Every year in all of the courses I teach, I am evaluated by my students. This is a time of extreme anxiety. When I first started teaching, I was on a one year contract. For the most part (although not said outright), the renewal of my position was very dependent on what my teaching evaluations were. My first big teaching challenge that year was to teach three levels of renal physiology. Certainly not my area of expertise but an area of need that year due to a colleague going on sabbatical. I somehow managed to pull all my notes together and deliver the lectures in a manner that I was proud of, but was still unnerved to see how the students evaluated me. To further complicate my first attempt at teaching in this topic area, I was also pregnant with my first baby. I was tired, huge and hormonal (tears and sass…I didn’t cry in class, just afterwards if I felt the lecture got away from me). I went on maternity leave after my lectures were complete and just short of my return back to campus, I was called in for a chat with the acting chair of our department. I was TERRIFIED! Not only wasn’t I told the nature of the meeting, it was just shy of the time in which my contract was up for approval or not. Of course I was worried.
Thankfully, in the eyes of the students, I had done extraordinarily well and had rated higher than many had prior in the same area of content. I was praised for my good work, and was soon offered a more long term contract.
Fast forward seven years later. Every May, we receive our envelopes with teaching evaluations. Every year, I am anxious and am tentative to open these up to see not only the numbers, but the comments. I think I can speak for most of my colleagues, in that it is a time of great trepidation. Fortunately, I have hopefully proven my hard work ethic to my department and these now have less bearing on my longevity at the University, however the comments are more of a personal affirmation or area of criticism that I take very seriously.
Although I have just begun my second maternity leave, I opened that envelope a few days ago. I can reflect on the year and confidently state that I worked as hard as I could have in every course I taught in. There was not a moment that I didn’t put all my soul into the lectures, study notes, examination questions and responding to email. I know I couldn’t have done any more, any better with the time that I had and all of my responsibilities. I certainly wasn’t perfect but it wasn’t due to sloppiness or not caring, but lack of hours in the day (and I am also human and obviously not perfect). BUT, the comments and numbers still panic me. Maybe they hated me. Maybe they were annoyed. Maybe (and this is the worse possible outcome) they didn’t learn anything from me or feel that I prepared them well. IT IS DRAMA AND IT IS TERRIFYING! I teach 2000 students. I have 2000 possible voices that I am sure I was unable to please all. These voices are also anonymous (our University does not make students identify themselves….which means there is safety for the students to be honest but also a mask for them to hide behind as we are terribly berated and trashed).
I have had many wonderful comments. But I have also had horrible comments that weren’t just about my teaching ability, but complete attacks on me that were intended to bully and wound deeply. I would hope that a student has never felt that I have attacked them or have been cruel or bullied. I have always intended to be absolutely fair, kind and even gentle in my role as an authority. It is also very difficult to tell if the comments have come from students who have felt that I have done so (and then there is no way for me to apologize if I have inadvertently hurt feelings), or if they have done poorly and thus blamed me for their failures… It is a horrible horrible thing to have to read regardless.
What is interesting is the pondering of colleagues and others in academia across the world. How much weight should be put on student evaluations? Yes, students voices matter, but if they aren’t told how much the evaluations matter (we really do read them, they really do determine our lively hood, our bosses read them), or if the parameters we ask students to evaluate don’t apply (ie. our distance studies evaluations ask students if they have received their assignments back in a timely manner via regular mail?? What?), maybe these evaluations aren’t always fair. Here are some interesting reads on the topic: