At the end of every term, I usually bring doughnuts, cookies, or cupcakes for my students. The fact that they are also filling out course evaluations on the same day that I bring treats for them is purely coincidental.
Before I started teaching, I was naive enough to think that it would be like one of those inspirational teacher movies. If you've ever seen one of them, then you know what they're usually like. The teacher is confronted by angry, disrespectful students at first, but by the end of the movie they're singing together, starring in plays that the teacher directs, writing in journals that the teacher provides, or eagerly reading more books, studying, and earning A's because their teacher inspired them to.
Well. Several years and many classes later, I still work hard to teach and inspire my students. But I'd also love it if they would look up from their cell phones more often without my telling them to do so.
College teachers do not usually receive the same training that high school teachers and elementary school teachers do. I took one class on how to teach college writing, and that was it. I think one reason is that professors have to be scholars and teachers, and most of the focus is on our research. (And yet most grad students spend a lot of time teaching, not to mention all the teaching we'll be doing once we complete our degrees.)
Although I do think that college teachers should receive more training, at the same time a lot of what you learn from teaching can't be learned from books or lectures. A lot of it is based on trial and error. Each class helps me figure out what works and what doesn't. A lot of the mistakes I made that first year (including the one I most regret, which was that I let a few disrespectful students walk all over me) are mistakes that I would never make now.
That's one reason why those course evaluations that the students fill out are helpful. The students provide feedback on what they thought of the course and my work as a teacher. Sometimes they do write constructive criticism, like what they thought of the books we studied, or they'll suggest other books they thought should have been included.
When I first started teaching years ago, I did receive some negative evaluations. One of them said something like, "I think we should spend more time watching movies in class and less time reading books." Another student wrote, "I don't see the point in studying grammar. It's really not that important." More than one student wrote, "I don't think it's such a big deal if I show up late or don't show up at all sometimes." (Seriously. I'd love to hear those students say that to their bosses.)
There were some evaluations that were more than negative; they were nasty. One student said the department should fire me, because I was a terrible professor. He said that he knew more about teaching the class than I did, even though he wasn't even an English major and he had no teaching experience. (Right. And the fact that I had majored in English in college, graduated with honors, earned a master's degree in English, and had taught several classes by then meant that I was less qualified.)
When I was still starting out as a teacher, the negative evaluations crushed me. It wasn't like I didn't receive any positive evaluations during my early years in education, because I did. But somehow the negative comments stayed with me. I talked to other teachers, and they said that they received bad feedback too; it was part of the college teaching experience.
I still receive a few negative evaluations here and there, though a lot fewer than before. Usually the negative evaluations are from students who are unhappy because I refused to give them grades they didn't earn. (Side note: The strong sense of entitlement that several - though not all - college students have surprised me the most once I started teaching. I never thought that students would try to argue with me over their grades, or that they would try to pressure me to change them. I never thought that students would threaten to go to my boss and complain if I didn't change their grades. But I stood my ground and refused to back down. I told them that the grades I gave them were the grades they earned, not the grades they thought they deserved.)
I recently read the evaluations that were filled out by the students in classes I taught last fall. I was pleased that the majority of them were positive. One student wrote, "She's so funny! And she's always so animated in class." (It's true. I'm happiest in classrooms, bookstores, and any place that sells a lot of caffeine.)
Another student wrote, "She was always available to help, both in class and after. I love her." (I'm sure that when the student wrote, "I love her", it was meant in a platonic way, and not in one of those creepy Lifetime movies of the week that has a title like Forbidden Love way.)
One of the students wrote, "I really learned a lot from her. I didn't even like to read before I took this class, but she helped me understand the books more easily, and I actually enjoyed it. She's a great teacher." (That comment in particular made my day. I'd been feeling discouraged over my dissertation, so it made me feel happy to know that at least I was doing something right.)
Teaching is a difficult job. It isn't like one of those inspirational teacher movies, but it can also be very rewarding. I've learned more from teaching and from my students than I have from anything else. It's the one thing that has kept me going through the nine circles of Hell (also known as grad school) all these years. I just hope that I can get my dissertation approved eventually, so that I can finally JUST MOVE ON to the next phase of my life, and continue doing what I do and love best: teach.
What about you? What kinds of things have you learned from your job? How do you feel about feedback, whether it's positive or negative? For example, if you're a published writer, how do you feel about those online reviews of your work?
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