In my last post, I talked about how I made the decision to teach part-time at the collegiate level and all the things I went through to get my first teaching assignment. I had a graduate degree, strength in communication and making presentations, and the desire and courage to give it a try. I had all I needed so I went for it.
My first assignment was at a school that had a program designed to assist adult students coming back to school for different reasons to earn their bachelor degrees. I was very excited to begin teaching and looked forward to working with the students.
The class consisted of 1 four-hour session per week for a total of four weeks. Each session started around 5:45pm and concluded at 9:45pm. At first, that schedule seemed pretty manageable – but by the 3rd or 4th session it started to feel like a long night – especially after working 8 or 9 hours right before coming to class. It was an accelerated class so the pace was faster than anticipated. I immediately had empathy for my students because I remembered working on my MBA and having to go to campus sometimes twice a week for a 4-hour session after working all day on the job.
My initial approach was to try to relate all the knowledge and experience I had in a way that the students would be able to use what I shared to learn new processes, gather new insights, and learn new ways of doing things. I was careful to stay within the confines of the lesson plan and course outline from the syllabus to make sure I covered what was expected by the school for the course.
After my first course was completed I got my first evaluation and to my surprise, it was not what I expected at all. While I did an okay job presenting the information and making sure the assignments were understood, the students gave me negative ratings on lack of feedback, how they felt that the conversations and lectures were only one directional, and how they felt that the class was all about me and not them learning what they needed to be successful.
I thought that I would not be asked to come back to teach, and that even though I loved the experience, maybe I wasn’t cut out to be an instructor at the level. But then something happened that helped me tremendously – I got asked to teach the class again and I was asked to meet with the department chairperson to discuss my evaluation. I was little nervous obviously when I met with the department chairperson but he was gracious and empathetic. He had been teaching for over 30 years before he became the department chairperson and the words he said to me are the reason I’m still teaching today.
He said the evaluation I got is typical of first-time instructors so I should be worried about what the students said. He said that the reason that I was selected to teach the class was because I had the background knowledge and expertise, which was one of my competitive advantages because it was hard and still is hard to find adjunct instructors in the IT and math space. He also said that I communicated very well and I was very confident in my abilities – which were a great asset to have as a teacher. I was waiting for the punchline and when I got it I felt a thud in my chest.
He said “Now, you have to LEARN how to TEACH and not PRESENT.”
Being a person who loves to learn, I said ‘Okay, how I do that?’ I was thinking he was going to send me to a class or ask me to get a degree in education. He didn’t do that. He said ‘Keep doing what you are doing but ask questions along the way to make sure your students are tracking with you.’
Ask questions? Make sure they are tracking with me? I thought this was great advice but I knew more was coming.
He then said ‘Start with questions instead of going directly into your material. Then invite the students to help you teach your material and watch what happens.’
I’m thinking, “Okay, that is something I will try when I teach again.”
Then the department chairperson said that if I had any questions or concerns to come by and meet with him. He would be open to helping me get better at teaching and learning how to interact with the students for optimal engagement and learning. Before we parted ways he said let’s get together after the next class to see how things improve.
After the meeting, I regained my confidence to go back into the classroom and give teaching another try. I was given tools to engage my students instead of just having a one-dimensional conversation with them. I also had a person that was supportive of me and had a vested interest in my success as an instructor. This experience occurred 11 years ago – and I’m still teaching today and I still love it.
What is the lesson?
- It is okay to fail but don’t let failure define you – my first evaluation for teaching part-time was probably the worst evaluation I have ever received for anything in my life. However, instead of letting that feedback deter me from trying again, I learned to leverage that feedback as a tool to help me get better at what I was trying to do. How many times have we let negative feedback or comments or others’ opinions change our minds about what we want to accomplish? You don’t need permission to be successful – but you do need to be open and listen to what your clients and customers are saying about your product or service in order to continue selling it and staying in business.
- Find a mentor/partner to help you improve what you do – no one in this world succeeds by themselves. Everyone has someone somewhere in their corner – either cheering them on or helping them refine what they do to become the best. The department chairperson was the partner I needed at the time to help me become a teacher so his advice and coaching allowed me to not only do what became a passion for me but to do it with excellence. He also challenged me to improve in ways that I bought into – he offered new ways for me to approach teaching that allowed me to get better in the classroom. You have to have someone you trust in order to follow their advice. Find someone that can be your partner and mentor as you try new things. Hopefully that person has experience in the area you are trying to enter and can guide you to the results you seek.
- You need a feedback loop to improve what you do – in the IT world we talk about being agile or using iterative processes for developing software and building solutions for our business partners within an organization. That process works the best when you have a feedback loop in place to provide you with an evaluation of what you are doing so you can either tweak your approach, your product, or your service in order to better serve your clients and customers. My feedback loop was the evaluation process at the end of the course so instead of being apprehensive about receiving feedback I learned to embrace feedback as opportunities to improve my product – which was my teaching ability and style.
Next time I’ll talk about what happened after I started doing what the department chairperson suggested and how I began to use my evaluations as tools to improve my performance in the classroom.