Thursday, February 25, 2010


Ask the Administrator: Pinch Hitting

A brave-or-foolhardy correspondent writes:

I am junior, recently tenured faculty at Average Community College. My
mentor is having serious health problems,compounded by an incredibly
difficult class full of student-athletes who are continuously disruptive
discipline problems. The situation has gotten so bad that we are switching
instructors mid-semester, and I will be taking
over his hell class on Monday morning. I have 2 questions. First, do you
have any administrative advice on how to handle a mid-semester instructor
change? Second, any insights on how to engage a class like that?

So far, my plan is to retain as much of his class design as possible while
making a few changes to the syllabus regarding disruptive behavior in class,
and try to change the tone a little by example. To make sure everyone
understands the new rules, they will need to pass a syllabus quiz and sign a
paper indicating that they understand and will follow them. For the
athletes, I'm going to try engaging them by pulling lecture examples from
their experience, involving their coaches in a constructive dialogue on how
we can all succeed cooperatively, and respectful but merciless enforcement
of the class rules and policies. Am I on the right track?

I haven't actually done that myself, though I've seen it done several times, usually for medical reasons. To the extent that you explain the switch to the students, I'd emphasize the medical angle. If they sense that they broke the previous instructor, it will simply embolden the worst of them.

Experience tells me that the students will seize upon the interruption as an excuse for just about anything that doesn't go their way. This will be particularly true if the instructor change is accompanied by a syllabus change. They can argue, with some warrant, that the syllabus was their contract for the class, and that it's unreasonable to change both the instructor and the syllabus at this point in the semester. The local administration may defer to this position to a greater degree than you'd expect, since there's some real legal strength to it.

My first piece of advice is to simply incorporate whatever grades have been given thus far. Don't undermine the authority of the original instructor, even in absentia; it will merely feed the fire. Any perceptible daylight between the two of you will become a cudgel used against both of you. Make it as seamless as possible. If you can keep the original syllabus entirely, all the better.

Changing the tone by example is a good start, but as I mentioned a few days ago, leading by example is often too subtle. Don't just do it; tell them what you're doing, while you're doing it. Make it clear, and repeat as needed.

I'd also be in close discussion with your dean or chair, depending on your system, to let her know what's going on. Make sure that you're listed as the new instructor of record. (That may involve notifying the union, as well.) Whatever you do, don't try to do this below the radar. When students complain -- and they will -- you don't want your dean's first reaction to be "what?" From this side of the desk, I'll just say we don't like surprises like that. At all.

Assuming that everybody is in the know, the other task will be to set expectations. The class has already, for all intents and purposes, failed. You're engaging in a salvage operation. You shouldn't present it to the students that way, of course, but that's essentially what it is. I'd be shocked if you got to the end of the semester with a bunch of happy campers. If you have the kind of administration that makes snap judgments based on student evaluations, you'd better make damn sure you get ahead of the story.

There's also the question of the class you're giving to your mentor. If he's still performing well and this group just happens to be awful, it's probably not a huge issue. But if he's starting to slip, you could be turning one problem class into two.

In terms of actual classroom techniques, I'll defer to those among my wise and worldly readers who've actually been the pinch hitter. What worked? Is there anything specific to embrace or avoid?

Good luck!

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

Student-Athletes? Get the coach involved in discipline. Athletes are motivated by playing time and playing time is dependent on eligibility which is dependent on passing your course. Let the coach know and let the students know that the coach knows and foolishness is likely to stop.

Athletes are conditioned to only pay attention when they are recieving a good butt chewing. Coaches for years have yelled at these kids and (like it or not) that's what you get. You might want to take them into your office with the Dean and coach present and give them an ear full.
I have never had disruptive or mean-spirited athletes in my classes. I *can* generalize, though, that athletes are often very disciplined about doing basic, structured work. And they like to score points. If they are being disruptive because they are coming to class unprepared, what about removing, say, quizzes from the syllabus and requiring a half-page or page of notes on each night's reading? The instructor could make unannounced collections of notes from the class to motivate reading, and once they have done the reading and thought about it a bit, the athletes may want to show off their new knowledge in class. (I agree with others, though, that it is going to be hard to change the culture of the class at mid-term. The coaches really need to be part of the solution here.)
Ditto to the first comment. I have never had a problem with athletes in my classes, but it could be your mentor's illness led to some enabling behavior from the instructor's end.

