RateMyGospelDoctrineTeacher.com?

I just got back another round of student evaluations of my teaching. To imagine the feeling I get when opening a fresh packet of evaluations, mix together the dread induced by the phrase “[your boss] needs to speak with you,” and the anxiety-ridden adrenaline rush of Ralphie racing to translate Orphan Annie’s super-secret message with his decoder ring. I’ve done well in all my ratings, but that doesn’t mitigate the panic preceding each.

Most academics share my sense of dread about student evaluations. And yet, I do find them incredibly useful. Not so much the up-or-down vote at the end of the class—by then it’s too late to make corrections anyhow. The feedback I rely on (and proactively solicit) is early, open-ended feedback about what students like and don’t like, whether they feel like I’ve made a case for why they should care about the course material, if I’m going too fast or too slow, which topics they prefer more emphasis on, why they do or don’t feel comfortable speaking out in class, and so on. Unlike the anonymous, often cruel or fatuous rants on sites like RateMyProfessors.com, this feedback is usually (1) very reassuring in that students express general satisfaction with the way things are going (whereas I tend to assume the worst), and (2) very helpful by pointing out specific things that can improve and key insights into the student perspective that I never would have gained otherwise.

Ok, here’s where this post wanders off into crazy-hypothetical-land. Should teachers in the church be evaluated by students? I’m not talking about using evaluations the way they are often used on college campuses—going into a personnel file to be reviewed by superiors for hiring/firing decisions. Callings being inspired and all, they should hardly be subject to an American Idol-style popularity vote. I’m only talking about, for example, a Gospel Doctrine teacher soliciting written feedback from class members for their own use.

The church already has programs in place explicitly for improving gospel instruction: primary has inservice days, as a young women presidency member I was to observe and ensure the quality of the Sunday teacher’s lessons, and stake auxiliaries’ presidencies hold periodic instructor trainings. All the church’s manuals have meta content about teaching methods in the introduction, and there is an entire manual dedicated to teaching methods, Teaching: No Greater Call. Could student evaluations fit into these programs? Could you envision a Young Women President distributing an evaluation form to the girls, then meeting with the instructors to discuss the results at an inservice day?

Undermining the authority of the teacher, and potential negative side-effects of encouraging class members to bring negative thoughts to the forefront of their minds, strike me as a concerns worthy of consideration. But such is the nature of customer feedback in any setting, from retail to universities. The prevalence of feedback mechanisms in these settings suggests that the benefits usually outweigh these risks.

If you are/were a teacher, would you do it and how would you go about it? (or have you already?) As a class member, how would you feel about being asked to provide feedback? Could you be candid about such things in a church setting? What age ranges of students do you think this would be appropriate for? What informal methods do you currently use for self-assessment and soliciting feedback? (typically I pester my husband on the drive home, but he’s a rather biased source) I’d be especially curious to hear how those who have endured student evaluations for their day job feel about it; and for all you BYU grads–was there a different dynamic in evaluating professors in the Religion Dept vs other departments?

Comments

  1. FWIW, most head-scratching feedback from this latest batch of evals: “Funny. Has odd habits.” (that was the entirety of it)

  2. When I taught 16-17 year olds a few years ago early on I passed out pieces of paper and asked them to write down 1 thing they like that I did, 1 thing that I did that they didn’t like and 1 thing they thought I should start doing.

    I thought it was a good idea but I don’t remember it being very eye-opening – most of them didn’t have a whole lot to say which I guess was good?

  3. Nice, Dan. That’s exactly how I structure the early feedback I solicit in my university classes. We call them “KQS” (Keep/Quit/Start).

  4. FWIW, I think Sunday School already has a vote-with-your-feet evaluation system: how many people are in class, and how many are just hanging around in the hall?

    At least that’s how I give my evaluations.

  5. Cynthia,
    I’m totally looking at your ratings at rmp.com now! I promise not to post them as long as you don’t post mine.

    There is some need for feedback in church teaching. The teachers should have the balls to do it.

  6. Little Sister says:

    Dear Sunday School Teacher,

    Please stop crying so much.

