because life doesn’t fit in a file folder

End of the Semester Evaluations – of Me!

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At the end of the semester, I always ask students to give me feedback about my course, my syllabus, and the skills of the freakishly attractive woman they have been made to stare at for nearly 400 hours.

I ask them to type their answers so there is no chance of being identified by their handwriting.

That way I feel like they really do have a chance to give me honest feedback.

No marshmallowy-delicious coating necessary.

Basically, it is their opportunity to let me have it.

This semester, I started out with 27 students sitting at 27 desks.

In the end, I wound up with 13 warriors.

Not everyone earned A’s or B’s.

Some people failed.

But everyone who stayed until the end, showed a kind of tenaciousness that I feel certain will help them succeed in the future.

These people were not quitters.

• • •

Here is a sampling of the answers to the questions I asked.

Question 1: What were some of Professor Jacobson’s strengths?

  • Professor Jacobson is exciting, energetic and up-beat. 

So they liked my singing after all!

  • She’s fun, nice to talk to, understanding, funny and helpful.
  • Her personality makes class much more bearable.

Clearly there are many unbearable aspects to my class.

  • She provides constructive criticism during essay writing and praise when appropriate.
  • She always lets students know what’s going on and makes sure everyone is clear on everything.

I’m not positive, but I think this might have been a little snarky. One of the things I was worst at was sticking to my proposed syllabus. And I constantly revised it.

Question 2: What were some of Professor Jacobson’s weaknesses?

  • She didn’t have any.

Oh come on? Really?

  • I didn’t notice any.

Whaaat? This person must have been spell-bound by my dancing.

  • She doesn’t know how to work the projector. At all.

There we go. Sad, but true. Technology is my enemy.

  • She kept changing the syllabus around.

Again, true.

  • I didn’t like her emphasis on citation.

Sorry. I’m trying to make it so you don’t get busted for stealing in the future.

  • I thought the class was thought out well and the assignments were interesting.
  • Few and far-between. Maybe a little favoritism. Clearly, X was her favorite student above anyone else, thought she did seem to like us all.

X was actually not my favorite student.

Question 3. Do you feel the expectations were appropriate for a Composition-101 class?

  • Absolutely.

Woot! Got 9 of these. But maybe it’s easier to just write “absolutely” than have to elaborate. Hmmm.

  • I thought she had high expectations for her students to become better writers and that’s what she got.
  • At times, it felt like a lot because other teachers hand out a lot of work as well.
  • I was expecting a more relaxed work load, but I won’t complain because writing this much made us stronger and weeded out the slackers.

Question 4: Did Professor Jacobson create an atmosphere of respect and cooperation? If so, where was this demonstrated? If no, how can she improve?

  • Yes.
  • The classroom setting was super comfortable.
  • She promoted a lot of cooperation during peer review where we read each others’ papers. This was scary at first, but I eventually realized that we were all helping each other and realized no one would ever be cruel.
  • She was a friend to all of us, but strict enough to command respect.
  • She was respectful to us and expected us to be the same to her – and each other. Sometimes I have problems reading aloud, but I didn’t in this class because I knew no one would make a snide remark.
  • Professor Jacobson’s attitude is what made this section of English-101 a successful class. She displayed respect when she asked people to share their writing without pressuring anyone who didn’t want to.
  • There was a lot of mutual respect.

I’m kind of big on respect.

Question 5: Do you feel your writing skills improved over the semester?

  • Before this class I had never heard of MLA citation. I had never generated my own thesis statement. Now I know how to do both.

This. Is. A. Sin.

  • My analysis defiantly (sic) became stronger. And my sentence structure has improved and become more varied.
  • We were writing all the time, and the constant practice helped me improve.
  • I actually know where to put my commas now.
  • I learned to weed out unnecessary words.
  • When I looked back at my first paper, there was so much purple all over the place. Now I am making fewer mistakes, and I am enjoying writing more.

I asked a few other questions, too. But you get the gist.

One comment has to be read in isolation. It was not written in paragraphs. It is what it is. It keeps me humble and reminds me that no matter how hard I try, I can’t reach everyone.

1. I have no idea what your strengths are as a teacher.
2. I have no idea what your weaknesses are as a teacher.
3. I guess your expectations were appropriate.
4. No comment.
5. My writing remains the same.

{Ouch.}

Have you ever been evaluated? What have people said about you? Or what do you think folks might say is your greatest strength and your biggest weakness?

11 out of 13 Comp-101 Warriors 2011 • I'm in the middle

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The Day Monsieur Said Non

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In 11th grade, I needed three stellar recommendations that I could send off with my college applications. I felt confident that I would receive solid letters from two of my former English teachers, but then I was kinda stuck. There was no way I could ask any of my math teachers. I mean, I had enjoyed Geometry, but I wasn’t necessarily good at it; my Algebra teacher had retired two years prior; and I wasn’t on good terms with my homeroom teacher.

Monsieur gives me the finger.

Finally, I decided to ask my French teacher.

I’d been in his class for two years. I was reasonably interested in the material (kinda); I liked him a lot (that should count for something, right?); I did my homework (sometimes); and I tried not to laugh too much. Yes, I decided, Monsieur Stephenson would be the perfect person to write me the outstanding recommendation that I was seeking.

You can imagine how shocked I was when he flat out said no.

