My student evaluations came in today, and I haven’t got it in me to open them

I don’t know about you, but I’ve probably had one of, if not the, hardest semester in 28 years of teaching. I’ve taught in different countries, in many different educational environments, but this last year has been just the toughest. Yet I have it so much easier than most. 

My current role is as an Assistant Professor of Teaching and Leadership in a small, regional university in the Midwest. This year I’ve been teaching an overload of five classes, with three different preps, which is about the same as I would if I was teaching in a high school. I should be teaching four classes, and if I was in a research heavy institution, I’d only be teaching two or three classes a semester. Don’t get me wrong, my university is a great place to be and I love what I do, but even so, 2021-2022 has been tough. The thing is, it wasn’t until the semester ended last week, that I actually realized how difficult it was and how much that was affecting me. 

For example, in the last few weeks I’ve noticed that I’ve been making small mistakes, misreading my calendar, and missing meetings. Scheduling things incorrectly, mistaking one student for another, small errors, but they can have a significant impact on what I do. This got me thinking, why? After all, what could possibly be on my mind? What has happened over the last year that could be putting me on edge? Why have I allowed myself to be so anxious? 

Personal Safety

Well, let’s see, when we started the academic year, we were in the process of getting “back to normal,” even though we knew that normal pre-pandemic wasn’t exactly optimal for learning. At the beginning of the academic year in my area of the country, COVID-19 infections were still high enough that we needed to be masked on campus. However, the movement to “let kids breathe” pressured the community, and eventually the nation, to abandon the idea that we are actually responsible for each other’s safety. My campus went mask optional by mid-September, and other places followed suit pretty swiftly. Edjacent designer Doug Wren wrote an excellent critique of his local school system’s decision to go mask optional in January. While I am double vaxxed and boosted, as the new Omicron variants began their wave toward the end of this last semester, and students began to test positive again, I couldn’t help but worry about how we are pretending that everything is normal, when it clearly isn’t. Every allergy, every sneeze, ache, cough, or tickly throat had me worried. Worrying about not getting sick yourself makes it harder to care about the health and wellbeing of your students too. Had the decision to abandon masking and social distancing placed me at risk at work? Had it placed my students at risk in my classroom? Every time someone got sick, I found myself wondering about whether my classroom afforded me the safety I should have. 

Intellectual Safety

In the last year, we have also seen a rise in legislation at the state level designed to limit discussion of “divisive concepts,” but for the life of me, I don’t know a single concept that isn’t divisive. Although primarily aimed at public schools, there is also increasing pressure on higher education. Our college had to answer a freedom of information request from a state legislator wanting to know which courses we taught which contained “Critical Race Theory.” At the time I found this laughable, because to be honest, when I compare the course content of most of the classes to what should actually be taught, we are woefully out of date. For example, I inherited a social studies methods class that reduced social studies to celebrating various holidays and participating in often culturally insensitive arts and crafts activities. I’ve been slowly updating it to actually talk about the components of social studies and how to implement standards. But there is so much work still to do with this class. 

Anyway, these concerns that we are indoctrinating the youth of the Midwest with wokism has gained traction. In my fall semester evaluations, I had a handful of students (three out of the 118 that I taught) complain that their classes were too political, and they were being indoctrinated. Here’s the thing, teaching is political. (Check out a podcast I made on exactly this issue.) Now if I was teaching in a research-heavy university, my evaluations would not count as much as they do in my teaching-heavy institution. But comments like that outweigh all the positives as they stick out like a sore thumb. I spent a lot of my emotional and intellectual energy considering these critiques, while ignoring the many positive ones. But it did make me begin to think twice, and self-censor. To an extent that I wonder if that impacted my performance in the last semester. 

Student Safety

At the same time I worried about myself, it was obvious this semester that my students are not ok. I had two students undergoing personal crises which meant they had to drop out of classes, go back home or risk harming themselves. I had another student who was coming to terms with his sexual identity after his parents tried to put him through conversion therapy. Another who attempted suicide as a result of a sexual assault. Two who lost a parent, and several who lost relatives this semester (some of which were Covid-related). I had conversations with students who were worried that their orientation or identity would not be accepted in the communities in which they want to teach. Some who were struggling to work full time, pay tuition and their bills, and keep up with rigorous coursework. And these are the students who felt able to talk to me about what was going on with them. They were the tip of the iceberg. It’s hard to think about how many students were struggling in silence and didn’t reach out for help. This semester I have found it hard to meet all their needs, have their voices heard, maintain intellectually rigorous learning, keep them alive, help them to be successful, and consistently model practices which they should repeat in their classrooms. I’ve tried, but I fear it’s not enough to make a difference.  

We Are Not Okay

In short, this last semester, my students were not okay. In retrospect, neither was I. Did I give them my best? Could I have done better by them? For the majority of them, everything was fine, but I don’t think I’ve had as many folks in crisis at the same time, or as many feeling powerless, or as many feeling that they are at liberty to point out my “woke agenda” thinking that is what they should do as future educators. At the same time, I write, research, present, and attend conferences. Sometimes it’s overwhelming. Then I consider societal issues, the effects of inflation, the impending next wave of the Covid pandemic which will surely impact the fall semester. Dare I even mention the burgeoning outbreak of Monkeypox? Then we have to consider the recent mass shootings which are a key feature of living in America. (See Doug’s thoughtful piece on that subject.) It’s no wonder that I’ve been displaying signs of anxiety. 

But to gain perspective, I’m in a relatively easy situation compared to many of my peers. For my colleagues in K-12, I only have a little taste of what you have endured this last year. I know that there are some of you reading this who are considering doing something different and I get it. There just isn’t the bandwidth to maintain so seeking a change makes sense. For those of you who are staying for another year’s fight, I salute you and have your back. Don’t hesitate to reach out and talk to my colleagues here at Edjacent, we are here for you. Our three pillars of community, coaching, and content are intended to support you when you need it. 

For me, I’m going to delay opening my course evals for a week or two. I can’t just ignore them because until I gain tenure, I will have to analyze the data and compare my ratings with the college and university median scores. If I’m consistently above the median, then I can feel safe, providing that the comments are not too scathing. For my own wellbeing I will tell myself to focus on the positive comments which always outweigh the negative ones by a huge margin. I will keep looking at ways to update and improve the courses I teach, and continue to try to make them intellectually challenging, knowing that in the current climate, there will be folks who are disgruntled, and I will wear their criticism like a badge of honor. But more importantly, I’m going to focus on my feelings of intellectual safety, personal safety, and above all, keep focusing on my students’ safety and emotional wellbeing. They are our next generation of educators, and I need them to be able to do good work when they have their own classrooms. 

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It’s been perhaps the toughest semester I have ever experienced, and I’ve experienced a few things in my time. Next semester is likely to be tougher still. I’m wiser to the effects it will have on me, and will do my best to recognize them earlier. Please share your thoughts and experiences from the last year in the comments. It’s good to share.

1 thought on “My student evaluations came in today, and I haven’t got it in me to open them”

  1. Mark, thank you for this vulnerable and transparent post. I think we need to spend more time talking to each other this way as educators. Our future colleagues, who are currently populating your classroom, need to see THIS brand of “self-care” if they are going to survive and thrive during the early part of their career. I particularly like this commitment- “I’m wiser to the effects (next semester) will have on me, and will do my best to recognize them earlier.” I think this is something we can all commit to- knowing it will be difficult, recognizing the toll it is taking, and tell someone when we need help or even just a listening ear. Thanks again for sharing this!

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