As I headed into second grade I was dismayed to learn that my teacher was going to be Mrs. Derrick. I heard she was mean. While kids weren’t able to provide any clear examples of her ‘meanness’, everyone thought it might have something to do with the large, angry looking port wine stain that crawled up and covered the majority of her neck and jawline. The next year though, I lucked out. My third grade teacher Mrs. Hildebrand was nice and pretty, and even better, she picked me to play Dorothy in our Wizard of Oz play.
Last week I spoke with a current student of mine who is pursuing a degree to become a math teacher. She and I were talking about the weird relationship of students and teachers. I’ve had teachers that I never called by their first names, I’ve had teachers that I’ve shared a pint with after class. Part parent, part friend, part neither. She had a teacher in high school that she hated. ‘Haaaaaaaaated,’ was how she enunciated her steep dislike. He made the students memorize word for word the math definitions from the textbook, and then tested them on it! Everyone hated him, she remembered, and she admitted taking pleasure in crucifying him in her student evaluation at the end of the year. Then she majored in math in college. It got harder and the problems got more and more complex. Belatedly, she found that the more complex the math problem, the more one needed to relied upon the actual definition of the problem in order to solve the equation.
At the end of every course in college, students are allowed, required even, to anonymously air their opinion on all of the varied and sundry elements that make up the class; from the clarity of the instructor, to the perceived knowledge and passion conveyed by the instructor to the scope of the assignments given, usually rated on a numerical scoring system of 1-5. Much has been written about the inherent flaws of this evaluation system; NPR for example, in Student Course Evaluations Get an ‘F’, wrote that ‘there’s a sampling bias: very unhappy or very happy students are more motivated to fill out these surveys.’ Also of note, in this same study conducted by Philip Stark, associate dean of the Division of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of California, Berkeley, found that student evaluations are systematically biased against women- ‘so much so, in fact, that they’re better mirrors of gender bias than of what they are supposed to be measuring: teaching quality.’ Most insightful, however, are the patterns: the better the professors were, as measured by their students’ grades in later classes, the lower their rating from students. ‘If you make your students do well in their academic career, you get worse evaluations from your students. Students, by and large, don’t enjoy learning from a taskmaster, even if it does them some good.’ Interestingly, classes ‘full of highly skilled students do give highly skilled teachers high marks. Perhaps the smartest kids do see the benefit of being pushed.’ Other similar studies have shown that when professors raise classroom expectations above that of their peers, their student evaluations go down by one to two points in general. Students equate difficulty with dissatisfaction, and it shows on their course evaluations. Harvard Business Review stated that ‘a 1 standard deviation increase in a university teachers’ effectiveness in boosting student performance reduces the students’ evaluations of their professors’ teaching quality by about half of a standard deviation, on average.’
As educators, we have several options. Option A. could be called the ‘Myopic Approach.’ The myopic approach is to kowtow to the existing system in order to achieve job success. To do so, here is what you must do. Firstly, disregard the age and education and assumed skillset and prior knowledge of the student and pretend they are all eight year olds. I can pick on eight year olds because I have one, I’ve had one for almost a year, he’s almost nine and I’ve said, ‘Jasper, put your binder in your backpack. Jasper, have you put your binder in your backpack? Jasper, don’t forget your binder!’ approximately 85,000 times. So, in preparation for your passel of eight year olds, make sure that you have every course item, reading lists, syllabus, grading rubrics, class schedules, project explanations, etc., typed and uploaded onto your school’s online server. Now go ahead and forget about that, because your students will never look at it. Your next step is to give everyone a copy of everything. Now go ahead and forget about this too because you just wasted about 10 trees and all but four students will ‘file’ this immediately in the garbage or leave it on their desk or otherwise shuck it far far away. Next, explain everything several times, making sure to re-explain for those that showed up late, those that were dozing off, those that were not-so-surreptitiously looking at their phone instead of listening and engaging. Your repetitive explanations are not finished however, you will still need to repeat yourself for those students that were absent to class but never emailed you as directed to in the heretofore unread syllabus (what syllabus? It’s posted online, it was handed out, and it was discussed in class…’do you have an extra copy?’) This repetitive explanation will come full-circle for you when an assignment is due and many students will, in lieu of a finished assignment, offer instead an overly detailed excuse (food poisoning is a particularly hot ticket, perhaps because no one wants to get too close to that, to cross-examine its validity?) or a bleating excuse of ‘I misunderstood’, ‘I was under the impression that’, ‘I wasn’t sure if you meant..’, and then you must offer up yet again, for the 500th time a full explanation of the project; and do add, on a silver platter if you have one handy, an offer to extend the project deadline due to their misunderstanding, food poisoning, car broke down, I was exhausted.
