Wednesday, July 06, 2011


...And Don’t Report Back

This one is particularly for my fellow administrators out there. Strategic ignorance can be a wonderful thing, if used correctly. This is one way I’ve found it useful.

Let’s say you have a professor whose classroom performance seems to be slipping. Her student evaluations are conspicuously lower than they’ve been over time, students are starting to complain, and there’s no immediately-obvious cause. This is someone who has done well in the recent past, so you know the ability is there, but things just aren’t clicking now.

What do you do?

My new favorite technique involves asking the struggling professor if she would accept a constructive peer observation, on the strict condition -- in writing -- that the observer NOT report back to anyone in administration as to what she saw or recommended. All I want to know is that someone was hired, so we can process the observation stipend. If there’s a yes, then we discuss who might be a good peer observer. We usually try to find a respected senior professor who isn’t too close to the administration.

So far, this technique has worked remarkably well.

In a perfect world, the usual dean’s observation would do the trick. But it’s hard -- and any teacher should know this -- to use the same instrument for both evaluation and improvement. (That’s the classic dilemma of grading, but it holds here, too.) When you’re being evaluated, you tend to put your best foot forward; when you’re trying to improve, you highlight the trouble spots. Formally separating the two allows for unpunished candor, which is the prerequisite to real improvement.

In the better cases, I’ve seen significant improvement after a visit or two. Anyone can fall into a slump, and sometimes it helps to have someone both competent and sympathetic to point out if you’ve developed a bad habit. (“Y’know, you were a little quick to cut that student off...”) When the visit gets the professor back on track, everybody wins. The struggling professor is back on track, the mentor feels respected and important, and the administration doesn’t have to do anything sticky. And if multiple visits don’t seem to help, well, at least we tried.

The fundamental requirement for this to work is a basic level of trust that you will actually honor the confidentiality you promised. Without that, you’re sunk. But if you have the self-discipline not to ask -- even better, if you have decent rapport with some anti-administration senior faculty who are devoted teachers, since they make the best observers -- you can turn a potentially ugly scenario into an easy win-win.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen (or experienced) another effective way to help a professor in a teaching slump to get back on track?

Sometimes the problem is traceable to one complaining problem student (who has been caught cheating or who, alternatively, should have waived the class). Having an older white male talk with this student about appropriate behavior and respect, can help.
Is there an assumption that an successful senior teacher is always and naturally an effective teaching mentor? Sometimes those who are dancing in the classroom aren't in the best position to understand why someone else is presently leaning on the wall.

The upside is that your slumped professor should now have a valuable insight to offer other colleagues when they similarly find their teaching troubling for one reason or another. So although it might seem counter-intuitive, maybe you could ask her to take a turn at observing and supporting a junior colleague? This would remind her that you appreciate her good record, and it would give her a chance to get some distance on her own slump.
Obviously you operate in a climate where nobody does anything on their own, if you have to assign and pay someone to observe a class. Even so, mutual observation might be something for you to consider. You might also make it easy for the prof to record their own class and watch it for self evaluation.

I have found mutual peer observation to be quite helpful, all done informally with a fellow professor who teaches a different, but related, science. Our motivation was to compare how we teach a topic that is common to both courses, but the result went beyond that. You are reminding me that we should do it again.

What we learned is that the observer does not even need to be a "better" teacher (or an expert in that particular subject matter) to be helpful, just a committed teacher who agrees to pay attention and take a few notes.

It is useful to see what someone else does, both good and bad, and it is extremely useful to have someone provide eyes that see how your efforts look from the back of the room.
I love mutual observation. In my HS environment, I get a lot out of observing and being observed. In my university environment, it's much harder to find someone who really wants to swap.

The comp/rhet program I taught in as a grad student videotaped us during our first term of teaching. The video (old-school VHS cassette) was given to us by the AV tech and no one else saw it unless we shared it. This was a big help to me, in part because it was reassuring to see myself looking like I belonged there, and in part because I could watch students' interactions with one another more carefully than I had been able to do in class.
Is this over the course of only one semester that the teacher has been "slipping?" Or is it a longer period of time? If it's only one semester, I suggest waiting to see if the problem persists. We've all had "off" semesters that were difficult for any number of reasons. I've noticed spring semesters almost always seem to be more problematic because there are students starting late or repeating classes. I've had entire classes just fall flat. It's discouraging.

If this has been going on for more than one semester, then I agree that observation might help, but don't have a solution/suggestion. My cc requires biannual observations until tenure. After tenure I think it's every 5 years.
I think we should all post criticisms of a program that DD has shown to be successful.
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