Sunday, January 24, 2016
Recently in talking with one of my clinical colleagues regarding a particularly negative student evaluation the colleague received, one constituting more of a personal attack than a teaching evaluation, I said all the things I think useful in this situation . . . “You’re focusing on the one negative comment that makes little sense, rather than all of the outstanding evaluations from your other students;” “This student obviously took advantage of the anonymous evaluation to let out his or her frustrations, no doubt some related to clinic, and some not;” “Let’s look at those comments that offer some constructive suggestions and focus on how you might want to address some of them in the coming semester;” and finally, “Consider the theme song from Frozen, and Let it go!. If you don’t, your disappointment and frustration may spill in to your new class of students.”
I also shared that the irony in all of this advice was that I had, just two days earlier, struggled with my own devastating student evaluation. In fifteen years of teaching, I could not recall a more critical assessment of my approach to students. I was crushed. The evaluations sent me into a tailspin of self-doubt so overwhelming that I shared them with the administration so they would see them from me first. Thankfully, my wise colleague wrote back that there were tremendously positive things in the evaluations that I should be very proud of, and that it appeared to her that I had one particularly critical and unhappy student who was the author of the comments that were so distressing. She also thanked me for taking the evaluations so seriously and finding the feedback important to my teaching.
Once I had that rational frame of reference I looked back. There were several useful suggestions that could still be incorporated for the spring semester. There was laudatory praise for the clinic experience and my teaching and supervision. Yet all that registered when I first read them were the comments that expressed dissatisfaction and criticism. Since then I have been reflecting on why the negativity was the priority when my colleague and I each reviewed our evaluations.
As clinicians, we teach less students than our doctrinal colleagues. Typically, we spend much more one-on-one time with our students, and it is our lawyering, as well as our teaching, that we share with them. It is a personal relationship, as the one of mentor and mentee always is, and, I suspect all of you give as much of yourselves to your client representation, student supervision and teaching, as I do myself. So a negative reaction from a student, even one, can take on monumental importance because they are evaluating us not only as teachers, but also as colleagues. Our students see us in times of crisis with clients, in stressful case situations, juggling teaching and practice, and we allow them to see us professionally, and, on occasion, personally. We cannot hide behind a podium or scholarship, and we cannot always be “on” in front of our students. Sometimes what we do in clinic and as teachers is messy, as are the challenges our clients bring to us.
So I am going to do my best to follow my own advice and “Let it go!” Because one of the best things about teaching is that every semester is a new beginning, and a fresh opportunity to refine our skills as lawyers, teachers, and people. I need to model this rational reaction to evaluations for my clinical colleagues, and also give my new students the benefit of a clean slate. I always have room for improvement, and a new semester is just the place to start.