I would not change the syllabus, but I would talk to the Chairman and Dean, together, before taking on this task. My primary question would be what existing, college-wide, policies apply to disruptive behavior that can be implemented without changing the syllabus. For example, I can tell them to leave the class and call the police if that is necessary to enforce order in the classroom.

I would also contact the coach and athletic director at the FIRST instance of any problem with any athletes in the class. By e-mail, with a real clear CC to the Dean.

And if they show up late or leave early, an early or late "reading quiz" can be helpful if the syllabus contains any in-class grade component.
Oh, I did this, but minus the athletes (they were engineers instead). As an adjunct, so I had even less authority. And I'm a woman, and I didn't have my PhD in the field...a recipe for a Really Bad Time.

But it turned out okay. I did most of what DeanDad suggested, making a connection with the dean was really helpful. There was a TA in the course as well and I made sure that I had a lengthy briefing with her beforehand. Her contributions turned out to be incredibly important because she had history with the class so students couldn't tell me only their version of the story about what had happened previously.

And then I taught like a total hard-ass and made them do all kinds of wacky (to them) stuff like group work and field trips (in class time) and responding to films etc., basically I kept them so busy and changed formats on them at least twice in every three-hour class so that they didn't have time to get comfortable and either slack off or start giving me attitude.

It mostly worked. There was a minor uprising at first (letter to the dean, but he was already in the know and on-side), and then things settled down and we learned stuff.

My suggestions. Keep the original syllabus as intact as you can. Think about and rehearse (at least in your head) what you will say when faced with students with bad attitudes and aggressive behaviours. Seriously, have it prepared: "your behaviour is not appropriate. If you cannot display appropriate behaviour please leave the classroom" - whatever works for you but don't leave this to chance. Perform authority, but don't be a jerk. Know your material and keep going there. Have a plan for when things start to fall apart and be ready to use it.

Good luck, and remember that every term has an end!
One of the worst things a teacher can be asked to do is to take over someone else's class mid-semester, especially if the previous instructor has been an easy grader or a non-disciplinarian.

There's also something mighty fishy about one class section full of student-athletes. Could be your "mentor" is what used to be called a jock-sniffer, someone who the athletic department knows is undemanding, someone to whom the coaches send their football players.

You've got tenure, so your job's not at stake. You've inherited--or have been assigned--a problem that you didn't cause. If I were in your shoes, I'd show lots of movies and give them all "C-'s."

This might be irrelevant, depending on the specific course, but I've never known students to be actively unruly except when they felt they were forced to take something they didn't really need. It might pay off, at least in a minor way, to "remind" them of something that probably hasn't yet occurred to them: we don't require courses just because we want to; we also do it because their future employers want us to.
I have literally lost count of the number of classes I've had to take over (apparently, my department had an unofficial policy of hiring instructors with cardiac problems). Anyway, my advice is to address the change as the first step in class. Try not to mess with the syllabus much, accept the fact that you will have lots of complaints about your predecessor's grading and losing things, and start as you mean to go on. I'd also second grumpyabdadjunct's advice about keeping them busy.
A comment on the IHE side reminded me that every time this has had to happen at our college, the Dean has attended the first day of class with the new instructor-of-record, introduced hir to the class, explained the situation, and vouched for the experience and expertise of the replacement. Based on what I heard from the faculty side of those involved, this was crucial in a situation that makes this one look easy.
Take a page from K-12 instructors and read up on classroom management. Harry Wong is a good person to start with, and from that perspective, take your first day as the first day of class.

Yes, retain the syllabus, but be crystal clear from the moment that class starts that the rule-set is different and that you won't brook disruption.

Also: Never confront students in the classroom, in front of their peers. Take them outside, shut the door, and then quietly, firmly redirect.
Kill one of the athletes and mount his head as a trophy.

More seriously, I really like the idea of getting the coaches involved.
I've taken over classes lots of times -- I began teaching that way, although that teacher had dropped dead immediately after one class -- but I'm an adjunct and both a non-disciplinarian and an easy grader, so I've had no problems. The last time was for someone who was basically insane, babbled on for the first few weeks, asked them to read books not related to the course title or description (from a totally different discipline!). I listened to the students' stories of craziness, told them I'd be easy on them grade-wise and we did a lot of good work and into the material heavily, and it was a great class.

