By Sharon Gartland

Reflections: Measuring Up

I have usually done well in course evaluations. As a practicing occupational therapy clinician who taught in a master’s degree program for OT, I was seen as having more credibility than the tenure track researchers who taught most of the courses. The students loved my real life examples and my enthusiasm for the profession. But not everyone loved me. Every semester there were at least several negative, sometimes mean-spirited comments in my course evaluations, searing me with specific and generalized critiques of me, my teaching methods, and my content choices.

The first few years of teaching were the worst. I had many legitimate failings in my ability as an instructor, and my skin was pretty thin. I might have forty-five generally positive responses from students, but I would ruminate on the five who clearly didn’t enjoy me or my class. The words would replay over and over in my head:

“The readings selected were worthless, and I stopped reading them after the first few weeks.”

“This instructor doesn’t stay on topic, is too simplistic in her presentations, and needs to get some training in how to teach well.” Ouch!

“Sharon takes too long to return our papers.” Okay, that one was almost always a deserved comment, but it still felt bad.

The truth is, I want all A’s. I want everyone to love me and I only want glowing reports from students, bosses, in-laws, friends, etc. I lived in fear of finding that I have been negatively reviewed on www.rateyourprofessor.com. Some years I waited a full six months to even look at my course evaluations because I was so afraid of what might be in there. A fellow instructor once advised me that no one should open the envelope of course evaluations unless you had a glass of wine next to you while you read them (a practice Dorothy Boorse humorously refers to in her Dear Mentor response).

I have a better suggestion. I think we need to learn to accept that we don’t always get it right. Not everyone is going to like my teaching style or appreciate my humor. In my eleven years of teaching, and even more years of regular work evaluations, I have been given the gift of being regularly reminded that I still have lots of room for improvement. This is not news to Jesus. He died on the cross for me because he knew that I would never be able to fully measure up.

Learning to apply God’s grace to my work evaluations is not an easy process. The enemy loves to take advantage of my self-doubt and wreak havoc in my thought life. The result can often be discouragement, depression, and a desire to quit. I regularly had to teach the same students a second semester. It was tempting to scan the room looking for the ones who seemed most likely to have given me the negative evaluations. As I learned to receive God’s gentle reminder that he covers my imperfections by the blood of Christ, I began to offer grace back to the real and imaginary critics sitting in the classroom. Girding my loins with God’s truth, so to speak, I was able to stand in front of that intimidating group of students and serve them to the best of my ability each day.

Many of you who come to The Well have felt the sting of harsh reviews and share my aversion to negative feedback. Let me encourage you to let God pour his healing balm of grace over the painful words that are still reverberating in your head. His words of blessing are the antidote. Those words may come through Holy Scripture, times of listening prayer, or through human messengers of God’s love and acceptance of us, flaws and all.

The healing word God spoke to me was “shepherd.” After a particularly rotten set of reviews from a class that felt more like rabid dogs than university students, I was ready to pack it in. Satan was merrily tossing phrases like “failure,” “lousy teacher,” “imposter” at me each morning as I awoke. I turned to prayer to fight off the lies once more, and God began to show me that he had called me to obey him. Like the shepherd described in Jeremiah 3:15, I was to feed my students with “knowledge and understanding” so that they might become compassionate skillful clinicians. He knew I was inadequate to the task, and he wanted me to do it anyway. Grace poured in and overflowed into my classroom.

I have since come to appreciate God was expanding my career horizons with that new title as well, and he has led me to my current position with InterVarsity. So let me shepherd each of you by challenging you to lay those course evaluations, performance reviews, and grades at the cross. Trust Jesus to cover your failings, pull out the darts that hit their target, heal your wounds, and offer you the words of blessing we all seek. The glass of wine my colleague recommended is better taken as communion wine, reminding us of what Jesus did so that we might be found “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:4).

About the Author

Sharon Gartland, OTD, OTR, is a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Occupational Therapy Program at UW-Madison where her specialty is in developmental disabilities.  She enjoys the combination of teaching, administrative and clinical responsibilities that makes up her job. She is the former national director of Women in the Academy & Professions and continues to participate in the ministry as a volunteer and frequent contributor. She is married to Craig Gartland, a local church pastor and former long-term InterVarsity staff and leader. Together they have four children who are gradually getting launched into the world as functional adults but continue to store a lot of their stuff in the basement. She believes strong prayer practices and a supportive faith community are key to flourishing in career and family life. 

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