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.
1 year ago