This particular three week sprint is a strange, strange time. It is cheery. It is stressful. There is expectation of holiday spirit and all the fun to which it is tied. There is anticipation of cumulative evaluation in the form of finals, projects, report card grades and comments. When you think about it, evaluation and feedback in the form of grades is largely a student problem this time of year, one that plagues all of us from age 5-22 or so. Then, you enter the adult workforce and “grades,” “feedback,” and “formal mechanisms of evaluation” dissolve away like snowflakes on my Mississippi windshield. Very tangibly real for a moment; nonexistent the next. I mean, teachers do have admin observations. But for most of us, those are affirming pats on the back; you are doing well, carry on.
Student course evaluations, however, are an entirely different beast. For anyone that is a teacher of students who are counted “old enough” to have valid perceptions to share, the mere phrase can drive up your blood pressure. I’m looking at you, middle school, upper school, and college faculty. As anyone who loves a higher ed tenure track prof in their life knows; those student evaluations hold a whole buncha weight. They, their numbers and words, determine whether you will be granted that oh-so-scary trip up the ladder of tenure. In my own 8 year professorial stint, I learned quickly that the best way to open that dreaded envelope of student evaluations was the same way it is best to take bad news: in the presence of friends, chocolate, and (sometimes) alcohol.
Here at St. Andrew’s we (I think wisely) believe that middle and upper school student surveys are most helpful when utilized solely as a formative feedback mechanism that can give you a sense of what is going well and what isn’t. But although the stakes may not be super high, I think we can all agree that teaching is deeply personal, whether or not we pretend we have good professional/personal boundaries. So that sharp, chiding comment in the “what can the instructor do to improve the course” open feedback box can really sting. Whether or not it is being used for tenure.
That’s why I was interested in talking with Austin Killebrew, who I learned through Lucy had asked her students to do a mid-term anonymous survey. She wasn’t forced to by some arbitrary administrator’s expectation or link to an institutionally created form. She was driven to get feedback because this was her first semester at SA, because she hadn’t taught this particular class before, because she is just that kind of a teacher.
As Austin began her first year teaching at St. Andrew’s, she worried she would fall prey to “a tunnel vision of what I learned in geometry” rather than really utilizing the fullness of the CPM curriculum she was working with for honors geometry. Regular geometry also presented her with conundrums, such as when she walked them through an entire unit of proofs but when she collected tests on what they learned was shocked by the low scores: “Why are they not getting this?!” Austin sees assessments like these as forms of data rather than fuel for frustration at kids. She believes in examining her own practice as a teacher first since, after all, that is almost the only thing she can control. Nevertheless, she found herself emotionally drained by the scores: “I sat down and cried because it was so low; what did I do wrong?” Her sense of bewilderment while grading that singular assessment sparked the idea of the mid-term form: “I need to do an evaluation to hear from them.”
Austin is no newbie. Her previous teaching gig was at a charter school where “I’ve always been the teacher the troubled students came to me and were like ‘hey I just kicked out of my class can I hang out with you?’” The school had its challenges, but it had a strong culture of feedback. “I love student feedback because I am here for THEM. I happen to teach math, but I am here for THEM.” She set up the form carefully: “I need you to do a quick course eval for me; this is something I’m doing myself. . . to get your feedback on how this class is going for you because ultimately this is your geometry experience and I want to make sure it is what you want it to be.” She also reminded them to take it seriously, always a wise move when dealing with a ninth grade crowd.
Most students took her up on her invitation to take it seriously in an anonymous format. Some of the responses made her smile, but in a good way: “When I come to geometry it feels like a break . . . I’m genuinely happy to get to come to this class . . . Feels like an escape . . . “ and “Ms. K is TOP G”! There were, of course, outliers in every graph. Whereas 29 students in geometry felt they learned something in class every day, 3 strongly disagreed. Whereas 26 students felt comfortable going to her for help, 3 strongly disagreed. While it’s hard not to fixate on the assumed identity of those 3 outliers, this is a numbers game. The data was affirming. Highly affirming.
Still there was stuff to learn. She noticed a high number of students reported anxiety about tests and felt that there was too much homework in the class. She also noticed more students than she wanted to (although still the vast minority) reported not being comfortable coming to her for help. When she saw these patterns she knew the next step of full-on bravery in the process: being transparent about the data with students and talking through changes she could make with them. Austin made a slideshow of the findings for honors and regular geometry to make visible the patterns with them. Depending on the block, they either had a thoughtful good discussion or a pretty quick and silent one. For the silent blocks, she plans on starting a “suggestion box” of sorts for the more reticent students to share ideas for both anxiety overload and comfort in seeking help.
Not all of us are as brave as Austin. I know there are moments when NOT knowing what others were thinking about my class felt far safer than opening up the floodgates. But Austin is convinced that it is a useful practice for every class, every level, every faculty member, no matter the years of experience. Why? Austin explains:
“Get student feedback because every class, every grade level is different, different personalities, as students come through culture changes all the time. Even if you’ve taught for years and years not every group of students will react the same. What is working and what is not? The feedback is GOOD- the earlier I do it- the better I can catch it and make them feel more prepared for the rest of high school.“
Maybe it’s a google form. Maybe it’s an exit ticket. Maybe it’s at the end of each week. Maybe it’s at the end of every quarter. But if we could all inch toward asking the people who know best about our work in the classroom every day more often, and if we could all open the doors of our hearts an inch wider to hear the feedback charitably, I think we’d all be the better for it.
For the record, though, I still recommend reading student evaluations surrounded by friends who understand with alcohol and chocolate close by. Just in case.