Monday, June 18, 2012

Report Card Day

By Lisa McElroy

It’s the middle of June, and our law students have received their grades.

That means we’ve received ours, too – in the form of student evaluations, that is.

As a kid, I always looked forward to report card day.  It was my day to shine, my day to show the world that I was worthwhile, a day in stark contrast to Field Day (I couldn’t catch a ball for my life) or Camp Fire Girl pow wow day (ditto on starting a fire) or haircut day (while the other girls had smooth, shiny manes, my own was a frizzy mop).  It was a day when, even in my dysfunctional family of origin, I could legitimately claim my parents’ approval.

As for most of us who would eventually choose to enter the academy, throughout my academic career, report card day – or grade-posting-on-the-bulletin-board day, the law school version (I graduated from law school still clueless about the existence of the interwebs) – continued to be a day when I could take pride in myself and my abilities.  And when I started teaching, the day when I handed in my grades and received a manila envelope of student evaluations – or, later, a pdf file attached to an email – felt like just the same thing.  I loved my students, they respected me, and together we learned.

Except when that didn’t happen.

I’m pretty sure you know where this is going.

Because every five or so years, we all have it – the section that just doesn’t gel.  The students aren’t a great mix, they never quite connect to the professor, and no one has an optimal experience. 

That was my experience this spring with a group of thirty 1Ls.  I’d had a research leave in the fall, and I’d returned to teaching refreshed.  I felt excited about walking my 1L’s through the nuts and bolts of persuasive advocacy, about helping them unleash that locked-up passion they had for clients and justice.  I felt committed to helping them see just how interesting and, yes, fun, it could be to analyze a legal problem and convince a court  that their clients should win.  I felt that get-up-and-go that I usually feel after a long, productive summer of writing on the patio.

Usually, I can count on my enthusiasm to be infectious.  But with this group of students it just . .  . wasn’t.  They weren’t excited to be there.  They weren’t excited to meet me.  They were at that point in law school when the light at the end of the tunnel wasn’t yet visible; it was a cold, dark January; Facebook was a lot more interesting than I was.  After a few class sessions, I could just sense it:  they weren’t buying in.  And, unlike with most groups, my gentle (and then not-so-gentle) coaxing to step up their game just wasn’t working.

And so I had a choice:  Should I let them kick back and coast?  Should I let them be good enough, or not quite good enough?  Should I toss out the attendance sheet?  After all, at the end of the semester, they’d be evaluating me – if I pushed them too hard, made demands, kept my expectations high, they were NOT going to like me.

This was a hard one for me.  Perhaps it was a personality thing; yes, I am someone who likes my students to like me.  Perhaps it was a professional pride thing; I love teaching, and I try hard to be good at it.  Or perhaps it was a childhood thing:  I didn’t want to contemplate a report card day that wasn’t going to be good.

Still, I thought, I’m training professionals here.  While I want them to feel good about themselves and engaged in learning, I also want them to be diligent and competent and ethical.  I want them to do their assignments and show up for class prepared.  I want them to demonstrate respect to me, to my TA, and to each other.  And I didn’t view those things to be negotiable.

And so I made what was, for me, a hard decision.  I would continue to be energetic and encouraging, I decided.  I would continue to tell them how much I hoped they would apply themselves in class and come to see me during my office hours.  But I would continue to hold them to the highest standards of competence and professionalism.  And I would let the chips fall where they fell, report card day or no report card day.
It was a tough semester.  I pushed, and they pushed back.  I smiled, and they didn’t necessarily smile back.  And the final student work product – five thousand word motions to suppress  - were not of the quality I had hoped for.  I handed in my grades.  And I waited for the email.  I opened the pdf.

And report card day turned out like I expected – and not.  About half of the students had crucified me, calling me patronizing and condescending, vague and unclear.  But about half had written that I was one of the best professors they’d ever had.  As report card days went, it was probably my least favorite ever.  But the evaluations revealed to me some truths I thought it was important I know.

First, some students, when enduring what is for them a difficult experience, will have a hard time finding value even in what’s valuable, seeing what works in the midst of what doesn’t.  Some students, for example, wrote that I had never told them my expectations for their briefs before I graded them.  A valid criticism, certainly – but for the multi-page checklist I’d given them, complete with boxes to check “done.”  Others had written that peer editing had no place in a writing course graded on a curve – except that I had shared with them the learning theory demonstrating that most people learn best by teaching others.  It seemed that, in the throes of their misery, they were unable to appreciate any part of the course for what it in fact was. 

But the same may have been true for me.  I may have had a hard time seeing this group’s valuable contributions in light of their general “you’re not the boss of me” attitude.  When a few students described me as patronizing, I immediately reacted defensively.  But then I thought about it.  Was it possible that, in trying to keep a smile on my face even when a student shouted out in class, “I’m so frustrated!” or another walked out of class in the middle of a discussion, announcing that he needed to make a phone call, in trying to seem pleasant even in unpleasant situations, that I came across as patronizing?  Probably so.  Certainly my thoughts and reactions about these incidents didn’t match the look on my face.   And so, I thought, maybe I should try being more honest, more transparent, and more willing to engage in difficult conversations.  Maybe that’s what teaching difficult groups requires.

One more lesson learned:  For half the students, my insistence on excellence worked.  Perhaps these were the ones who already strove to improve themselves; as our student evaluations are anonymous, there’s no way for me to tell.  But deciding to keep my standards high, even knowing that some students would react negatively, seems to have been a successful choice for many students’ learning. My takeaway from these evaluations is that I can continue to push for students to meet my high standards, and some students will respond positively. 

But what about the others?  I  just can’t forget the students for whom this class was a failure.  Because, in the end, it’s not about me and my report card day.  It’s about them and their education.  And for at least ten or so students, my class was an unwelcoming place.  And so this summer, I am going to think more, read more,  talk more about how to help even students who don’t naturally respond to my personality or approach to connect – at the very least – with the material, with the client’s cause.

In the end, my students will become lawyers.  And I want their report card days – the rulings they receive on motions, their jury verdicts, their annual law firm reviews – to be the best days of their year.