. The reason why adjuncts in your department are probably not as wonderful/prepared/pleasant as you or your faculty would like them to be may be because you treat them as having very little status...

2. If my supervisor asked "how is everything going?"...I would say "fine" too...
Would it have been better if she started crying re: how her students were giving her a difficult time or how she finds the class brutal to teach? Our "lack of status" as adjuncts sometimes makes us hesitant to ask the professors brimming with status to help...

3. You get what you pay for. Adjuncts get paid much much less than full time professors get paid...
Next time, give her an intro class or a class that she is comfortable teaching and let the more experienced professors work their money.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous:

1 - You have no idea what the situation is. Don't leap to conclusions just because you are unhappy. I've been an adjunct, and some departments treat us with respect.

2 - No kidding. Re-read the first paragraph of the post, and save the lectures and self-pity for your students (and yourself!).

3 - Maybe this adjunct was hired to teach THIS CLASS. Some departments hire adjuncts and visiting professors to teach a specific class while a professor is on leave or taking an administrative position. Maybe professors work hard too. Maybe you have issues.

I hope you find a job you like in a place where you are valued for your skills and efforts, even though your comments makes you seem like a jerk.

Anonymous said...

Wow...It's so wonderful how respectful you are to others...

Maybe this is why adjuncts feel intimidated....

Anonymous said...

I had one of those perfect storm experiences my first semester teaching. I was covering a class that had 100+ students and a reputation as a joke, and which was normally taught by the department chair. I was 26 years old and looked younger. I was in a one-year position, and was an applicant for the tenure-track position that had opened up. I had never taken a class in the specific topics that were the basis for the class. (It was an intro class, but a topic-based one.) I had never spoken in front of 100 students before.

The class sucked. I was slaughtered on the teaching evaluations.

I got the tenure-track job, but I never recovered from that class. Every time I came up for review, that class would come up. Eventually, I was denied tenure over it.

I've got another job now, and I'm not scared of a room full of students, and I've figured out how to make large lectures engaging and challenging and good places to learn. But that first year I didn't know them, and the circumstances made it a difficult place to learn.

Anonymous said...

I'm curious as to how you help younger colleagues with confidence problems. What do you do? I'm definitely suffering from a bout of low confidence, and I don't know how to get out of this rut.

Female Science Professor said...

It depends on the person/situation and what kind of help they want/need, but some ways to help include sharing teaching materials and discussing teaching strategies. For example, I had lunch with a new colleague this week, and we discussed a class he will be teaching for the first time in the near future. I'm going to give him my teaching materials (outlines, images etc.) to use or not use as he wishes, and I said I'd be happy to talk about any aspect of the course with him. I've already been impressed with some of his new ideas for the course, and have told him so. I don't know if that helps or not, but I am looking forward to further discussions with him about the class.

Another junior colleague is sitting in on a class I'm team-teaching this semester.

I sometimes get together with other colleagues - tenured and non-tenured alike - at a cafe and we share stories and ideas about our teaching experiences; sometimes it helps to talk about situations so as to get perspective (and perhaps also some confidence).

I don't have any magical solutions, but I had some kind and supportive senior colleagues when I was starting out, and that helped me a lot. Also, when a class goes well, you know it, and this helps with the next class and the next one.. etc.

sessional said...

This post was really interesting for me to read. I am a post-doc in my late twenties, and to "build my teaching portfolio" I am teaching a large (200+ student) introductory course in Engineering. This is my first time teaching, and it's kind of a trial by fire! I am fortunate to have lots of support from another instructor who is teaching the same course. I don't think that I have a perfect storm on my hands, but one of the things that I find most challenging is to project confidence in front of the class all of the time, which I think is a very important part of teaching. Will this come with time?

new teacher said...

