A professor's grades turn up in the strangest places

As a college professor, I am responsible for grading my students at the end of the semester. What is less well-known to those outside the academy is that students also have an opportunity to grade their teachers.

The grades handed out by the professor don't explain anything: they're just the cold calculus of A, B, C, D or - gulp - F. But the students get to fill out an extensive report, rating everything from the professor's expertise to his level of sympathy. And at the bottom of this evaluation, there is a little box where the student can pen a brief essay about the prof.

I have met teachers who are apprehensive about these student evaluations. One colleague was despondent because one student had checked the "Not at all" box for the statement, "Teacher shows concern about student progress."

Another had received a "Not at all" from nearly half his class for the statement, "Instructor demonstrates knowledge of material."

"But I have a PhD!" he exclaimed. (My inclination was to remark, "So much for PhDs," but what I wound up saying was, "There, there.")

I suppose I have been fortunate when it comes to these student evaluations of my courses. For one thing, I tend to forget about them until the end of the semester, when the secretary begins to hector me about deadlines, the result being that I don't teach with them in mind.

For another, I have, truth to tell, generally fared well in the eyes of my students, even those who have received poor grades from me. One young man who failed my biology course actually wrote in the essay space, "You were my only friend."

I don't consider myself a vain person, but it is difficult not to feel good about oneself as a teacher and a human being when one's students are generally approving.

After the evaluations have been collected and entered into our personnel files, we receive the documents for our review and edification. It is a real moment of truth. There have been semesters when I feel that I have shone as a teacher, and I am gratified when my students pick up on this and evaluate me accordingly.

But, to quote Lincoln, one cannot please all the people all the time: I recall one student who enigmatically wrote, "Course was too hard, textbook difficult to read, and teacher not very effective." That student had received an A.

For some students, the evaluation form must be too constraining because on occasion I have found comments written about me in nontraditional places. Most of these estimations have been positive. On one desktop (I always cruise the desktops after my lectures), a student had scribbled, "Klose is the man."

Another had actually engraved a comment into the wooden arm of one of the easy chairs in the student lounge: "Klose is the best psychology teacher on campus."

A heartfelt sentiment - the only problem being that I don't teach psychology. (I hope that student eventually found the right class.)

In the men's room a student had scrawled - in indelible black ink - "Klose is the best teacher I have ever had. I will miss him." I was humbled by that statement, because it was only the first day of school.

As I said, I don't consider myself a vain person. Students, and their evaluations, come and go. I do my best as a teacher, and I love the work. That's reward enough. But in the interest of making a clean breast of things, I have to admit to one moment of weakness.

Several years ago I ran into a former student who had transferred to a larger university up the road. She thanked me for having prepared her well, told me of her subsequent successes, and then, almost in afterthought, related how she was making a phone call in an old wooden phone booth in the library at her new university.

"I dropped my coins," she said, "and while I was fishing them off the floor I looked up and saw that someone had written something about you on the underside of the memo platform."

"Really?" I asked, feigning disinterest.

"Oh, yes," she assured me.

I felt foolish, but I couldn't get this off my mind for several days. I finally decided to give in to my curiosity. I drove to that other university, located the phone booth in question, entered it, and, being 6-foot-3, had to contort myself to get down on the floor and wedge my head under the memo platform. As I twisted about and squinted in the dim light, I saw it, barely legible, in faint pencil cursive: "Professor Klose is..."

"Excuse me."

I glanced up. A young male student was impatiently waiting to use the phone. "Are you done in there?" he asked.

Embarrassed, I groaned to my feet and left the booth. "Lost a quarter," I said as I exited.

I'm presently working up the courage to go back to find that missing word.

Just curious, that's all.

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