Wednesday, June 5, 2013

4 Years Ago Today: An RYS Flashback.

June 5, 2009

Absence Makes Athena More Alluring. One of the RYS Regulars On "Skipping School" Pedagogy.

I used to complain about student evaluations. You know, how little they mean, how they are just satisfaction surveys, how they don't actually correlate with learning, how students use them to get back at teachers of rigorous courses, etc. [Insert standard disclaimers here: my numbers are good, better than typical for my department and in particular the generally unpopular courses I teach, but there are always a handful who hate me, my guts and the horse I rode in. And they tend to like to use that other site that shall not be named.]

But this semester I did something that magically brought my students around to realizing I am the Best. Teacher. Evar.The miracle maneuver? I was gone for two weeks in the middle of the semester for medical reasons, and they had subs.

They could not WAIT to have me back in the classroom. Several emailed while I was gone to ask when I was coming back, saying that they couldn't understand anything the subs were saying, that attendance was down to a handful of students, and that there was no way they'd be passing the class if these people were teaching it. I mean, they LOVED me when I came back. I've never gotten so few negative comments (nor so many proclaiming "I LOVE Dr. Athena!!!!") in my evals.

Now, for the parts of the semester when I was there, I did all the same things I usually do - the same warnings and exhortations, the same chapter outlines, the same syllabus, the same lecture coverage (almost - we did get a bit behind). If anything, I was less of a "good" teacher than usual; I kept fewer office hours, gave one less exam and no quizzes, didn't keep up with the discussion boards as well, and was generally a little more absentminded and less available than at almost any other time in my entire career. I also did the best I could to prepare my subs to carry on - discussed the previous coverage, lecture notes and chapter outlines in advance with them, tried to get them ready for the level of detail warranted, etc.

And I'm actually quite confident that the subs actually did just fine; these are people with plenty of experience and classes of their own, and I am extremely grateful to them for being able to step in at very nearly the last minute. For my students' sake I wanted the class to be carrying on as nearly as possible the same as if I were there. It just apparently didn't quite turn out that way in the students' perception.

I didn't know how this was going to turn out; certainly it could have gone the other way - they could have been mad at me for leaving them in the middle of the semester, and have taken it out on me in the evals. They could have loved the subs and wished to be able to keep them. I'm certainly not going to try this every semester. But somehow, seeing the other side of things put it all in perspective for them.


  1. Once a year or so I turn a class over in the same way because of some medical procedures. I'm never more loved when I come back. I'm thinking of making it a regular feature!

  2. I've never been in this situation, but colleagues who have have reported similar results. Pregnancy seems to be a bit chancier (I think students feel one can control when one gets pregnant, and of course we don't want to completely disabuse them of that notion, even though it's only partly true, and the actual course of any pregnancy is, of course, beyond anyone's control).

  3. Could this be related to the Stockholm syndrome, in which the captive comes to identify with and defend the captor? Our students bond to us and learn our idiosyncrasies in a stressful little hazing period the first few weeks of the semester. We provide predictability and attention. When we go away, their comfortable expectations are violated, and the Little Dears feel anxious until they can relax again in our presence, flawed as we may be.

  4. I'm repeatedly told my evaluations (in lower-div "service" courses) are the worst in the department, but reading the comments it's hard to understand what their gripe is. "Interest in whether students are learning?" Check. "Use of class time?" Check. "Confidence in instructor's knowledge?" Check! "Available outside of class?" Check. "Reasonable assignments and tests?" Check. "Instructor overall?" I hate his effing guts!

    It could be personality: I teach without notes and don't get stuck; or it could be my accent is different from theirs. ("Not from around here" is not taken kindly by Bumfalk St. students.) Or it could be they're used to having the material dumbbed down, broken down into little digestible bits they can memorize or copy from somewhere, with no need to actually "understand" or think about what's going on (who cares about that?) You know the saying "as simple as possible, but no simpler?" Good for Einstein, bad for Bumfalk State.

    The Center for Snowflake Appreciation is all about "student engagement", but they have it all wrong; what students in these classes really want is the possibility to avoid any engagement with material they have no interest in, and still pass the course.

    Thanks for the chance to vent from a beautiful southern beach; recharging to meet the little dears with full strength come August.

  5. I always let one of my colleagues sub for me at least once per semester, usually somebody less popular with students. Sometimes students need to be reminded how good they have it. ;-)

  6. I'm in the middle of an April through September sabbatical. This gives me hope that I'll return to ticker tape parades!

  7. My mother is an elementary school teacher and I forwarded this blog to her. She also shared the same sentiments just like you and she even told me her hardships as a teacher. She's in the service for almost 30 years and been doing essay writings all her pedagogue life.