    Sincerely,

    Little Sister “Anonymous”

    (Teacher runs crying from the room…)

  7. I taught the “early” early morning seminary (5:10 a.m.) for students who were in sports, band, etc. At the end of the year I told them there would be a test. It was for them to write down one thing new they learned during the year.
    One student actually wrote, “I didn’t learn anything new this year, I already knew it.”
    I note that in the prospect that in asking for feedback some of our “students” may take the same position with us given the repeated use of the same manuals over the years.

    Sam K.

  8. My favorite part of Ronan’s reviews, “His English accent and tight pants were always a plus!”

  9. My current calling requires me to visit and “train” Sunday School teachers throughout the stake. I have discovered a couple of things about church teachers.

    1. Most teachers in the church don’t like teaching–they are either scared of it, or bored with it. And while they give a little lip service to the idea of improving their teaching, most are just waiting to be released. When I say “most” I mean most that I’ve talked to. Not a scientific study.

    2. Good teachers tend to be born, not made. You can make micro improvements to teaching, but teacher transformation is rare.

    3. The way to improve teachers is to get them to care about what they’re teaching. Does this seem obvious? My experience is that teachers don’t care enough about the material to spend real preparation/research time. If you can convince them to care about the stuff they teach, they will teach it more dynamically.

    4. I agree with CS Eric–students in the church vote with their feet. And they are NOT bashful about it. I see people give a teacher 5 minutes, and literally get up and leave the class. I know they are not going to get a kid from primary, because I’ve followed them out and asked them. And I can’t say I blame them.

    5. When you find a good teacher, you latch on and never let go–no matter what the topic or class level. The teacher is often more important than the class material.

  10. Ronan, for the sake of science, you now MUST collect student feedback from your church teaching work, so we can determine if church members also value “tight pants.” (I’m assuming the accent isn’t as much of a draw when you’re actually in the UK :-))

  11. I’m assuming the accent isn’t as much of a draw when you’re actually in the UK.

    Actually, weirdly, it totally is. British women swoon over Ronan’s diction with all passion that characterizes zeitcast listeners. It’s a very, very romantic country really.

  12. I have admin powers and can delete at will.

  13. Cynthia, you are sooooooooooooooooooooooo Mormon:

    “Sometimes she gave out post-cards, and/or candy for participation.”

  14. “Sometimes can be a bit goofy, but she is sweet.”

  15. shush!

  16. Well you did bring it up, so….

    but ratings are tricky.

    I’ve taught both in and out of the church (and no, I’m not teaching now, and NO I won’t say where), and I’m also in an performance evaluation background.

    Here’s my take on this whole shebang. Yes the church should do more on this–why? To improve the quality of training that teachers get. The REASON to do performance evaluation (this is especially true in the church) is to increase the quality of training materials (in the corporate world it can lead to HR decisions, as we all know too well, but in the church not as much).

    I agree though with one point: getting people to care about the calling is crucial. Once you get them to care, they’ll be willing to learn good techniques.

  17. Well, of course there’s a difference between paid professors and culled-from-the-flock teachers. The professionals are doing what they chose to do, as opposed to the church instructors who are called. It doesn’t really seem appropriate to judge them on their abilities – Is RateMyBishop.com any worse?

    I’m all for constructive criticism, but that should probably be the role of the Sunday School admin, who could potentially poll the students.

    I’m curious – what course do you teach, Cynthia?

    (How long before RateMyGospelDoctrineTeacher.com gets registered?)

  18. It took me a couple of years to learn how to handle teacher evals at school (as a teacher, I mean. I handled it fine as a student). After that I was able to distance myself, take the feedback, change things that needed to change, and disregard the bizarre comments (ie, “She’s sorta a feminist. Not a femi-nazi or anything. Just, well, you know.—Isn’t it great that I taught them how to write in complete sentences? and consider their audience?)

    So, while I think your idea is actually a good one and I’ll run a KQS next week in Gospel Doctrine, the main problem is that by the time a teacher learns to “handle” the evaluation without being destroyed by it … it’s too late. They are already serving in a new calling.

  19. The problem with church teaching is that we all do it at one time or another, and it’s all volunteer and generally temporary in nature. That, and the near complete evisceration of the teacher development program ensures that we either have great teachers who are natural born or developed in the secular world, or not so great teachers who are not naturally good at it and get very little help and are otherwise not taught about it at all.

