Although there are a many ways to fund grad school, most often your graduate stipend will come from a teaching position. For some this will be a one-time gig, but for many it’s an every semester commitment. During your time as an Associate Instructor (AI), often referred to at other universities as a Teaching Assistant (TA), you will be faced with the end-of-term evaluation. This is an important assessment from the students you are teaching solicited by the department to garner feedback about the course to make it better. Often, these are also ‘free for alls’ for students to tell you how they really feel, for better or worse.
The reality is whether you enjoy being in the classroom or not, negative critiques can hurt because it can feel (or be) a personal attack on your character. During my first year of teaching it was like night and day between the fall and spring semesters. Whether it was the number of students doubling or the personality of the group of students, I know that reading my evaluations made me question whether academia was the right fit for me. After reflecting on my personal classroom experience, a few pieces of advice:
Fix the things you can Ultimately, teaching is a skill like any other and needs to be continually developed. No one is perfect, and what worked before may not work the same way with this group of students. If your students make recommendations within the evaluation forms, see if there are reoccurring themes. Use these areas to focus on and improve your teaching style. For example: Do you speak too softly? Are lecture slides too busy? Have your office hours been held at a difficult time? Use these recommendations as small fixes that can improve the overall classroom dynamic. Universities often offer teaching pedagogy courses or have centers that host workshops to help improve teaching and learning. Making one or two improvements may increase the overall experience for both you and your students.
Recognize there are things you can’t change Understand that some critiques will be beyond your control. Whether it’s the amount of work required for the course, content to be covered or assigned projects, most of these are established way before you’re assigned to teach a course. Sometimes addressing it on the first day of class is helpful (and sometimes it’s ignored). Reflecting on why some comments are made, rather than the fact that they’re targeted at you can help illuminate that the issue may be less about you and more about their feelings.
Keep Calm and remember to breathe. Whether you’ve been teaching for 25 years or this is your first semester, take a deep breath and try to relax. At the end of the day everyone has good semesters and bad ones, but if you want to pursue teaching at any level, you will be bound to receive some negative feedback. Don’t let it break you.