The Real World

What is this “real world” you speak of?

Who defines it?

Is it the same “real world” for everyone?

I was recently in conversation with colleagues about class attendance.  Now, full disclosure, I do not have an attendance policy.  I know my class is not the only thing going on in the lives of my students.  I know they have to make choices with how they spend their time and I do not sit in judgment of those choices.  I encourage open communication, I want to know if you aren’t coming (if at all possible) because I’m a worrier and I care about you.  The ‘why’ you aren’t coming isn’t my business.  I do not attach points to attendance or the ever elusive but pervasive concept of “participation.”  If you’re missing a lot of class, I ask if we can talk.  I want you to get the content, the knowledge, the learning, the experiences, and I want to help remove any barriers I possibly can.  I want us to work together and I try to be a trustworthy and empathetic person who can serve as a resource.

So, that’s my approach.

My colleague said a student emailed saying they were going through a traumatic breakup and wouldn’t be in class.  The colleague said nope.  Another colleague said, when you’re a teacher, you can’t just stay home when your heart is broken.  The real world doesn’t stop for your break up.

Why not?

We get personal days and sick leave and we can and should use them in ways that support our overall well-being, right?  We need to learn how to engage in self care and boundary setting and mental health awareness and care.  Teachers are not martyrs or superheroes or angels.  They are humans with the wide range of human emotions and experiences.

I wonder about things like perfect attendance awards (why?) and the “in the real world, you’ll be expected to . . . ” framing that builds and reinforces anxiety and this run yourself into the ground, work 24/7 mentality that is literally killing us.

What if we modeled self care?  What if we respected boundaries?  What if we taught students to ask for what they need?

This week, I had a number of long, stressful days.  So, on Thursday, I cancelled a few things and worked from home, caught up on emails, scheduling, feedback, some writing.  In all day meetings on Friday, I talked with a colleague who had done the same the day before, took a “mental health day.”  We both said “GOOD FOR YOU!” to each other.  Where did we learn this was okay?

We didn’t.  We both expressed guilt and shame and a feeling of embarrassment about it.

In the words of the perfect Jonathan Van Ness, “who gave you permission to be so amazing?”  I’m giving you permission to set boundaries and to teach students to do the same.  And here’s the tricky part – respect the boundaries they and others set.  We must take care of each other.

How have you learned to care for your own mental health and well being?  How do you extend that grace to others?

Jen Newton, PhD is an assistant professor in early childhood/early childhood special education (isn’t that a lot of words for what should be one field??).  I talk a lot and have strong opinions – or so I am told.

Course Evaluations as Thoughtful Feedback

It’s that time of the semester again.

Course evaluations.  True confession time:  I don’t actually read mine.  I am far too thin skinned for that.  I send them to a trusted friend who reads them, tells me the things I need to know to improve my teaching and the course, and we leave the rest unsaid.  I read them eventually.  But right at semester’s end, at peak exhaustion, still raw from the experiences the semester brought, is not the ideal time for me to absorb the feedback.

All it takes is one.  One student to say I “have strong opinions” or “sometimes get off topic” and I’m not thinking any more about what I can learn from that feedback but about how I failed a student or that their perception was that I wasted valuable course time.

See?  It’s best if I don’t read them right away.

I also talk to students about how to write course evaluations.  They are clearly and without any doubt a flawed mechanism for evaluating teaching.  Students are not pedagogical experts, the measures on most evaluations are not meaningful assessments of teaching and learning, and many instructors find ways to dismiss both positive and negative student reports.  However, that doesn’t mean we can not and should not attempt to get the most out of them.  The experiences of learners in our environments are important.  I would argue the experiences of learners may be the most important.  Meaningful learning cannot occur without meaningful relationships.  So the feedback matters.

Students tend to approach course evaluations in one of two ways.

  1. Dismiss them.  Who has time for that?  No one reads them anyway and nothing changes.
  2. Rip them.  Students have waited all semester for the chance to unleash their rage, contempt, dislike of their instructor.  Now is that time.

In response to the first approach, while course evaluations are not great, they do matter.  Depending on the university and the department and the instructor, they may matter in big ways or small ways.  However, if you do not complete them, they do not matter in any way.  Complete them.  Thoughtfully.

As for the second approach, this is the quickest, easiest way to ensure that your evaluation will not matter.  It will be immediately dismissed by the instructor and those evaluating the instructor because they will attribute your anger and frustration to you, and not to your instructor.  Your words and your experience cannot be heard if it’s presented emotionally rather than thoughtfully.

I teach people to be effective, inclusive educators.  Therefore, I must BE an effective, inclusive educator.  Part of effectively teaching is providing meaningful, thoughtful feedback to learners.  I aim to provide ongoing feedback to those learning with me and I ask them to do the same for me.  So when course evaluation time rolls around, we talk about how to provide constructive feedback to instructors.  I guide my students to consider two big ideas first.

  • In what ways did you invest in your own learning this semester and in what ways did you hinder your own learning this semester?
  • In what ways did I invest in your learning this semester and in what ways did I hinder your learning this semester?

Focus on the teaching and learning.  Take responsibility for your learning.  It’s okay for you to dislike my personality, my clothes, my tendency to talk about Netflix at the start of class.  Do those things hinder your learning?  If no, keep it to yourself.  Tell me how I can improve.  Tell me what I should keep doing and why it helped you learn.  Tell me how you would have benefited more from specific learning experiences so I can be better the next time.  Provide me with feedback as you would a learner in your class – tailored for my reflection and improvement.

Those are course evaluations I would read.

How do you approach course evaluations, both as a learner and as a teacher?

 

Jen Newton, PhD is an assistant professor in early childhood/early childhood special education (isn’t that a lot of words for what should be one field??).  I talk a lot and have strong opinions – or so I am told.