Most times their previous experience has been really bad, like the elderly teacher with dementia who taught the same exact lesson three weeks in a row. The later in the semester it is, the more it's mostly a salvage job, and you do the best you can. They often give it to an adjunct because no full-timer will deal with it.

What it's made me realize is how many incompetent or insane people work as adjuncts. That's what happens when you run a system where you hire people over the phone the day before the term begins.

Who gives a crap about grades anyway? Only full-timers and adjuncts who are morons. Grades are utterly worthless, so I have no compunction about giving out lots of A's. Remember, "athlete" begins with "A"! (And at schools I've worked at, teachers have gotten in trouble for giving athletes D's and F's, not A's.)

Best rule: ask the students what grade they think they deserve. Then grade one-half grade higher.
I think you're thinking about it the wrong way by thinking of it as a discipline problem, personally. This isn't high school. They may THINK it is and that may be part of the problem. It's your job to teach them, not to discipline them. If they're being disruptive there are ways to handle it that don't engage in that "game". Humor works. Calling them out in subtle ways that don't make you seem like the high school teacher they hate (or their coach for that matter).
Your mentor handed off this toxic class to you? What kind of mentor-mentee relationship is that? A good mentor should be protecting you from this kind of crud, rather than offloading it onto you. I wonder if you should be re-evaluating your relationship with your mentor.
I had the opposite experience of grumpyabdadjunct with my section of engineers at UIUC. It was the best class class I have ever had. This was undoubtedly because I took a very logical approach to teaching, and my logically-trained students could follow me.

But make no mistake, I've had bad classrooms (like my class filled with people who liked ultimate fighting; we had five broken limbs in one semester that year).

Sometimes there are reasons to blame yourself or your mentor, but sometimes a bad class is just a bad class (Didn't Freud say something like that?)

I'd follow the advice of getting the coaches involved, throwing someone out of class the first day to make an example of them. Don't do in your office. Doing it in public increases the humiliation factor. If possible, have them meet with you and the coach before you allow them back in your class. And get on with teaching whatever your mentor had planned.
@engineering: I would choose to view it as a compliment--something on the order of "I have faith in you; you can handle this."
Original Advice-Seeker Here.

Thanks to everyone for your advice and support on dealing with mid-term transfers into hell classes. The first day of class happened today, and it went well. Most of that is probably transition shock on their part, so we'll know for real in a few weeks. Here are a few preliminary thoughts for others in the same situation.

1) Anonymous (3:53) was right about the previous class experience. They looked a bit torn up around the edges and eager for a change of pace. I don't think that my mentor was the only one getting frustrated with the situation. A little respect in their direction goes a long way.

2) Keep the current syllabus, but add several pages of 'Policy Clarifications', which are actually the course conduct section of your usual syllabus. "The syllabus says you should attend class. This policy clarification explains how many points you lose when you don't."

3) Lie Outrageously. What happened to make the change is none of their business, especially if having that information will make the transition harder. Rather than discuss discipline problems or medical issues, my explanation was, "Because of some boring bureaucratic issues I don't entirely understand, we have to move some instructors around during the middle of the semester. Since I'm junior faculty, I got the 8:00AM class." When the students asked if their old instructor was still mad, I just looked puzzled.

4) Good First Impressions. I recommend high energy, funny delivery, and a couple of carefully planned errors to highlight your approachable, human side. Give them the "I'm not here by accident" speech, and lots of explanation of what this class can do for them. I'm also dressing formally for this class to send a clear nonverbal message.

5) Tape the Lesson. "In order to make sure that everyone can review the lectures and activities...," I've decided to tape the lessons and put them on blackboard, like I do in some of my other classes. Coincidentally, we won't have to rely on witness accounts if something gets out of hand, because there's a microphone pinned to my collar. :-)

6) It Ain't Over. Early success means little in a class where 1/3 of the roster doesn't show up. The real fight will start when the people who are absent show up and learn that they've already lost points.

I'll repost again in 2 weeks when I have a little more experience with this situation. Thanks again for the invaluable help.
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