Monday, August 25, 2008

When students evaluate me

Not every year, but most years, I hand out evaluations to my students on the last day of school so they can evaluate how I did. Names are optional in order to encourage honesty. I tell myself that I won't look until the end of the summer, so I can do so dispassionately. Usually I don't have that kind of patience.

Because this last year was such a struggle (so very, very many kids who did jack all year...failed about a third of my sophomores) I was so worn down in June that it was especially important that I not look at them in June. I was too exhausted to learn from them. So I intentionally left them in my classroom so I'd discover them upon my return.

That return was a couple of days ago.

What would my kids say? How would everyone react?

Incredibly, these evaluations are unrelentingly positive. I'd actually say a higher percentage of kids were kind to me than at any point at the old school...and I was really well-liked at the old school.

It absolutely blew my mind. I was girded up for some rough reading, and it didn't happen at all. It was a damn love fest.


A random sampling here...just from the top 7 or 8 evaluations:

Nothing. I would be happy for my friend.
Your [sic] awesome. Your [sic] strict enough, which is very good, but you've got lots of good crazy to make people like the class.
Nothing. You're a great teacher.
Mr. TRP you're a great teacher I hope I have you next year.
NOTHING. I think your [sic again...gotta work on this, clearly] a great teacher, prob the best English teacher I've had.

It continues similarly, with only one outright slam in 90 sophomore evaluations (which, of course, will stick in my craw a little, but such is the nature of doing these things).


I'm not sure. Most of the things you were doing seemed good to me.
Well, personally, I think it was the essays and people being lazy.
I think you can probably just make sure and continue to ask those who struggle if they need help and eventually they will say yes.
It's more in the students. IF they don't want to try, then don't force them.

and, most tragically,

IN all honesty, working at a different school. This probably won't happen here at [...] because we have a rep for bad students.

So here's what I don't get.

Both research and common sense show that students do better work when they like their teachers. I think all of our personal experience supports this, whether we were A, B, C, or marginal students.

But even a cursory look at my evaluations reveals that I have a significant subset of students who really like me--often effusively so--but who don't do a damn bit of work.

I'd rather be disliked and have students succeed than be liked and have students fail. (Any teacher worth a damn would agree.)

So how do I teach kids that if you like a teacher, the way you show that is by busting your butt in the class? And that this means far more to a teacher the important-but-not-transcendent act of just being friendly (which, of course, they should also practice)?

First day of school is next week. It'll be easier because I've deep-sixed the sophomores, and will now teach juniors almost exclusively. They're far more mature, and the worst Bartlebys will have dropped out or moved on.

But how to teach work ethic?
How to teach work ethic?
How to teach work ethic?
How the hell do I teach work ethic????
How do I parlay the fact that I'm liked into actual student work and perhaps get more kids diplomas in the process?


Anonymous said...

Speaking as a kid who would have given you glowing marks while also pulling a C-minus in your class...

It's the home environment, man. If the kid isn't being taught work ethic at home, and Lord knows I wasn't, they're not going to learn it at school. At least not in 45-minutes, five days a week. The opportunity is certainly there, but that inertia they pick up while watching Mom and Dad zone out in front of the TV night after night after night is tough to overcome.

All you can do is show them a new path, which you're clearly doing, and hope they remember the lessons a few years down the road. I still have "aha" moments over stuff my fifth grade teacher tried to pound into my head 25-plus years ago.

Thinking a little more... The turning point in my education took place in a college chemistry course. The instructor was quite sub-par, but he made a comment that stuck with me. I was pulling my typical C-plus and not really caring too much about it. One afternoon as I turned in a test, he told me "you know, you'd be getting an A in this class if you'd just do your homework." It was as though the clouds had parted for me. I mean I knew doing the work meant getting the grade, but it took that moment for it to sink in.

So what to do? Keep showing that C or D or F student the path. Maybe give 'em a pat on the head and a pointer on how to turn that D into a C. It doesn't take much, you know? Your positive example will pay off for them at some point. Maybe not in your class, but some day.

Hillary said...

I teach 6th graders. My current theory is that they don't have the self discipline to cope with all the distractions in their lives - video games, texting, cable tv, myspace, etc. Even involved parents aren't aware of how today's kids are bombarded with media, so they don't teach the kids self control.

TeacherRefPoet said...

I appreciate both of these comments...however, they both seem to say "there's nothing you can do, TRP, except hope for a change in heart."

Alas, it's my job to do -something-. I just need to figure out what I can do -besides- hope.

Alison said...

I respectfully disagree, TRP. A student who does not wish to learn won't, and there is remarkably little you can do to change that.

Jim Anderson said...

I respectfully disagree, alison.

TeacherRefPoet said...


It doesn't matter that there's "remarkably little I can do." It is both my moral and contractual obligation to teach all of the kids on my roll--not just the willing ones. The unwilling are equally important human beings as the willing.

Therefore, it is my moral and contractual obligation (as a teacher, a Christian, and fellow human being) not to say "oh well, this one doesn't want to learn, there's nothing I can do to counter that, I guess I'll move on to the others."

I understand the spirit of your comment, but unfortunately, those words are what most teachers say right before they punt on a kid.

I can't punt. If it's 4th and 25, I need to run a play that will pick up 25 yards. Not TRY to do it. To DO it. And if there isn't one in the playbook, I need to invent one.

Jim--send me any lesson plans or ideas you develop.

Alison said...

I know this is your calling, not mine, but the "I must reach the students who don't give a shit" mindset is why I was virtually self-educated for 8 years. Nobody taught me, because I was entirely too interested.

TeacherRefPoet said...


It's not an either/or. It's a both/and. Don't fall into the trap of thinking education is a zero-sum game. Helping one kid does not mean I am hindering the rest.

There's never a situation when it's okay to write off or ignore any kid (including you).

Paula Reed said...

Well, in ACE we have a brutal, tough-love contract that works, but it can't be used with kids still covered by compulsory education. Also, we have no homework in there. I look at it this way--I can't give up on those younger kids. I keep calling on every kid, keep asking every kid where his/her homework is, but in the end, if a student insists upon failing, I have an obligation to honor his/her choice.

TeacherRefPoet said...

Absolutely, Paula. But I'm going to go down swinging.