The semester is over; the school year is complete. Two weeks ago I watched our students walk across a stage to get a diploma case (the actual diploma is mailed later). The week after that I spent in a rather chilly computer lab reading portfolios of work submitted by graduating students. That inspires this afternoon's diary topic: How do we know if we are doing a good job or not when we teach our students?
This is a very important issue in modern education. The politicians who want us to assess our skills as teachers based on high stakes standardized testing at the end of the year have one solution. Clearly there are valid concerns about that. For starters, the input is so variable that comparing, say, a suburban middle class school in St. Louis County with an urban school in a decaying lower income neighborhood (including general health of the students coming into the day – have they had enough to eat over the weekend? Have they been able to sleep the night previously or has it been too loud for them to get effective rest?) makes an apples-to-apples comparison impossible (even apples to oranges is not a valid description; perhaps we should go with apples to pine nuts – same general category of vegetables and from the same general environment, but from a completely different type of plant, and [oops – my natural history summer reading list is showing]).
But the desire to have some accountability is understandable. I don't want to have my students go through four years of university without having learned anything (in terms of skills, if not content), and I don't want them to come from high school without a certain basic level of skill development as well. As a university with a more or less highly-selective admissions policy, I am lucky that there is some evaluation of student skills coming in, but I don't want college education to be just for those middle-class students from the suburbs who have had all the advantages their parents' status and income (and previous education) have given them. And I want to be able to know that students have gained from their experiences here and in earlier educational experiences. This isn't assessment of outcomes, exclusively, but that is indeed a part of it.
Come with me to the orange wonderland past the creamsicle highway...
I teach in a university where we ask our students to do evaluations at the end of every semester. In my discipline, we have developed our own standardized questions, and the answers provided after the students have filled in bubble sheets (or now, have answered the survey on a computer) are in the form of numerical results averaged from responses from a whole class. Asked are questions such as "Did the teacher provide prompt and meaningful feedback?" and "Was the professor accessible during posted office hours?" and such things as "Were the requirements clear?" "Did the tests evaluate material covered in the course?" and "Provide an overall evaluation of the instructor." we used to hand these out in class and leave, but now all students in a class are sent a link to fill out the evaluation. There was a certain joy in knowing that if a student did not come regularly to class, he or she would not be around to fill out the evaluation, but now that the students enrolled are sent evaluations, anyone who has given up on the class or the prof can use them to rant (sometimes this is completely valid, but it is a depressing prospect at times, as well). If we want to add questions or have things we want or have answered in more detailed feedback we are welcome to add them to the survey or to hand out questions in class for students to collect among themselves and stuff into an envelope delivered to the department chair and returned to us after all the grades are in. I have use this latter process off and on for feedback on course organization, textbook selection, and other similar concrete things (I have changed textbooks for the fall based on the students' feedback from a class taught on an every-other-year schedule, for example).
When I started, my dean (that was not his title, but it was effectively his position) would go through the evaluations with every faculty member every year and tell us how horrible out evaluations were, and how a scale of 5 with a rating of 3 was impossibly bad. We should be looking at getting another job, either teaching in a research university or attempting to get a job in another field altogether. You see, if you were not an excellent teacher coming in, it was hopeless, as one could not learn to teach well. It was news to the people who were working to mentor newer faculty. They reassured me that there were things I would be able to do to improve my abilities, and that guy was simply wrong. (It was amusing to have him finally facing having to be evaluated himself and doing the things we were never allowed to do – he did it when we had a required meeting and he stayed in the room, and told us if we thought he was average, we should mark a 4 rather than a 3, and really he did a good job so he should be given 5s if we agreed that he did anything well…)
And by the way, I have seen an improvement in my evaluations since my first two years of teaching.
So standardized testing, standardized questionnaires, and feedback surveys are forms I have used or experienced (even though I was in elementary school in the 1960s, we wrote bubble tests as a pilot program, every two years -- it was the Iowa assessment or Iowa test, or Ames testing -- I forget the name, but I was experienced with bubble sheet assessments from a very young age). I have also, on rare occasions (when I want to beat up myself!), have gone to such sites as "Rate my Professor" which is depressing in some ways and comforting in others. While the last time I looked at my own ratings, there were some who commented on my appearance and "bitterness" the majority commented that I was really hard, but when I said that students should come and talk to me if they needed assistance, I meant it and I would be willing to be really helpful if only students come and asked for help if they needed it. That was about as good as I figure I will ever get from a site like that, and so I have worked very hard not to give into the temptation to return (after all, these evaluations really are designed for students, not for faculty, or that is what I tell myself).
There is also the anecdotal evidence -- the students who come by to see you the next year just to say hello, or to tell you that your class is intersecting with the one they are in this semester and they wanted you to know -- the comments one gets on Facebook after a student has been out for several years -- or the portfolio submissions of a paper written for my class as "Most Satisfying Personal Experience." The latter tends to show up as "this was the hardest I worked on paper in my time here and it showed I was able to earn an A" narratives. The fact that they were happy with their success makes me happy as well. The letters you get years after a student has graduated -- "I was in this museum and saw a piece I remembered from your class" or "You are right! This building IS really something special!" are successes in my book as well.
Then there are the students who graduate who might not have done so, because you helped them through a particularly difficult period, or helped them figure out how to succeed in a particularly challenging class. There are those who apply to graduate schools or for jobs, and use you as a reference because they were proud of how they did in your classes, and they know that you knew them and cared about how they did -- they were not just nameless faces in a classroom. Then there are those who succeed in graduate school or at a job because you have taught them how to write, how to research, how to build a persuasive argument, how to manage a complicated set of data and explain it to a person who does not understand statistical analysis with any depth.
And there are awards such as "Educator of the Year" which sometimes you are fortunate enough to be nominated for and occasionally for which you might be selected. For me that is very rare but very much appreciated. Very.
In other words, the success you have as a teacher is measured in a wide variety of ways, from evaluations of your students to anecdotal communications. Your failures as well (something I have written about in this series, too) can show up in many different contexts. Each has its value, and each has its meaning. As you head into your summer, may you have good positive feedback from your students at every turn.
When does your semester/school year end? What are your summer plans? Will you be teaching again in the fall?
UPDATE: Thanks to rserven, I corrected the Latin grammar. Ooopsie.