If you don’t ask hard questions about yourself, then you probably aren’t going to hear what you need to hear.
That’s what I learned* from the best fake turkey sandwich** in the world.
When I lived in San Diego, a new sandwich shop opened up, just a 7-minute walk from my place. It was really good, as sandwiches go. I’m not one to go gaga over something as trivial as a sandwich (well, maybe a particularly good banh mi, maybe). Great sandwich shops tend to not care about vegetarians. However, the folks in this shop clearly deigned themselves to not think of veg options as an afterthought. The bottom line is that if I was going to have a sandwich, I wanted it from this place. Their fake turkey sandwich was, well, great. I guess if I was a food blogger I’d have to be more descriptive, but I’m not.
If I was going to buy a sandwich, then this is the place I wanted to get my sandwich.
The first time I went in, it took a pretty long time — maybe 20 minutes. Twenty minutes doesn’t sound like an eternity, but when you just went in to buy a sandwich to go, that’s a while. But they were new and overwhelmed. No big deal.
I went back a few weeks later. It was pretty quiet. There was one person in front of me who had just ordered a sandwich. And still, my sandwich took, like, forever. I’m sure a theoretical physicist would quibble with my definition of forever. But in space-sandwich-time, fifteen minutes is forever when there’s nobody in line ahead of you. And, I mean, it wan’t toasted or anything. They just needed to assemble the damn thing.
I gave them a few more tries over the next several months. But they were always just so darn slow. Usually I don’t have that much time to wait for a sandwich. I suppose I should, but if I had more time, then I would have made my own lunch.
I didn’t notice when they closed. Most new restaurants don’t make it past the first year, and this place was no exception. I can’t imagine they had many repeat customers. I think I’m on the more laid-back end of things when it comes to waiting for a sandwich, and I gave up on them, so I imagine that’s what everybody else did. Clearly they didn’t close because their sandwiches weren’t amazing. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the amount of time it took for them to prepare a sandwich was just way too long.
What could they have done differently? Either they knew about the problem and couldn’t fix it, or they didn’t know.
I never said anything about this to them, which I suppose I could have if I was a better neighbor. It takes a lot of oomph to volunteer this information, and most people would never speak up. I didn’t recall seeing customer feedback forms anywhere, but I don’t think that would have made much difference in how informed they would be about the perennial slowness of their sandwich preparation. How could they have figured things out in time?
The sandwich shop folks aren’t alone in this. I think most of us, including myself, are equivalently clueless about our own affairs, especially in the classroom. How do we know if we’re not doing something really inadequately in our teaching and remain unaware of it?
What kind of useful, objective feedback do we have on our performance? How do we fare when we compare ourselves against our goal of teaching excellence? Here are the ways that (I suppose) we get feedback on our teaching.
- University-mandated teaching evaluations. There could be major suboptimalities in our teaching that pass without any consideration in student teaching evaluations. There’s a lot of disagreement among folks about the relative value of student evaluations, though I think most can agree that teaching evaluations measure student satisfaction more than actual effectiveness. If students are upset about something in particular, then it should come out in the remarks. If students you’re doing something obviously wrong or bad, then you hopefully will hear about it. If you’re not doing something that they know they like, you might hear about it. But let’s say that you’re not doing something that could really improve learning, but it doesn’t affect student satisfaction. You probably won’t hear about it in the evals.
- Classroom observations. In some institutions, peer teaching evaluations are a priority. In other places they almost never happen. Regardless, here’s the problem with peer teaching evaluations: They’re done by other faculty in the department, who are experienced teachers but not expert teachers. And unless you’re in the education department, the people doing the peer evaluations have probably had scant training in pedagogy. In my experience, what peer evaluations tell you how you’re doing something different from the evaluator. If you get advice on how to change things, odds are that advice will be like, “You should do X,” with X being a favorite practice of the peer evaluator. I’ve done occasional classroom observations for instructors in our department and generally feel inadequately equipped for the task. My observation serves the institutional need of making sure nobody is being horrible. I could say, “Hey this was great, and you could try this instead…” but it’s not professional feedback from an expert teacher, which is really what my colleagues deserve. I’ve seen teaching experts give structured and professional feedback when evaluating someone’s teaching. It’s a professional skill, one in which I have not been trained.
