Failing

I saw a job posting that noted that a strong candidate would want to fail miserably. I don’t have that link, but honestly I think that I have done that recently by taking some chances with my courses. And, guess what? I am fine with it. I am willing to take risks and have it fail. Fail miserably. It is a learnable moment. Sure, I often note the importance of a teachable moment; however, when I have failed miserably with a course I am learning. It is important to push boundaries and push myself.

My happy place is to push my students. But, recently I have pushed and failed. I have failed with books that my students did not like at all or assignments that did not work well. I held office hours in the last week and was a bit surprised to hear that the students liked the assignment. I am not convinced that it was a resounding success, though. Either way, I will have at it again with the next class.

3769283867_01c3214399 image is via Chris Griffith

Assessment of Student Work: It’s Not about You

This post is worth sharing again. I spent the weekend and part of last week reviewing and marking first year mid-terms. This post is worth sharing again and again. This morning I read some of this blog aloud to my first years. I even had the blog up on the screen for them to see. I do think it is important to remind students that the mark is not about you, but the work that was reviewed. We (me and the TAs) are not judging you as a person. I know that it might feel like it, but that is not the case.

If I could look into the eye of every student (undergrad and graduate) and say:

Your course grades do not reflect who you are as a person. The grade is only an assessment of your performance in this moment with these assignments–no more. You should not take the grades personally and wonder if this means that the person who assessed your work doesn’t like you. We are assessing so much work and it’s ultimately about the writing, analysis, presentation, ideas, grammar, spelling punctuation, directions, but not about you as a person. The assessment is about the performance of the assignment or the project and it is not personal. And, I also ask that you think about the assignment that you submitted. Was it your best work and did you follow the directions? Are you owning the grade and the comments? It is so to say that the Teaching Assistant or Professor has it in for you or does not understand you, but is there more there? A moment of introspection is needed so that you can think about the assignment and the expectations for your work.

I remember when I started teaching and I was more casual with the students. I would occasionally hear the following, “But I thought you liked me.” I conferred with my mentors and was told–you have to be more formal. Use your title and remind them that you are assessing their work and not them. Who they are has nothing to do with the grade. It’s about the writing and thinking. I re-worked my syllabi and did become more formal the following term and didn’t hear those personal statements again. March Madness on campus is really not just about basketball. It’s also about research, thinking, and writing. Mange your time well so that you do justice to your ideas. My purple pen is here to comment and tease out ideas. I pick up each paper and think~ what is here and how can I help? The assessment is really about the ideas. Please remember this.

What My Students Have Taught Me

I submitted my students’ grades and I have now completed my 18th year of teaching. I want to reflect on this year, but also begin to think about the next school term. This post offers some thoughts about what my students have taught me.

What have I learned from my students?

  1. Some of them are at university as a placeholder. Everyone tells them it was next for them. For many of them they are in the right place, but for some they will need some time off or to do other things, and this is fine. We have to support them.
  2. Their first year is hard. They are acculturating to university life and possibly living away from their parents. You have to treat the students with extra patience during the first term. Be firm, but patient.
  3. They are excited. You really want to keep that enthusiasm up, as it will for them when they are exhausted, homesick or second guessing themselves.
  4. You are part of their university experience.
  5. Working with first years for the bulk of my years, you are one of many who have impact on their ability to get through the first year. It is important to set guidelines, but be kind.

Overall, my first years have taught me humility. They are the hardest students to work with, as they demand the most of me. They also offer the most harsh quantitative and qualitative assessment of my teaching. It is ironic that a class full of people who are for the most part new to university are assessing my ability to teach. Who are they comparing me to? But it is important to hear from all my students, and learn from them. They make me smile with their compliments and criticism. It’s interesting to see that three students might like my use of “keener,” but one thinks that it is offensive. Yes, offensive. I cannot please everyone, and I do not try to do so. It is impossible!

I really look forward to year 19, which starts next month with the new term. I include a photo of my favorite Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who is also known as the Notorious RBG.

notorious rbg

 

Reflections: No Glares

Now that another term has almost ended, I can look over my shoulder at the previous school year and think reflect. Each year I reflect and try to learn from the previous year and then resolve to make some changes in the next year in the classroom, for my professional development or my ongoing efforts to mentor/coach students and peers. What did I do differently last year in the classroom, office hours or other interactions with my students? I resolved for more honesty. I was blunt. I was diplomatic, but more so, I was blunt. I am helpful and professional; however, I refuse to waste my students’ time with circular conversations. I do them no favors if I try to sugar-coat conversations.

