Demotion or Promotion?

Shari Dinkins considers how life changed when she became a teaching chair.

May 19, 2010

“I heard you made teaching chair,” another teaching chair said. “I’m so sorry.”

“I hear you’re my new boss,” said one instructor.

“One of my students came to class drunk,” said another instructor.

“Hello!” an instructor said gleefully to a colleague. “Oh, hello,” the same instructor added glumly, nodding at me.

My relationships with colleagues, the administration, and even my friends have shifted. Why? I was foolish enough to accept a teaching chair position at my college. I say this half-joking. But half of me is wincing as my fingers tap my keyboard.

When the associate dean of my department called me into her office, I couldn’t imagine what she wanted. It was three weeks before the fall semester — too late to hear complaints from summer students, and too early to hear from my fall students. Maybe she was going to ask me to teach some oddball class that no one else would take. Or have me look over some bit of paper for a bit of advice. I sat in her office, waiting to hear. Nervous, I could hardly understand what she was describing. Something about a colleague moving into an administrative position. This guy was much more accomplished than I was. A doctorate with several teaching awards under his belt, he was well-liked by students, staff, and administrators alike. My boss looked at me expectantly. I realized she had asked me something. Something about being nominated. Or elected. Another colleague and I being nominated — or elected — for something.

“Teaching chair,” she said, “Teaching co-chairs, actually.”

I sat, dazed. Teaching chair. Wasn’t that the job just in between faculty and associate dean?

“Hey, wait,” I thought, “That’s a promotion, isn’t it?” I thought. I nodded, unable to conjure up a clever comment.

An e-mail election was held and within a few weeks, my colleague and I were given the good news. Our department’s faculty had given us a great vote of confidence. We would co-chair the developmental studies area. Instead of being given more money, we would each be released from teaching one course each semester. We would split the duties of observing contingent faculty and coordinating assessment efforts.

“Release time?” I thought. Over the semester, this would end up being something like 40 contact hours that I wouldn’t have to teach. Not to mention the time saved prepping and grading. “What a great deal!” I thought.

I was so wrong.

I ate up those 40 hours before the semester even started. The rest of it came out of my hide. Don’t get me wrong — I love teaching. I even love higher education. But being a teaching chair is the second most thankless job in the industry. I’m convinced that being a dean or associate dean is the first most thankless job.

By the time the semester actually started, I’d been putting in six or seven hours a day planted in a chair in my office. Desperately I tried to educate myself on course sequences, textbooks and faculty. On nights and weekends, I was constantly e-mailing my teaching co-chair about forms and trainings that we’d need to provide at the start of the semester. We were just barely prepared when the official announcement was made at the departmental meeting. Colleagues smiled and nodded.

I still had no idea what I’d gotten into.

Within days we were launched into our primary duties. I found that two standardized assessments used in our developmental classes were not only out of date, but may no longer have been licensed. Just as I started to panic about this, I received an e-mail from my associate dean with a list of adjunct faculty I’d need to observe in the classroom. Each visit would require my reviewing the textbook and syllabus, making a day and time to sit in, observing the instructor “in action,” drafting an evaluation, and then meeting with the instructor to discuss my write up. There were nearly 20 names on the list. I still didn’t recognize the names of some of the courses. And I was nervous; how was I going to evaluate these instructors? I mean, who was I? I’d adjuncted for six years before getting my first full-time position. And now I was a year away from tenure in my second full-time position. But I had no Ph.D. And I was no award-winning, book-writing manager type.

Just as this started to soak in, I started to do some math. An observation might take an hour — or three, in the case of a night class. And I’d have to review the course outline and books first. Then after sitting in to observe, I’d need to write a two-page evaluation of the instructor. By the time I got through, each observation might require five hours or more of my time. Times that by 19 and I’d need to schedule, let’s see, ah, 95 hours for this primary responsibility.

Ninety-five hours.

And I’d already burned through my 40 contact hours before the semester even started. Well, I thought, I care about education. I’d make time. And some of those observations would be less time — right? Maybe only an hour or hour and a half in the classroom instead of three. I’d find a way to make it work. After all, I was dedicated to my new position. It was a promotion.

I rummaged in my file cabinet to find the observations my associate dean had done of me. There were five different review areas for faculty: class organization, effectiveness of presentation/teaching methods, effectiveness of content presentation, interaction with students, and an overall summary. I knew what "class organization" and "interaction with students" were, but the others areas seemed to overlap. Well, it would become clear. I was sure of it. As I read through my own observation reports from the last two years, I realized that I might have one other difficulty. The comments I had received were very positive. I had no examples of negative comments. And I was too embarrassed to ask colleagues for copies of theirs. Well, I thought, no matter. I’m sure I won’t have cause to write anything negative. In fact, these observations would be a great chance for me to pick up some good teaching techniques myself.

I was half right.

Most of the faculty I observed were good. Or medium-good. They might over-rely on lecture and discussion too much for part of the class session, but then they transitioned into an active strategy that really engaged the students. What most developmental instructors knew was that students could not pay attention for 50 or 75 minutes of lecturing in a skills-based course. Fidgeting, students would revert to high-tech distractions like texting or viewing social networking sites on computerized classrooms. Although I did not want to trample on an instructor’s autonomy, I felt it was right to mention disruptions that led other students to stop paying attention.

Several of our contingent faculty shone like stars in the midst. One, a young woman who taught dual enrollment at a local high school, stopped me in my tracks. This instructor did not have to rely on a regimented list of daily activities or a long list of course policies to keep students engaged and on track. Students clamored to do her bidding. Appropriate, creative, thoughtful class discussion erupted at several points. And she put every student at ease as they moved through lessons. Her one-on-one work was fantastic. She worked with each student differently, intuitively knowing what each needed. The three-hour class session flew by. And at the end, several students refused to leave. Instead, they crowded the podium, asking for just a little more help, a little more attention, a little more learning.

