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How to Talk To a Teacher – Bridging the Generational Gap

See this picture. It’s me and my college roommates – thirty years ago. When I look at this photo, I’m immediately transported back to the early 1980’s. For me, it feels normal. For you, it must seem antiquated. That age difference makes it hard for us to connect.

And yet, thirty years ago, no one was connected. There was nothing to connect to. I’d never seen a cell phone nor used a computer. My papers were typed on an electric typewriter. My housemates and I had one phone, attached to the kitchen wall with a cord that stretched three feet to the refrigerator. No one I knew had an answering machine. If a guy you liked said he’d call, you sat by the phone and waited. If you went to a college party, you had no idea who was there until you arrived and no evidence of the night’s shenanigans were captured electronically. This photo was as bad as it got. Personal information remained personal and ‘sharing’ was a behavior learned by nursery school kids. If a better party was happening somewhere else on campus, you’d never know, so you didn’t care. The party was wherever you were at – as this picture proves.

Pants sat above your hips (I submit my stonewashed jeans as evidence), undergarments remained hidden, sneakers had not become collectibles, flip flops were strictly a beach item, tattoos were unthinkable unless you’d been to prison, music was played on a stereo system with giant speakers. Check out the size of the black box behind my head. If someone told me they had earbuds in 1980, I would have suggested they see an ENT.

Rap music hadn’t gone mainstream. The term ‘urban lifestyle’ hadn’t been invented. Hair was big, shoulder pads were enormous and MTV played the same three music videos.

I’d never heard the letters ATM until I got my first real job after college. If I wanted money, I had to wait on a physical line to cash a check. No one lived at home after college and parents were not considered your friends. First week freshman year, you waited by the payphone to speak to your parents. If your family’s phone was busy, you waited until the next week.

If I wanted to speak to a teacher, I had to show up in person and hope the line outside their door wasn’t too long. Teachers couldn’t fire off emails to a class or post announcements on an e-board. My questions were prepared ahead of time so I could get the most out of my five minutes of face-to-face time. If I had to leave a teacher a note, I proofread it and included a formal salutation and close. I never called a teacher on the phone, and obviously, I never sent a teacher an emoji.

In class, students listened carefully. PowerPoint slides were not made available before or after class – or ever. There was no such thing as electronic slides. Teachers talked and students wrote notes. Lots of notes. With little else but our notes to go on, textbooks were very important. We bought them, we read them, we carried them to the library to study, we high-lighted the important parts in neon green and then we prayed the bookstore would buy them back after a  semester of serious abuse. I hope you didn’t miss the guy sitting on the couch in the back of this picture. He brought his textbook to a party!

So – is it hard to talk to your teachers? Of course it is. Our college experiences are formed by our generational differences. This makes our interactions difficult. Lots of times, I just don’t get what students are trying to tell me because their approach is based on their fast-moving electronic world. In my college world, circa 1983-1987, parental contact and support was limited, information was hard to come by (no google), distractions were minimal (no cell phones or YouTube), and class time had value simply because we had little else available to earn a good grade.

Here’s my advice. If you need help from a teacher, show up to their office. Email conversations with a teacher are often doomed for failure. Speak slowly. Introduce yourself. Be prepared and thank them when you’re done. Resist the urge to check your phone. If you want to take notes on your computer, have it booted up before you walk into the office. Don’t talk about your family. In fact, don’t say anything personal. If your teacher is distracted by their own cellphone or email, then they’re probably not much older than you. In which case, you’ll get along just fine!

 

 

What’s The Point Of Teacher Evaluations?

 

Twice a year, most schools ask students to fill out a teacher evaluation form. These standardized forms  give students the opportunity to rate their teachers on topics such as clarity, organization, level of difficulty and responsiveness.

 

Whenever I mention that the forms are available, my request is met with a bunch of eye rolls. It’s like a bag of marbles fell out of someone’s backpack and I’m stuck trying to justify the significance of teacher evaluations while tripping over a green agate.  I’m sure from a student’s perspective, you start to wonder where all that survey information ends up. Does anyone even look at the results? Do the results matter? What happens if I say something mean about a teacher? Will they know it’s me?

 

Let me tackle the topic of anonymity first. If you just fill in the bubbles, then I won’t know it’s you. However, if you choose to write something in the comment box like, “She hated my paper on the cultural impact of rap music,” then I can probably guess it was you. What can I say, I’m just not a rap fan. Luckily, teachers don’t see the results of their evaluations until the next semester so your grade is safe, but your paper is still lame.

 

The surveys really matter when the teacher you are evaluating is not a full time faculty member or possibly an un-tenured faculty member. In this case, a teacher’s job could be on the line and any input you can provide is helpful, as long as it’s honest. So what about those tenured professors.  If you’ve never heard of tenure, think of it as a life sentence with no chance of parole. Tenured professors become Teflon professors during the teacher evaluation process. There’s nothing you can say in those surveys that will threaten their position.

 

On the flip-side, I’m a tenured professor and I do read and consider students’ comments. Early in my teaching career, a student said I favored male students. It was an important comment and I worked hard to fix that perception, especially since I thought I had favored the females!  Another student said I wasn’t open to interpretations other than my own.  Wow! That’s totally me. I’m a ‘my way, or the highway’ kind of teacher. I’ve since attempted to correct for this, but only in a way that gives me complete control of the conversation.

 

The one thing I refuse to do is give students extra credit for filling out a teacher evaluation survey.  This is a common practice, but it feels like I’d be paying you to say something nice about me. Hmmm, maybe I should reconsider this last point. While I’m thinking about it, maybe you can take a look at the photo I chose of a teacher favoring a male student. This might be the worst stock photo I’ve ever purchased. Why is the teacher’s ponytail on his shoulder? Why does she even have a ponytail? And don’t get me started on that creepy baby hand reaching for the guy’s back.

Interpretations about the photo are welcome, because as you know – I’m open-minded. And by the way, please fill out your teacher evaluation forms!