    The question becomes one of who is responsible for teaching and advising gospel teachers these days? Each auxiliary is supposed to get it from their stake officers, and MP should be getting it from their assigned high councilors, but in my experience, it is way down the list on things to do for most of those folks.

    How about rate-my-high-councilor-talks.com? The answers could be multiple choice, as in 1) Did not make me fall asleep, 2) Fell asleep halfway through the talk, or 3) Slept all the way through.

  20. My opinion is that any type of teaching-style critique should be handled by the SS presidency, but in reality, that probably rarely happens. And perhaps “critique” really isn’t the right word- after all, most gospel doctrine teachers didn’t ask for the calling, right? Maybe I’m very naive, but I would like to think that most gospel doctrine teachers take their calling seriously and do their very best. I’ve also been fortunate to have excellent teachers for as long as I can remember.

    Perhaps some class members would be willing to share ideas with an instructor in private, and perhaps the instructor could even ask certain individuals to do that, or even the whole class for that matter. But, for the Church as a whole to begin some official process does not seem wise, in my opinion. What would be next- rate your bishop, your home/visiting teacher, etc.? I believe this type of approach creates more of a mindset of looking for the negative.

  21. Maybe it’s because I’m an adjunct, teaching one class a semester just for fun–surely not for the money.

    But my attitude toward students’ evaluations is “[Bleep} ‘em!”

  22. In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that my current calling is on the HC, and I am hugely aware of the reputation we have. I am also aware that it is not always undeserved.

  23. Token Average Member says:

    Perhaps instead of voting with our feet, we should make a point of attending class and participating in the discussions. An active, intelligent class might encourage a teacher to make a little more effort.

  24. Concerning Post 5—Ronan, are you advocating
    that only men should teach Sunday school?

  25. Mark B,

    My wife, who teaches junior high math and serves as the teacher coach for her department, would echo your attitude about student evaluations. At that level, the responses are either obvious or not helpful at all. Peer review and interactive discussion amongst the teachers is much more productive, but I see little opportunity for that in the church. It could happen, but it is not part of the current program.

  26. Dug #9 is right on with point #3. This was an issue in my mission at one point. All of the zone/district meetings began feeling like sales meetings, “talk to everyone”, here are some tracting methods 2-2-4. They eventually moved into emotional soap boxes about how the people we were called to serve are our brothers and sisters and we have the Gospel and need to take it to them. This was supposed to be the spiritual climax of the events. At some point in the process we began turning the meetings into gospel discussions on any topic, missionary related or not. I never had the stats, but it appeared that the missionary “zeal” intensified with most of the Sisters and Elders when the meetings allowed each of us to take a personal interest in the message we were supposed to be sharing.

  27. #24: Naw, he’s just shilling for all those spammers who keep trying to sell me enhancements for body parts I don’t own.

  28. I’ve taught youth Sunday School for about nine of the past twelve years. My main measure has been whether or not the kids I taught get called on missions.

    When I was 16-17, the good kids at church went on doughnut runs during Sunday School, and the bad kids smoked in the parking lot. With that in mind, I know one of the key things my kids need is social time. They don’t all go to the same high school, so there’s far worse things we could do than just let them talk for the first 20 minutes of class. I also get to find out what’s going on with them, and it gives me an idea about what they need to hear.

    About 15 minutes before the bell, I announce “we’re going to pretend to have a lesson now”. I’ve stated up front, and I remind them once a month or so, that my purpose is to make sure that when their parents ask them “What did you learn about in church today?”, they have at least one thing to mention. If they can do that, then we are covered. I only cover one point from the lesson, but I make sure it is covered in some depth. I get good feedback from the parents on this method. The younger kids sneak into my class, and the older kids typically don’t leave until they leave for school or missions.

    When I was teaching in Utah, I made a deal with the kids – we would cover the “Sunday School Lesson” for half the time, and then as long as they didn’t tell anybody, we’d learn how to teach the missionary discussions. I bought them each a set of discussions, and each week I’d cover one section of one discussion and ask for a volunteer to pretend I was an investigator. During the course of a year, we’d get through all six. I’m convinced that those kids after that class were better prepared than 98% of all missionaries entering the MTC.

