How I Started Teaching Part-Time: Using Feedback

In the last post, I talked about getting my first teaching opportunity and how my first evaluation was definitely not what I expected.  However, I was given some tools to try in the classroom and I now had a partner and mentor to go to if I had questions or needed help.

The word feedback is made up of two words – feed and back.  That means that whatever you get back is designed to feed you.  I heard someone say once that you have to eat the fish and spit out the bones.  I remember telling myself to be open-minded and willing to try new things to increase the engagement of the students in the classroom and to make the material more accessible on their terms.  So I started taking the feedback from each evaluation to pinpoint behaviors or habits I had that didn’t work well in the classroom.

The first thing I changed was talking about me so much.  I remember in the first class that I talked about my background and how I used to do things when I was in school.  I didn’t know this was such a turn-off in that it repels some students from listening to me.  So instead of sharing my background and where I came from, I started the class by asking everyone what they wanted to get out of the class.

I also started asking them about themselves and where they worked before they came to class.  I made a mental note of each person’s job and the company they worked for in order to connect what I was teaching to what they may see the next day.

My next evaluation showed an immediate and significant improvement in engaging the students.  That let me know that I was on the right track.

The next thing I tackled was the length of the lectures and the time I spent on the whiteboard teaching.  Because I loved what I taught I could talk 4 straight hours about the subject.  Who wants to hear someone, basically anyone, talk for 4 straight hours?  I remember reading comments from one student saying that I liked to hear myself talk.  I took that to mean that I got into the material so deeply that I would expound on every detail – trying to make sure that the students understood the concepts and were able to complete all the assignments with the greatest possibility of success.  This approach was killing the attention span of my students – which was already short.

I took that feedback and instituted a 5-minute lecture break.  I would talk for about 5 minutes and then ask if there are any questions or I would ask a student to explain the concepts I was teaching to the rest of the class – so I wouldn’t talk so much and give the students the opportunity to chat amongst themselves.  I broke down every lecture slide I had into a reasonable summary with fewer words and more pictures to encourage more dialogue.

My next evaluation showed that I had improved in both areas.  My meetings with the department chair got better and better as we talked about what I did and how it helped my evaluations improve.

I continued to get teaching assignments and after teaching 6 more courses using this iterative approach, my evaluations made me look like a professional instructor who knew what he was doing.  I continued to get good evaluations and then I began to be requested to teach additional courses.  The gig was going great and I felt better about my teaching efforts.  However, I started getting fewer opportunities to teach over the next year.  The class enrollment started decreasing and school made changes in its leadership.  My mentor retired and the school brought in a new administration that didn’t that much about me or my work.  Eventually, I decided to take my new skills elsewhere.

What is the lesson in this?

  • Empathize with your customer – you have to put yourself in the shoes of your customer or business partner to understand how your product or service is impacting them or their business.  If you are not willing to listen to your customers and receive their feedback, then they will take their business to someone who will listen – and you will slowly go out of business.  If that happens the sad thing will be you had an opportunity to change but didn’t use a critical tool you had at your disposal – customer feedback – to help you with your decision making.
  • To be great, iterate – you have to take feedback and incrementally change what you do, based on what you can control.  There are too many people that decide that where they are is as far as they are willing to go.  They don’t want to change to stay relevant so they watch as change passes them by and opportunities become lost.  In life, and in business, you have to iterate to not only be great but to merely survive.
  • Continue to enhance your process even if your opportunities dry up – I continued to use the evaluations and the feedback to perfect my craft of teaching.  As my environment changed I stayed true to continuous improvement.  You have to keep improving even if you have fewer opportunities to leverage your new skills.  Look for any and all opportunities to use what you have learned to get better at what you love.

In the next post,  I’ll talk about how I got my next assignment at a new school, and how my direct approach didn’t work but my indirect approach proved to be effective in getting a new teaching assignment.

 

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