Performance Reviews: Coaching Your Grad Students

Today’s Fri Fun Facts is about my new use of writing Performance Reviews for the Teaching Assistants. After looking through the Canadian Union of Public Employee’s Agreement between my employer and the local group, I decided that it would behoove me to offer the Teaching Assistants a more formal review.  Today’s Fri Fun Facts will speak to how I will do this every term on.

My intention was to provide each Teaching Assistant with an honest, fair assessment of their work this term hoping that they could use the review in their teaching dossiers or as part of their resume paperwork. Writing the reviews took more time than I thought it would, as I really wanted to convey a personal review for each Teaching Assistant. How did I do this?

When I meet with each Teaching Assistant to review their graded work, I would email myself notes about the meeting and these summaries were useful. When students would see me during office hours and offer unsolicited comments about their Teaching Assistant, I would email myself a copy of the comments for my records. These little things were important to providing me a memory of the Teaching Assistant’s performance.

My suggestions:

1. Keep notes or records about the Teaching Assistant’s performance. If there is every tricky situations, these notes are really useful. More importantly, this will be helpful when you have to write a letter of reference or serve as a reference.

2. Check in with the Teaching Assistants to make sure that they are doing well and feel that they are getting enough support from you. You should assign a mentor Teaching Assistant to a new Teaching Assistant.

3. Provide them guidelines about your expectations. You might email or verbalize this. I actually provide a dossier: a one to two page expectations letter, sample graded work, exams, grading guidelines for the university, and a copy of the syllabus.

4. Be available. You need to set up times to be available for their questions or be willing to guide and coach the Teaching Assistants as needed. Some will need more of your time and others hit the ground running.

5. With the review, think about the Teaching Assistant’s grading, effort, interaction with the team, students, and comment on this. Note any areas for improvement and be willing to note if you think that you could have supported the Teaching Assistant more.

6. Be honest. The review should be helpful, but it does not need to only be positive. Constructive comments are sometimes needed, but offer them in a helpful manner.

Overall, the Performance Review should be helpful for you, the Teaching Assistant, and any future employer who sees the document. Remember that the arrangement is really an apprenticeship and you need to mentor or coach the graduate student, as this is not “free” grading for you. The cost is really supervising and helping the Teaching Assistant perform the duties. I have to remind myself of this occasionally! How do you evaluate your graduate students? Performance reviews is feedback, and we all deserve constructive feedback.

Do Not Burn that Bridge: Collegiality

get hired

I am in the throes of letter writing and giving job references for former students and staff. This post is not a book review of the book in the photograph. I took the screen shot and of the book and add my post as a suggestion for a job applicant or new employee. One of the things that I have heard from prospective employers is the ways in which a candidate or hired employee fails miserably and burns a bridge. In my line of work as an instructor, advisor, mentor, coach or supervisor, I also occasionally see a student or staff member burn a bridge. Occasionally this is done with a positive attitude or the expectation that rewards are instantaneous upon merely doing the job.

I have heard repeatedly that a good attitude can help a new employee. If you are new to a job that you are not sure about make sure that during your shift you act like you care. This job could turn into something else for you and it is hard to shake off a bad impression. Be careful with social media. Do not post negative statements about your employer or co-workers. Nothing is private online and the worst thing that you can do is make you or your employer look bad. Likewise, if you have some terrible customers you also do not want to post information about them. Be careful and smart.

Make sure that you are dressing in a way that fits the environment. If there is a dress code, follow it. If there is not a dress code, ask your immediate manager what she or he suggests. There is nothing more embarrassing than having a manager speak to you about your clothing. In my early twenties, this happened to me twice and I never wore that blouse or the skirt again. Both seemed fine with the ensemble, but giving further thought I realized that they did not meet the conservative norms of that work place. I always suggest to my students who have job interviews to think about the dropped pen exercise. If you have to pick up a pen, will you feel comfortable as you lean in to grab the pen. Bend with your knees–not your back!

Other hints for looking for work–keep in contact with people who are well-connected or who you might want a reference from at a later date. This might be a bi-annual email that updates or an occasional hand written note. Make sure that you keep your circle of references up to date with all the wonderful things that you are doing. Related to this, be careful on social media. There are numerous examples of poor use of social media. I imagine that the communications staff at one East Coast university spent part of this last Monday chatting about a student’s racist post and the follow up posts that only made his original tweet worse. While his Twitter account is now deleted, many screen-shotted the tweet. Plus, the response against his racism was swift. That original tweet could haunt him.

Overall, be smart while you are looking for work and new on the job. Even if you do not have a probationary period, your first few days, weeks, and months are scrutinized. Check in with your co-workers and manager. If you do not have regular performance reviews, ask if you could have some assessment. Think of it as a work tune up. Reflect and learn. And, if you have questions–ask them.

Peer Mentoring: Graduate Women Scholars

I often tell my students that my mentoring does not have an expiration date. It does not. I benefited from some wonderful mentors and I feel indebted to them. I was lucky enough to have a mentor who had the foresight to organize all the women students who knocked on her door. I won’t get the history right here, but essentially she saw that women students wanted similar things from her. So, she decided to get them all together monthly and the group was borne.

I first started attending the mentoring group when I was an advanced undergraduate and continued throughout most of my graduate degrees (two MAs and the PhD). We would meet monthly and discuss issues like: how to put your curriculum vitae together, how to communicate effectively, how to write an abstract for a conference, how to have balance in your life, and so many other germane topics. What worked so well with the group is that it was a conversation. While the sponsoring faculty member had her degrees and experience to share with us, we also had graduate students at all stages of their education participating in the group. We learned from one another.

The rules were simple—we brought food to share and we made sure that when we left there were no dirty dishes or mess in her house. While there we sat around in a circle on the floor or bit of furniture and introduced ourselves and then the topic. We would take a break to eat and then resume the meeting. Continue reading

Mentoring and Coaching: Listening

I work with hundreds of students each term and do my best to help as many as I can. One way that I do this is to set up my course assignments in such a way that each one builds on the next and that the student can learn and improve. I also actively mentor and coach many students from the prospective student who I might take on a tour or chat with in my office through the graduate student teaching her or his first class.

As a mentor or coach, I appreciate those moments when I can celebrate a student’s success. And, those teachable moments, when focus is needed to figure out what is next. What is the next step after there is a set back. These moments provide lessons in coping, crying, and then the strategy. What are Plans B, C, and D? There are also times when you just have to keep quiet and listen. I find that in many instances, the person sitting across from me at the coffee table or in my office needs to articulate aloud what they’re thinking and you have to listen attentively and pause. For me, this occasionally means biting my tongue. I want to help, but the help is to just listen and encourage.

A good mentor/coach must listen. When a student gets closer to their last year, term or graduation a panic can set in for them. I remember this feeling before I graduated, as I wondered what graduate school would be like (that is another post). I’ve bumped into many current and soon to be former students and April was all about listening and encouraging them. They are on the precipice of major change and need to work through this. The best gift I can give is to listen. Today I’m thinking about the importance of listening.