- Remarks on our reappointment, tenure, and promotion files. When you turn in your file, it has copies of some documents associated with your course, sample assignments, labs, exams, and so on. When you hear back from committees at various levels, they might remark on this stuff. All I’ve ever heard is “looks good,” though. Not that useful.
Okay, I think that’s the end of the list. Three things. Those are the only ways that most of us get direct feedback on our teaching. Right? Am I missing out on something?
It’s quite possible that you could be teaching for a several years — perhaps a whole career — and be unaware that something you’re doing detracts from student learning. Or you there could be some simple things that you could to do increase student learning. But you’ll just never hear about it through the common routes of feedback.
This is a raw deal, but if your colleagues think that your teaching is okay, they probably won’t remark on how you can improve. They probably won’t say anything even if you’re screwing up in some way, unless they’re required to as a part of the tenure process. Nobody wants to be unnecessarily judgey of one another. I never told the dude who owned the sandwich shop that they were too slow, and our colleagues aren’t telling us how we can do better in the classroom. Why have that awkward conversation when we don’t really need to?
There are all kinds of centers for teaching excellence and professional development to help us improve our teaching. Some have a lot of support, but not as many are designed to give us feedback on what we’re already doing in the classroom. There are all kinds of sessions that they have on my campus, but no place to sign up to have someone from the Center come and observe me in the classroom (at least, that I’m aware of).
What can we do to get feedback on what we’re doing in the classroom? Here are some ideas.
- Create anonymous mid-semester and final evaluations for students (which I have mentioned before), in which you ask very specific and structured questions that can give you more constructive information than you would hope to get out of the generic university questionnaire.
- Record a video of yourself. As a grad student, it was pretty cool that the Graduate Teacher Program sent someone to my lab section to make a video, and then a pro sat down with me to discuss it. (I still have that VHS kicking around somewhere. I remember meiosis was involved.) It’s really cringe-inducing, but might make a real difference.
- Invite an education expert to your classroom. I haven’t had education faculty come into my classroom while teaching Biology majors, but I have regularly been in the daunting position of giving similar lessons to high school teachers while being observed by science teaching experts. I learned a ton from talking with those folks, watching them teach, and reading some of their textbooks.
- Do you have a person in your department that you can really trust? You can ask them what students say about you. In lab sections, and on field trips, and in office hours, students sometimes volunteer the most frank — and wholly unprofessional — remarks about the professors that are teaching their courses. This is stuff that I really don’t want to hear, but it’s also stuff that you can’t help but not hear. I think in most small departments, most professors decide whether other professors are good teachers based primarily on hearsay from students. Which is tragic on a few levels. But there it is. Do you really want to know what’s being said about you? If so, you can ask. If students like you, then they’re probably not putting this stuff on the anonymous evaluation forms.
- Join a professional learning community in which you evaluate and build upon one another’s teaching. If your campus teaching center doesn’t coordinate something like this, you could develop one. If you and other instructors are teaching the same lessons at the same time, you could try a Lesson Study approach.
- Other ideas? Please do share.
Universities have a lot of experienced teachers. Some of us are excellent, and some of us are not. Some people are great right off the bat, while others need a lot more time to get up to speed. Regardless, the great ones are actively working to figure out how to make things better year after year after year. If you’re just using student evaluations, you might not be learning what you really need to know to up your game.
Epilogue: This sandwich shop was one of a very small chain that was new to California. Now that it’s maybe 12 years later, I see there are a few others scattered around the greater LA area. I am not going to drive half an hour one way for a fake turkey sandwich. Not this week, at least.
*Okay, maybe I didn’t learn it from the sandwich. But it’s a nice tale and I need it for the buzzfeed style headline.
**It was a real sandwich. The turkey inside it was fake.