Like most of us, I don’t always remember where I was or what I was doing exactly a year previously. This time I do. I was in New York City hoping to spend time with friends and family but instead I was responding to students’ emails about their grades. Some might replace the word “email” with “whining,” “complaining,” or “begging.” The majority of my first 36 hours in the states was spent politely but firmly letting students know that I would not be changing their grades. I felt terrible and it was not exactly how I wanted to start off my summer break. It was also pretty much a new experience for me. It was actually one of the worst teaching-related experiences that I’ve ever had. (Considering that I’ve been teaching for a while, I think I have been extremely lucky.)
How did I get myself in such a situation?
It started during my winter vacation, actually. I was asked if I would teach “Business Communication,” which is a course offered by the Department of Business Administration. It was sort of an emergency situation because the scheduled instructor had apparently left suddenly and the other instructors in the department were already extremely busy with classes. Having little knowledge of what the “Business Communication” course entailed I was more than a bit reluctant. But, being new in the position and trying to make a good impression as a team player I accepted but made sure to say that I was by no means an expert. Perhaps it really was an emergency and I was selected to teach the course.
The course went relatively well. I mostly enjoyed it and felt the students did too and I think we all learned a lot. It was not ideal for me as the teacher to be just one week ahead of the students in terms of content knowledge but I guess this is not all that uncommon. I invested a lot of time into preparing myself for the lessons. I was pretty comfortable teaching 55 students and asking them to “to do stuff” in class, which was apparently a new experience for many students. Quite a few students mentioned that they really enjoyed my “non-lecture” or “interactive lecture” style. Overall, it was almost an enjoyable experience.
What made it less than enjoyable? As I mentioned above, the grades were a major issue. I didn’t find out that the course was required to be graded on a curve until the 5th week of a 15 week semester! This was unfortunate. Also, because of the emergency situation I didn’t have time to plan the syllabus in the way that I would have liked and I basically “borrowed” most of it from those who had taught the course previously. I am quite sure that it worked for the other teachers but the syllabus didn’t really work for me, especially when it came to assessments, which leads us back to grading.
The course was designed to have the bulk of the assessments at the end of the course, which means that students’ final grades were heavily based on their end of term projects and presentations. It also meant that they were left up in the air in terms of what their grades might be for a long time. One of my darkest moments as a teacher was actually being happy to note that one group forgot to include a component to the final assignment because it meant that I could be (somewhat) justified in giving them a lower score. I needed to give a certain amount of C’s and this group gave me a “good” reason to give them the lower score I needed to give in order to balance out the curve. This was not lost on me in the moment as I said to myself, “Mike, you know you just did a fist pump when students failed to complete an assignment, right?” I knew it but it seemed to be the only way out. So there I was happy to give C’s to students that really deserved to get B’s (or higher). It was kind of heartbreaking to get emails from this group mentioning that scholarships might be in jeopardy as result of one simple forgetful mistake on their part (and one that I would have usually been happy to remind them about and wait a day or to get the full assignment). The sordid tale unceremoniously ended when I was told (well after grading had finished) that international students (of which there were a few in the class) did not count against the curve and that I had a more A’s and B’s to play with. These small changes gave my some peace of mind but I still feel bad about the one group that simply forgot to include one of the final components and thus received a lower score than they would/could/*should have. The whole thing really left a bad taste in my mouth and made me want to prevent a sequel.
I learned a lot of lessons from this whole experience but the biggest ones were related to transparency in grades, knowing as many of the details as possible when starting a course and making sure to “make a course my own” before teaching. Lingering questions include the role of assessment and how it matches to my teaching beliefs as well as how my teaching beliefs, goals, and expectations match with those of my institution.