Friday, January 13, 2006

Ask the Administrator: My Colleague Isn't Very Good...

A new correspondent writes:


We are a decent sized community college, but my department is
relatively small. I teach the same basic courses as the two other
full-time people. The problem is that I've noticed a distinct
pattern of student complaints about the way a colleague teaches one
of our common courses. This colleague is off of probation and is
generally well-liked by faculty etc... I will be off of probation at
the end of this semester.

My colleague insists on teaching two sections of this course every
semester, probably because she has it all prepped. She won't
consider changing books and seems resistant to faculty mentoring or
other pedagogical suggestions. She maintains she has high standards
and refuses to compromise. I suppose she sees the way I teach as
requiring lower standards.

Since the first day of my first class here students have voiced
consistent problems with her teaching style and significant
complaints about the textbook she uses. It also seems that her
completion rate is significantly lower than mine in that course and I
often have significant numbers of students who finish the course with
me when they don't with her.

To compound the issue, the counselors seem to be telling students not
to take this course with her and rather to take it with me. I
finally brought this to the attention of my dean this week, because a
student had just come to me with the issue after recently being
advised.., I framed the problem more as an issue with the
counselors, rather than a problem with the way my colleague teaches
the course itself.

My problem is twofold...

First, what should I say to students when they want to complain about
my colleague? I try to be positive and to tell them that I think she
is good with the material as well as a good teacher. I tell them
that the students who have problems with her don't follow her
directions. This feels dishonest to me, because I think that I would
recommend close friends avoid her course.

Second, should I bring this to the attention of my dean? I'm sure
she knows there are complaints about my colleague -- and she also
knows that there are very few about myself or the other people who
teach this course. I can't honestly say that I don't have concerns
about the way my colleague manages her classroom. I don't think the
problem is in the material itself, rather it is the way she relates
to her students creates the problem.

I would also love any suggestions as to how I can tactfully help my
colleague become a better teacher. I am sure she would be
significantly happier if her students were happier.


To answer the first question first, don’t criticize a colleague to your students. I’ve dodged a few bullets like that by simply not saying anything. “How is professor so-and-so?” “He’s been here a long time.” “That didn’t answer the question.” “Hmm.” They figure out the gist of it, but you haven’t actually said anything that couldn’t be repeated. Don’t be falsely positive – that does active harm to students and to your credibility – but instead use carefully-selected silences.

(I’m constantly surprised at how many students at registration honestly expect me to say ‘don’t take professor X, he’s awful.’ Not gonna happen. I give honest praise when it’s called for, but I don’t air dirty laundry to students. They don’t have the framework or context in which to interpret it, and I’d be absolutely livid if I heard that a colleague was talking me down to students.)

How to mentor her? Honestly, I wouldn’t, at least not yet. If she’s either work-avoidant or simply untalented, nothing will help, and you’d probably just get her hackles up. If she’s basically okay but just doing a couple of (fixable) things wrong, I’d wait until you’re off probation before bringing them up. You’ve already (cleverly) raised a flag with your Dean, which is smart; now it isn’t your problem, at least until you’re in a position where it wouldn’t hurt you. I wouldn’t repeat the issue to the Dean for a while; you’ve raised it, the ball is out of your court, move on.

In a perfect world, of course, constructive criticism would be gratefully received, she’d be eager to improve, and all would be well. But it’s as likely as not that spreading bad impressions of her would hurt you, and leave her unchanged, a bit defensive, and increasingly unpleasant.

Once you’re off probation, if the problem is still gnawing at your conscience, you could always gently ask the Dean for his/her advice. It’s a little passive/aggressive, I admit, but it makes it harder to brush off your complaint as simply a personal vendetta. “I’m concerned that students aren’t succeeding as much as they might. Have you seen the numbers? What do you think we should do?” Something along those lines. If you present it as a student issue, instead of a faculty issue, you won’t look petty. Once that discussion gets going, large differentials in attrition rates by instructor should become hard to ignore.

(That is, depending on the data gathering at your college. My previous college made a fetish of data-gathering, for better and worse. It was much better at gathering data than interpreting it, which led to some very frustrating meetings, but at least it had data to discuss. My current college doesn’t collect that kind of information by instructor, making it hard to judge at all.)

One of the privileges of faculty (as opposed to administration) is the prerogative to not notice when your colleagues aren’t doing their jobs right. There are times when that is a good prerogative to use. Sometimes, that’s the single part of the faculty role I miss the most.

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.