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?