I have been (and still am) the inexperienced professor with a lack of confidence and authority. I try new techniques, ask questions of colleagues and have a generally good attitude about teaching and learning to teach. What bugs me is that when I am applying for teaching positions everyone wants you to already be a great teacher. You know and I know that teachers are always learning new techniques about being good teachers and that even more experienced teachers are still learning, so then why do you still expect us to be great teachers as soon as we come out of grad school where we have not been taught to be teachers at all?

amy said...

I've been teaching full time for five years now, and just this year I've started feeling comfortable and confident. Sessional: the ability to project confidence does come with time, probably faster for most people than it did for me. Until then, you just have to fake it. I think students can tell when you're faking confidence, but in my experience they're usually pretty forgiving about it. I've taught at schools in many areas of the country, though, and different regions are different about this. My first job was at a prestigious college in New England, and the students were brutal! I find midwestern students to be much kinder, though they still refuse to believe I'm an actual professor. At any rate, talking to supportive older colleagues is a huge help; I've learned that even the gray-bearded full professors have to deal with grade complaints and disrespectful attitutdes. Not as often as young female profs do, of course, but it's still comforting to know they get some of that.

Anonymous said...

Asking "how are things going" is sort of like asking "how are you?". It is a pleasantry, not a serious inquiry. However, this person should have known that the class wasn't going well and should have been seeking out ways to correct the problems. I have no issue with people who are less than perfect teachers. I have an issue with people who are oblivious to their imperfections and do nothing to improve. We are a teaching college and we look for efforts to improve not teaching perfection during our tenure reviews.

Katie said...

It's so nice to know that there exist senior faculty that care about the teaching experience of junior/adjunct/assistant professors. I mean, I know they exist, but it's nice to be reminded.

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I had a perfect storm in my first class, remedial Orgo to 200 students. It was my first time teaching, and I was assigned the class nobody else wanted. It was a disaster. I did very naive things like assigning tough homework, and deciding based on that that the class could deal with a tough midterm. Result: an average of 40%. The idea that the students might not actually do the homework themselves had not crossed my mind.
I lost the class' confidence in my ability because I did not know technical things (ie can the class be taken for honors). Luckily for me, when a group complained a second group counter-complained to the Chair, pointing out their colleagues' disruptive behavior in class. In the end, half hated me and half loved me (I put a lot of work in the class).
It was a combination of my inexperience, and of a group of hostile students who had complained about an other instructor in the past, getting some bonus points.
It was a very hard semester for me, but I would encourage anybody in the same shoes to hang in there and work on organization skills. My third time teaching that same class, I had the best evals in the dept.
Now that I sit on the assigning committee, I do not let a new person start with that class.

Anonymous said...

I'm a part-time adjunct and what worked for me was a terrific boss / mentor. He gave me all his slides, notes, homework (plus answers), etc. He was there to answer silly questions I had about how to manage the class.

And he told me early on something like this: "students shouldn't have to pay for the first three classes as they will not be good. After the third class, you become a good teacher." He said it better than that, but it gave me confidence to keep teaching.

I now agree: my first three classes were not nearly as good as the classes I teach now. I was able to be good to start, both because of his help and because of my own enthusiasm for the subject, but I got better too.

One goal for me this semester is to see about setting up some peer-review -- ask some of my adjunct friends if they're willing to sit in on my classes and I'd sit in on theirs -- and share teaching ideas.

I'm a little nervous about it & not sure I'll do it, but it's on the goal radar.

Nice topic.

Anonymous said...

I am an adjunct Associate Professor of Science and Mathematics at Rider University, active as a substitute teacher and mentor in high schools, and a retired professor of physics from Rutgers University. I have taken extensive notes from my experiences and given them to my protégés. Recently I collected them into a book, "Teaching and Helping Students Think and Do Better".

Students, teachers, and professors who have looked at the book give it the highest rating.

Typical comments that I hear are things like this: "Hi, Dr. Aranoff!" said a girl, "I got a 100 on the test! I am so happy! Thank you so much!"

I also wrote a paper in Gifted Education Press Quarterly.