    The biggest thing I try to emphasize is “You guys have heard this about a thousand times, right? You’ve had this exact lesson in every Primary class, you’ve covered this in seminary, and had a hundred home evening lessons on it.” (I know that’s an exaggeration, but that’s how I always felt as a teenager from an active family.) “So, why does this matter? Why does the Church want us to hear this a thousand times?” Teenagers are exposed to every sin and depravity you can imagine – there’s no need to pull punches, sweeten things up, or water things down. On a typical school day, they could get their hands on drugs in under three minutes. Alcohol might take a couple of hours. Sex is available any day by dinnertime. They have classmates who have had multiple abortions, who have explicit photos on their cell phones (usually underage, by definition), who have exchanged sex for money, who have been in rehab, and who have done time in jail. They get the evil side of things. They need a compelling reason not to give in to that.

  29. Ronan, remember that if you ever take Cynthia’s class, “Be prepared for quizzes by staying on top of your homework.”

  30. And here I thought that mmiles was kidding. Yikes!

  31. FHL #17–GoDaddy.com says the domain is still available. (As is ratemybishop.com!) Any takers?

    FHL #17 II–I’ve taught both freshmen and senior-level courses. I’ll just say that I’m not in the humanities/social sciences. If you’re really curious, you can email me sisterblah2 at gmail

    #18–Kylie, you’re quite right that accepting student evaluations is a skill in itself. The best advice I got was to limit myself to 15-20 minutes with them when I first get them back. (Maybe more for a large class, but just enough to skim and get the idea.) Then I put them away for an entire week before studying them more closely. They either miraculously improve during that week, or just seem better with a more clear-headed approach to them. Evaluations in the church would have to be handled delicately, but I think it could be done. In particular, I would recommend that evaluation greenies go through the results with an experienced mentor who can lend perspective and moderation.

    #19–Kevin, I agree with the challenges you mention, especially the transient nature of callings. On the other hand, we often transition from one teaching position to another, and many of the skills are transferable.

    #24–Yes, I was wondering the same thing, Ronan!

  32. As a class member, how would you feel about being asked to provide feedback? Could you be candid about such things in a church setting?

    I would be uncomfortable providing feedback to any church teacher who did not sincerely want my specific opinion. Could I be candid? Maybe to a self-assured, seasoned member** (like our previous GD teacher who was a former stake president). But I could not be candid to many of the rank-and-file members who cycle through such a calling. They aren’t professionals, they don’t claim to be, and they likely didn’t ask for the calling. So I would be hesitant to give constructive criticism that might cause hurt feelings or feed feelings of inadequacy.

    **(And frankly, even the seasoned teachers might not be as confident or self-assured as they seem.)

    Much of my constructive criticism of GD class would be targeted at issues of Mormon pedagogy, and it would be hard to fault any teacher for problems with the curriculum. In fact, for all of the manuals’ shortcomings, I would prefer that the teacher stick to the manual rather than delve into pseudo deep doctrines or bizarre personal interpretations (unless I agree with said doctrines or interpretations).

  33. Re # 18 – Kylie, I have a plan to not get released from teaching gospel doctrine. After I got called I grew a goatee and started wearing blue shirts. It isn’t enough to get released but it is enough to prevent the bishopric from giving me a calling with more responsibility.

    That and of course everytime I meet someone from the stake presidency I pretend I have no idea who he is.

  34. #28–Michael, I love your student-centered approach to teaching. That reminds me of something that my mom did that has always inspired my approach to teaching. She once had a primary class made up entirely of boys, some had emotional/behavior challenges. Instead of “kicking against the pricks” trying to keep them in their chairs, she would start every class by taking them out the back door and telling them to race to the end of the parking lot and back. Maybe a few times. Then a quick lesson at the end, when they’re ready to sit for a few minutes. A little unconventional, but it’s what those boys needed.

    #34–Ha! Awesome. Thanks for the link, Nistav.

  35. Cynthia L-
    And here I think we two of the great secrets.

    1. Know what your class needs. If they need parking lot races and a two minute lesson, do it, and don’t feel bad for not covering every line of the manual.
    2. Share what works, so somebody else doesn’t have to figure it out the hard way.

  36. mobile sloth says:

    teacher evalutaion? not in our YW, thanks! Of the 7 girls on the roll, 4 have mothers who are in the YW Presidency or YW Secretary – and we`re the ones teaching the lessons!