What were the repercussions for me, if any? I heard more of these comments:
Thank you for being honest. I’ve never heard this before. Why am I almost done and no one has told me this? I didn’t know that this was plagiarism. Thank you for your time.

I did not have any incidents where someone stormed out of my office or a conversation escalated. If anything, I had meaningful conversations about assignments, interactions, writing, grad school, and other issues. As I have noted on numerous occasions, part of my job means that I have the good fortune to work with young people in the classroom or in my office. I love it. I would not trade this job for another as I get to teach, mentor, coach, and lead.

This last year I also thought more about my time. I strategically chose to focus my time differently. Part of it is that I had to, given a job change, but that is cause for a different post. I was not as available for extended office hours and the world did not fall apart. I expected a few day’s notice for extra appointments. What I am saying is that I established better boundaries for office houring and mentoring students. I had to protect my time thanks to the job change and I was working more. I managed my time effectively and accomplished more. And, at the same time I did not field complaints from my students. If anything, the change was better, as they commanded my full attention at times that were not pressed between meetings and I could listen.

My writing prompt for this post comes from a Swedish Proverb, “Fear less, hope more; whine less, breathe more; talk less, say more; hate less love more; and all good things are yours.” This last school year was filled with so much good and change. I welcome the change with a big smile and an open mind. The 2015-16 school year is half way through and I am in a great place. And, I’ll add that my little Grumpy Cat agrees and has her head on the desk!

Popular Instructors

I cannot believe that I am starting my 18th teaching year. I always start counting the years in September and this is 18. One of the things that I am mulling is what a popular instructor or popular prof means in academe. Does this reflect your enrollments? Is this term cast as a negative assuming that your course content is easy? I think the context mattters.

1. Hearing it from some colleagues it is clear that it cheapens your pedagogy and the depth of what you teach. 

2. Hearing it from students varies, but it is mostly meant as a compliment. 

3. Some colleagues clearly mean it as a compliment. 

Overall, my sense is that the so-called popular instructors generally enjoy teaching. I think that is the difference.  

 

Mentoring

I am rounding out my two months of Spring Undergrad Advising for the department and thinking about how I help my students. I’ll place these thoughts in bullet form.

  • I want to help them find out how they are doing with the course of their studies
  • I enjoy giving them good advice
  • I offer them advice about their course choices
  • I inform them of any resources we have on campus that they might find useful
  • And, the most important thing–is that I listen

I do prefer to advise face to face; however, more of my advising and mentoring is taking place online via email and on different platforms. For students enrolled where I teach, I can do some of the fact finding via email, but there are moments when a face to face is needed and I point this out and then it is up to them. The photo below is of turtles sunning at Cedar Hill Golf Course trail.

 

sunturtles

Students with an Edge

In my sixteen years of teaching, not one term has gone by when I do not have at least one student athlete in one of my classes. One thing that I have noticed with the vast majority of the student athletes is that they have drive. These students usually want to excel on the class. Their competitive edge extends into the classroom. They know that their coaches and education team (whoever this may be at the respective institution) expects them to show up to class and to practice. Most of these students will introduce themselves to me during the first week or two and my standard practice is to ask that their contact send me any invitational or team related travel dates. While I have taught at four different institutions none have been at a major sports school–no top ten football programs, which is often a marker for a “big name” institution. I have taught at Division 1 institutions; however, this was at the start of my teaching career.

I truly wish that more of my students had this same drive and felt accountable to their coach or team. This does not mean that my students who are not athletes are slackers! Not true. The typical student wants to do well, but knows that among their array of courses some get more effort. The student athletes are generally more competitive and want to do well in all of their courses, so it is not a big surprise to see at the annual fundraising breakfast that many of them have strong grade point averages. Can I just spend a quick moment to say that I am proud of them. Very proud. And, I know that my colleagues are, too.

It is less common for one of the student athletes to phone it in with their coursework. When I have had a student athlete under-perform, the student has immediately contacted me via email, come to office hours, or in one instance the basketball coach called me to meet with him. When I met with the coach, he made no excuses for the student and said, “His first job is being a student. Do not go easy on him.” I wasn’t going to, but let me tell you that walking into the office was an intimidating experience. I felt empowered and I know that many of my colleagues will counter with examples of grade changes or pressure by the administration to change grades; however, this is not my experience. Getting back to the students–when they under-perform they want to know what they can do to fix it. Thankfully, the student athlete under-performing in my classes is not very common. They are competitive through and through and want to do well. I do not give them any extra credit or leeway. What I want to see is more students with that fire in their belly. Be competitive and humble. The photo below is one I took at the McKinnon Pool–one of the pools where the student athletes swim.

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