I was astounded.

A few weeks later, I watched another colleague use an old-fashioned overhead machine to draw reading students through a lesson on note-taking. Instead of asking students to imagine how to annotate a textbook, she had received permission to use a chapter from another textbook and asked students to do hands-on work with this chapter. For every class session, students’ desks were moved into a horn-shape, facing the lit screen. Good-natured talk was focused on the lesson and my colleague could barely keep up as she marked up the transparency. This was good teaching! I walked away better for the time spent in class — and with a teaching strategy to use in my own classes.

These high points, and others, convinced me that I was in the right industry. Then there were the low points. One Ed.D. candidate spent an hour of a night class lecturing students on grammar skills. Most students zoned out or goofed off while she expounded. She then exhausted her voice "drilling" students for the next two hours on sentence structure. Although several students answered correctly, others just marked the correct answers in their books as she painfully read through pages and pages of stilted sentence structure lessons. I imagined that this instructor would not have a voice the next day. Six students in the back row played absolutely no attention during the three-hour class. Several watched YouTube videos and laughed aloud as the class session inched toward the painful three-hour mark. After a meeting with this instructor to review my observation, I ended up offering to come back in a few weeks after she’d started using more active teaching strategies. It was better, but not by much. And because I’d spent double the amount of time on one instructor, I was even more behind on my own preparation and grading.

This is where I learned the “golden rule” of administration work. Even at the lowest level of management, paper pushing (real and virtual) takes precedence over everything else — including teaching and one’s private life. When I complained about the time "drain" chair work seemed to provide, one colleague shared something that has echoed in my head for nearly a year now.

"Here’s the thing about being a teaching chair. It’s going to suck down every minute of your time and you’ll never, ever get to work on your teaching." He sighed and added, "I haven’t created one new assignment or handout since I became chair."

When he first told me this, I thought, “Wow. That guy’s bitter.” I imagined that my experience would be different. I was wrong. This is exactly it. Although I’ve gotten much better about managing my time and even streamlined my observation-writing process, my teaching has suffered. When I took the teaching co-chair position, I already spent several hours each night working. Add on to that a six-hour shift on Saturday and another on Sunday nearly every weekend to prep and grade, and I was a good instructor. Really good, even. With teaching chair duties added to my list, I literally had nowhere from which to pull hours. I was already working nights and weekends. So it came out of my hide. I slept less. I used old lessons. I revamped nothing in my classes. I graded more quickly. It pains me to say it, but I have become a mediocre instructor. The good news is that I’ve given up some of my perfectionism. On a bad day, I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

One change that has been difficult for me is the shift in relationships since I accepted the teaching co-chair gig. I had always made it a point to be friendly with everyone in the hallways — part-time faculty, full-timers, housekeepers, administrative assistants, department chairs, maintenance workers, and administrators. Once my position was announced and I started observing contingent faculty in the classroom, I sensed a subtle change. Longstanding tenured faculty treated me the same, but a good number of part-time faculty either became servile or resentful. As a long-time adjunct myself, I understood. Still, it did not make it easier.

Faculty I had comfortably chatted with in the hallways now either avoided me or sought me out for support. Part-time instructors with 10 or more years of classroom teaching would stop by my office with “situation” they wanted to run by me. I wasn’t sure if they actually wanted advice or just felt it was appropriate to acknowledge my position. Although these difficulties were often a favorite topic among faculty in the copier workroom, it was now held up to me as a problem to solve. My problem to solve.

Students came to class drunk, students came to class late, students refused to do the work, and students didn’t come to class at all. Odd. It has always been an instructor’s duty to deal with classroom management issues. How could competent, experienced instructors with decades in the field suddenly doubt themselves? I often asked these instructors how they had dealt with these situations before. Sometimes I suggested that they talk to colleagues. In these situations, I couldn’t see the value of pushing my experience or, worse yet, theory on them.

Several adjuncts now come by my office periodically to chat. I can’t tell if they’re just being friendly or if they’re seeking some kind of reassurance about where they stand in our department. The fact that I’m more at home chatting with other teaching chairs depresses me. It’s a smaller crowd and being closer to administration, sometimes tricky when it comes to sharing confidences. And I miss chatting with certain folks who now see me as part of “the man,” administratively speaking.

Over time, of course, it’s gotten a bit easier. My co-chair and I have managed some big hurdles — bringing in new standardized assessments for reading courses, helping part-time faculty create a professional development plan after being observed, and assuring the college that writing instructors are assessing students in the first week. I’ve printed out syllabuses for all of our developmental courses. Next semester I’ll be reviewing entrance and exit expectations so that we’ll have fewer students falling through the cracks as they attempt to move through the sequence. Every day a new textbook I’ve ordered comes; these will be used when I ask faculty if they want to replace books in several developmental classes.

I’m looking forward to summer. Not because I’m not teaching, but because I’ll only be teaching. For a few short months, I’ll have time to rethink how I teach my courses. I’m putting a themed course into place, switching out a supplemental book in another course, revamping major assignments everywhere, and getting course management software websites up early. It’s a pleasure to go back to something I used to do extremely well. Seeing the sometimes-unseemly side of teaching may have made me a better instructor. That means I just have to move up from mediocre now. I think I can do it. And then next fall I’ll step back into two camps. But then that’s several months away.


Shari Dinkins is an assistant professor and teaching co-chair of developmental studies at Illinois Central College.


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