Department Chairs and Old Turtles
Teaching has been the one constant in my life. I have not been away from the classroom for longer than the months of summer for the past 50 years. In many ways, teaching is what I live for, it’s what I do, and it’s who I am. Several years ago my department chair mentioned that she would like to attend my class during the following week. At first I was concerned. Maybe she had heard something bad about my teaching. And then I thought perhaps she had heard something good and just wanted to see it for herself. Either way, I felt a little bit apprehensive. Why? I was relatively confident about my abilities in the classroom. I had often invited her to come to class in the past.
I think the apprehension came from the fact that teaching, by nature, is a solitary endeavor. While others are involved in the process, it’s primarily the teacher’s responsibility to create that enchanting environment in which learning takes place. Allowing others into my classroom indicated a willingness to let them get closer to me, to let them intercede for me, to let them see me as I am. The day of the observation brought little relief until I began to teach. Like most teachers, I became absorbed in the discussion, almost forgetting the presence of my chair in the classroom until she excused herself and left. At that point the apprehension returned and the self-doubt surfaced. The real relief came during our conference to discuss my teaching. Her discourse centered mainly on the things she was delighted to see in my classroom and wished to include in her own teaching. She, of course, had several suggestions to make the experience better for my students. I recognized through the experience that having someone in my classroom was not something to fear but rather something that could help me hone my skills and produce better outcomes for my students. The real credit goes to my chair for modeling the spirit with which one approaches an observation conference. She focused on reinforcing the good practice and nurturing the shortfalls she identified. Her comments were formed as thoughtful suggestions and not mandates.
Teaching is second nature to me, but being a department chair did not come easily to me. Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about my experience of working with my department chair, because it is the time of year when I schedule teaching observations for the professors in my department. After several years of serving as department chair and many more as a professor, I can’t seem to figure out how to alleviate the apprehension of those being observed. When I mention upcoming observations, it’s as though I have just announced the latest plague. It gives me that odd feeling of not being exactly wanted.
Recently, when I attempted to help a colleague with a problem, I realized that not everyone wants to be my friend or desires my assistance. It reminded me of an encounter with a turtle many years ago. Albrey and Jesse (my two oldest children) had gone out of town for the weekend and Taylor, Cadie (my two youngest children), and I were left to fend for ourselves. This gave us a chance to do some things we wouldn’t have done otherwise. We watched Jurassic Park and had popcorn, candy, and Cokes for dinner. Several days later I was making my daily one-hour trek from work to home down old Highway 51 when I spotted a grand old box turtle attempting to navigate his way to the far side of the road. Remembering that those large animals I had seen in the movie are now extinct, and having read about species of turtle that are currently endangered, I dutifully stopped to assist this one to cross the road to prevent his premature demise. When I picked him up I was so entranced by his obvious maturity (judging by the rings on his shell he was about 30 to 40 years old) I decided to take him home to show Taylor.
The trip home was interesting to say the least. I assumed that within a few minutes we would be fast friends or at least tolerate each other’s presence. This was not the case. This turtle made such a nuisance of himself, crawling all over the car, hissing, and leaving his evidence everywhere he wandered, that I finally had to admit defeat and turn him safely loose in a pasture several miles from my house.
I spent the remainder of the trip contemplating the plight of this turtle. I decided that it was his loss not to have me as a friend and benefactor. He was in such apparent danger when we met, yet he neither appreciated nor desired my intervention. I believe he surely would have died without my aid. I didn’t take into account the fact that he had already spent 40 years or so navigating his own crossings without my assistance. The fact that turtles by nature do not make friends seemed to elude me. They spend their lives in seclusion, without family or friends, utterly alone. And yet they live relatively long lives.
As a department chair, professor, and teacher I find it too easy to adopt the attitude of turtles. It is easy to isolate oneself and refuse the company and support of others who share the same goals. I have seen the turtle behavior in many new and experienced college professors. The tendency to close themselves in their shells is common. I know it provides for them a feeling of safety. They erroneously believe that as long as they stay protected in their shells they will avoid harm. What is not so apparent to them is they will also miss the opportunity of sharing insights and skills. Turtles can stay in their shells for long periods of time; however, they will come out if they perceive no danger. The key to bringing college professors out of their shells is to remove the perception of harm. Chairs can remove the perceived threat by reminding faculty of their expertise in their discipline, their experience in the field, and their foundation in research. In a sense, all faculty need to understand that chairs know and appreciate their quality and ingenuity. Being part of a group of colleagues has given me the opportunity to let some other people into that private space of teaching. What a release it is to share with other teachers the successes, failures, trials, joys, and accomplishments of the classroom. There are so many answers that come up in simple conversations and other interactions with my teaching colleagues and friends. I pray that I never adopt the attitude of turtles. I am sure that without the intervention of friends and colleagues I would have long ago become an extinct teacher.
Opening up my classroom to my teaching colleagues and friends might allow us to collaborate in the teaching and observation process, reassuring my colleagues with the message that we are who we are. Maybe next year when it is again time to make classroom observations, I will invite my colleagues to come to my class for an observation before I schedule a time to go to theirs. Prior to the visit, we could meet and discuss our student evaluations from the previous semester and look for areas of strength and areas of needed growth. Through this discussion we would formalize goals for improving teaching in the coming year. This meeting would establish a feeling between us as colleagues rather than chair to faculty. After this consultation between colleagues we would visit each other’s classrooms to analyze our efforts to improve outcomes for students. Our next meeting would be a time to assess our progress and refine our goals. This could become an ongoing event between teaching colleagues. In this way we become genuine partners in the evaluation process and not isolated turtles struggling to cross the road.
Randel D. Brown is department chair for the department of professional programs at Texas A&M International University.
Lorraine M. Dinkel is an assistant professor of counselor education at Texas A&M International University.