  37. mobile sloth (#37) —

    Evaluation: “What could your teacher do to improve?”

    Response: “Let me stay out later, and quit bugging me about cleaning my room.”

  38. Kaimi,
    The crazy thing is, one of your evaluators said the exact same thing!

  39. Mommie Dearest says:

    I have a policy about unpaid volunteer work in general and church callings in particular: He (she) who does the work gets to decide how it’s done. (This applies well to household chores too.)

    That said, I have been having a problem with the teachers of the JS manual we’ve been using since the beginning of the year. Every week that one of these lessons are taught I am blown away by something or another in the text — some nugget of Joseph Smithian logic, or the spirit of the restoration shining through, or something — but only because I have the manual open on my lap and I am reading the text while the teacher or the class is babbling on about some lightweight gospel hobby tangent. Some of the teachers are very young or otherwise green at teaching so it’s understandable, but I can’t understand a seasoned member who comes to class with all this peripheral information when those lessons have at least an hour of solid doctrinal information from the primary source — how can they not get it?

    I am having a hard time applying my policy these days.

  40. Lol, mmiles. :) Awesome. I knew those tight pants would be useful some day.

  41. p.s. My previous favorite rating was the student who said my exams were fair, that students learn a lot, and wrote “recommended!”, but then gave me a 1/5 on every category. I like to read that one as, “my students like me, but they’re a bit mathematically challenged.” :)

  42. mmiles FTW.

  43. A student tried to sabotage me once by writing “He gives me a creepy feeling.” You should not be able to screw with a professor’s life so easily.

  44. Kinda O–
    Well, if you would just not creep out your students!:)

    Kaimi-
    I hope your students aren’t too disenchanted. Maybe you should talk with a British accent so as not to disappoint.

  45. #38–lolz.

    #40–I have a policy about unpaid volunteer work

    Being a university instructor *almost* fits this category. :-)

  46. Kevin Barney says:

    When I was SS president I was supposed to visit the various classes and offer constructive criticism. I always avoided doing this. I felt my teachers would have been freaked out if I slipped in to their classes to check them out. And I’ve got a bad case of Mormon niceness; it would be very challenging for me to criticize someone else’s teaching, even in a well intentioned way.

  47. But how many chili peppers did you get?

  48. I understand what you guys are saying about not wanting to criticize volunteers, but I really do think “leaders” (those in presidencies) need to give guidance.

    The truth is, even excellent teachers have total blind-spots. A once quarterly meeting (maybe take all the SS teachers out to eat, or something) where you discuss challenges/successes could actually be very rewarding, beneficial, and inspiring to teachers. Teachers can feel very isolated, but if a leader routinely sits in on lessons, picks out some strengths, and mentions them to the teachers, that can make a real difference. It would be so easy to have a discussion like: what happens when the crazy commenter goes off on a tangent? What are some effective open-ended questions to ask? How do you manage your class time? How do you plan to tackle the Book of Revelation?

    There are so many ways to collect student reactions: give out a simple survey asking about reading habits, ask at the beginning of the year if students prefer more history or more doctrine, ask what the students would have emphasized about the lesson had they been the teachers, ask how this topic/section might have been taught differently by someone older or male or by Joseph Smith. You get feedback that is not exclusively aimed at you, but you still get some ideas. If the feedback is useless (ex. “good job”) then chances are your classes are asleep. Train them to give quality feedback, ask for it regularly (make it a ticket out the door), and use it.

    It is a brave teacher who asks for feedback, but an even braver one who consents to being video-taped. You can learn a lot about your presentation style from that.

  49. #48–heh. The chilies are a really bad idea, imho. On a very superficial level it’s kinda flattering, but students looking at profs in that way is creepy.

    #49–Video tape–ha! I did that at school at it was so terrible. But very, very useful. I can’t imagine doing videotapes at church. The pain-to-benefit ratio is too high.

    But I’m with you on everything else. I don’t see the fact that they are volunteers constituting any kind of rebuttal of the need for evaluations. Getting feedback and fixing things makes teaching much more enjoyable because you can be confident you are being effective, vs just hoping you are and having a sinking suspicion that you might not be.

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