Thursday, February 5, 2015

Don't Underestimate a Teacher's Professional Pride

For most of my career at Fordham, I had excellent student evaluations. Students commented favorably on the content of my courses, the atmosphere I created in stimulating discussion, my openness to different points of view. That began to change 3 or 4 years ago. I got mediocre ratings from two courses I offered on Bronx Food at the Gastronomical University of Italy, and weaker ratings on several of the courses I was giving at Fordham. Several student comments hit home. Though most praised my enthusiasm and use of music and film to supplement readings and lectures, a few students said I had gotten too full of myself and was not really listening to what students were saying when they spoke in class.

At first, I thought this was sour grapes on the part of students who had gotten poor grades, but by this time last year, I realized that the complaints had been repeated often enough that they had to represent something real. So beginning last spring, I started to rethink how I approached class discussion. I began to speak less, listen more, and reduce the amount of time I devoted to telling stories based on my experience while encouraging students to connect to the material by sharing their experience. I also began to put the class into a circle formation to make discussion easier earlier in the semester

I sensed in my classes that things were a little different, and that discussions were more open and honest, but wasn't sure until yesterday when I say my student evaluations. They were the best I had received in 4 years numerically, but also had a different tone in the substantive section. Students felt THEIR voices were really being heard. No matter what point of view they had expressed.

I share this with you to make a point about evaluating teachers. Given my position as a tenured full professor at the tail end of my career- student evaluations have no impact on my professional status. I cannot be promoted further. I have stopped applying for merit increments. And I cannot be penalized,much less terminated, based on their content.
But I took those evaluations very seriously and changed the way I was teaching to respond to problems they revealed.

Why? Professional pride.

And am I alone in this feeling. No! I suspect a good many teachers are deeply committed to providing the best possible experience to their students and respond constructively to evaluations that are substantive without having a hammer held over them.
Also, and this may even be more important, no one was evaluating me based on how my students performed on class exams. My students were asked their opinions about me and the course on a wide variety of criteria.

The lesson here is that maybe it is time to trust teachers more. To encourage them to self-correct and improve their teaching out of pride, not fear. And to give them the respect of treating them as true professionals

Is that too much to ask?