“Think about your performance in my class,” he said. “Do you give 100% ? Do you take everything seriously? Do you show me that you want to be here? Do you do anything extra?” He pushed his hair back with the palm of his hand and sat up straight in his chair. “Think about the answers to those questions and then you’ll understand why I can’t write you a letter.”

He did not say he was sorry.

Fast forward 25 years, and here it is, recommendation letter writing season.  Like frantic homing pigeons who have been lost for an awful long time my former students are returning to me, asking me to write all kinds of letters: to get into four-year colleges, to enter the military, to give to potential employers — so I find myself thinking of Monsieur Stephenson a lot.

Mr. Stephenson in the 1980s

When Monsieur refused me that day, he gave me a big dose of reality. It is not enough to simply show up: a person must do more than make a good impression.

Many of my former students think that because they liked me – that because I was kind to them and they passed my class – that they are entitled to strong letters of recommendation.

However, the best letters of recommendation are not just about “passing the course,” but about work ethic and character, growth and potential.

I am strangely grateful to Monsieur Stephenson for refusing to write me that letter, and I see his wisdom in holding up a mirror before me and having me take that proverbial good hard look at myself and the choices I had made that brought me to that day.

I even understand that his mediocre letter could have prevented me from getting into the college of my choice.

Students need to think carefully and be direct in asking any potential letter writer if that person can produce a strong letter of recommendation on their behalf.

If a student cannot find a professor or teacher, they may have to get creative and look to coaches, neighbors, religious leaders, perhaps someone who has witnessed their involvement in community service.

I learned more than just French from Monsieur Stephenson: as teacher now, myself, I have learned how to be selective about whom I consider writing letters of recommendation; after all, they are time-consuming endeavors, unpaid labors of love.

Having said that, I am happy to write one for you – if you deserve it.

Anybody refuse to write you a letter of recommendation? How’d you take it?

Tweet this Twit @RASJacobson

© Renée Schuls-Jacobson 2011. All rights reserved.

Teacher Appreciation Day: A Wee Confession

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They are celebrating Teacher Appreciation Day in my son’s elementary school. Yesterday a note came home asking parents to send in $5 and to have each child bring in a single flower so that room parents might construct a bouquet to present to the teacher along with a conglomeration of gift cards. Upon receiving these instructions, I took $5 out of my purse and, because nothing is blooming in my yard, I hurried to my local grocery store in search of a few rogue stems, no small feat given that Sunday was Mother’s Day. And then it occurred to me: Here I am running around, but what is my child doing to express his gratitude to his teacher? I mean, I put in the bucks for the gift certificate. I schlepped across town to find flowers. Being an evil teacher-parent, this morning, instead of letting my child watch Sponge Bob, I asked him to compose a short card thanking his teacher for all she has done for him this year.

These days I remember Teacher Appreciation Day with nostalgia, as it simply doesn’t seem to happen at my local community college. Maybe that is wrong. Maybe I haven’t been there long enough to enjoy such privileges; perhaps it is because I don’t really have a home-base: I am without an office and float between classrooms. Maybe it is a college phenomenon: Students come and go, even within a semester. And because everyone has his or her own unique commitments (work, family, finding time to get wasted), there are precious few opportunities to get to know each student on a more personal level. I miss that.

When I taught at the secondary level at Metairie Park Country Day School in New Orleans, Louisiana in the mid-1990s, I worked my booty off. A new teacher, I was forever making lesson plans, grading papers, trying to stay one page ahead of my students. I served as Faculty Advisor to the student-run Literary Magazine and, to make extra money, I proctored on Saturday mornings any time the S.A.T.’s were administered. Every teacher knows you don’t enter this profession for presents or monetary rewards; that said, the folks at MPCDS were crazy thoughtful. On Teacher Appreciation Day, faculty and staff were served a delicious lunch and — I’m not sure if I am making this up or not, but I am pretty sure that one year the chef actually made us Baked Alaska for dessert.

Sometimes it felt like Teacher Appreciation Day came three times a year: on Appreciation Day, around holiday time, and then again at the close of the school year when students would pile candy, crawfish pies and mounds of baked goods atop my heavy steel desk. There were always a few lovely cards and letters stuck in there, too. I loved those best of all.

Essayist Cynthia Ozick writes: “We often take for granted the things that most deserve our gratitude.” I know this to be true. I like to believe the fruit of my day’s work, though nearly invisible now, remains that way until about a decade later when former students suddenly start crawling out of the woodwork – as doctors and lawyers and book editors and engineers and social workers and real estate agents and photographers – and teachers. And then, unsolicited, amidst casual conversation, they let me know I made a mark on their lives.

So, I keep on keepin’ on: developing new curriculum, continuing to take courses myself, hoping to inspire my students to believe that reading critically and writing masterfully are two of the most important skills they can develop during this lifetime. At the end of each semester, I bring in doughnuts and recognize folks who have made perfect attendance (an astounding accomplishment in and of itself these days) as well as those who have repeatedly blown my mind with their written expression.

Let me be clear: I do not want a candy-filled mug that with the words “#1 Teacher” stenciled on the side, nor am I secretly pining for a t-shirt that declares I am the “World’s Greatest Teacher.” I do not mean to imply that my students are unappreciative people because that is simply not the case. I would, however, like to suggest that in this age of the all-too-convenient reckless communication that comes in the form of email and texting and IMing – a short but sincere, handwritten note expressing appreciation is truly the greatest gift a student can give a teacher. Ask any teacher and I’ll bet he or she will tell you the same thing.

After twenty years, I still have them all.