Reframe your thinking. Incomplete work is ‘almost finished!’, sleeping in class is ‘much needed self-care!’ In addition to providing students with grades and feedback for each assignment as quickly as you can, keep a meticulous and updated grade for the frequent students that query, ‘um, I was just wondering what my grade is?’ Because remember, it’s not ‘you know all of your grades thus far, why can’t you add it up?’, It’s ‘thanks for the opportunity to brush up on my excel skills!’
A word on assignments; cut to the chase, don’t be wordy and verbose, expanding upon the objectives of each assignment, blah blah blah. Just bullet point what it takes to get an ‘A.’ Lastly, a word on grading. Take your meticulous and updated gradebook and toss it out the window for final grades. Students want ‘A’s and you want a job, ergo, get to work on getting that left pinky finger into tip top typing shape!
What is the downfall of the ‘Myopic Approach’? Students are ill-prepared for subsequent classes, career….life in general, but hey, they maintained their GPA! As student evaluations continue to serve as the gold-standard for colleges and universities in reviewing professors for retention, raises and tenureship, the question arises, is there a better way?
I’ve taught for twelve years. I began teaching a month out of grad school and I wore birkenstocks and fringy tank tops and had to show my faculty ID to the librarian to check out from the reserve desk because I looked young and had no clue what ‘professional attire’ meant. I’ve taught college students, preschoolers, elementary students, high school students (for a week, it’s really really hard. Go get some flowers and a Starbucks gift certificate and put it in the mail for every high school teacher you ever had), and adults with developmental disabilities. I believe in teaching another option, Option B. ‘The Long Game.’ The long game does not dismiss the need for a system of checks and balances between teacher and student in order to access and ascertain that objectives are being met. Student evaluations could be superceded, for example, with a class meeting with peer advisors. Attendance taken, rubrics observed, classroom visits made, would all yield a more well-rounded picture of the scope and success of the class.
When teaching visual art to art majors, my student evaluations are consistently high. When I began teaching visual art to non-art majors, I did note a slight downturn from a small portion of student evaluations, typically 1-2 students rating me very low, which was easy to connect to the 1-2 students who were coincidentally failing the course. No big surprises there. Two years ago, however, I began teaching visual art to non-art majors who were required to take the course as a component of their major. Suddenly my student evaluations were incredibly polarized; 65% of my students rated me excellent, whereas the remaining 35% rated me akin to a rat that crawled out of the gutter, scurried up the stairs with the stench of Thai takeaway still permeating my fur whilst attempting to demo the finer points of watercolour with my long flickering fleshy tail. Let’s just say ‘low’, they rated me ‘low.’ These are students that do not necessarily value art, enjoy making art, or find art in any way, shape or form ‘fun.’ Rated below a dentist visit if it’s just for a cleaning, slightly above if for a root canal.
Given my personality, I immediately assumed it was me. I didn’t understand this population, I wasn’t addressing their needs. I made changes. I added detail to rubrics. I smiled more. I lowered the point value for a major graded component that students frequently struggled with completing. I gave out Starbursts during finals. My student evaluations remained polarized. This is when I remembered, it’s about the long game.
To teach the long game, you must consider your audience. Each student has a unique skillset, history and background they and they alone bring to the classroom. Set your standards. Your standards should be high but attainable, challenging but fun, clear but allow for personal interpretation. Be concise in your expectations and have everything in print for students to refer back to, but remember that everyone only has twenty teachable minutes per hour, so do repeat yourself so that the guy trying to remember whether or not he let his dog out to pee, or the girl wondering if she left the flat iron plugged in hear your words as well; they aren’t necessarily not paying attention, they are just outside of their twenty teachable minutes. Provide examples, demonstrate techniques, grade with clarity and provide feedback with encouragement. Remember that these are newly fleshed-out adults, they are navigating complex new territories in school, in their home and career, in relationships, in themselves. Be thoughtful. Teach as if these are the people you want to be future peers in your career field for the rest of your life. They need your guidance, your knowledge, and your structured support. The long game is challenging and fraught with difficulty from both sides. There will be students that fail. Allow for this failure and remind them that failure is a step to success that cannot be circumnavigated. Some will fail anyway. More will make it.
It might take a few years after they leave your classroom, but these students, upon reflection, these are the ones that will know that: the math teacher, he was never an asshole to begin with, he was just playing the long game.