They Love Me, They Love Me Not

I’ve never thought teaching was easy. It has too many moving parts: me, the students, the content, current events, the schedule. The schedule can be crucial. It’s one thing to teach a seventy-five minute class twice a week to undergraduates, another to teach a three-hour night class to graduate students. The pacing is entirely different. A three-hour class is exhausting, and I have learned that in the chess match of life I am a knight, making short, leaping moves rather than a rook or bishop sweeping across the chessboard. That’s just the way it is and I accept it.

This week I read student evaluations from three of my courses from last semester. Evaluations are supposed to be of the course, not the professor, but they end up being popularity contests, as you might imagine. Over the years, I have gotten good at reading the comments with a critical eye and a grain of salt, trying not to rub the salt in my eye. I give more weight to those comments that come across as fair, good-willed, and serious, which are things I try to be in the classroom.

Sometimes they can get personal, and when they do they are almost always negative. It happened this time as one student called me “horrible” and “unprofessional.” Now, unprofessional I can live with, because the student was referring to a scheduling change I made that was unavoidable and perfectly permissible. But the horrible comment got to me. This, even after having read other comments calling me “the best teacher” at the university and my course as “thoroughly eye opening.” It doesn’t matter, though. One rotten tomato can spoil the vine.

Students either love me or hate me. I like to think most fall into the former category, and they probably do, judging from what I hear and the friendships that have developed over the years. Still, I wonder what produces such outrage. I believe it is more than unmet expectations, which is something you’d read in a customer review on Amazon. No, this involves a sense of injustice, as if a moral line were crossed.

What moral line could that be? I can think of only one: grades. Students are very sensitive to grades and the criteria professors use to determine them. A slight discrepancy or fluctuation can cause anxiety. That anxiety is heightened when they encounter someone like me who not only grades “harshly” but who thinks out loud in the classroom and tries to get students to join him in his musings and analysis.

I know. The fault lay not in the stars but in me. Some students, even in university, need structure, so I lay the course out for them like the script of a play or the libretto of an opera. But eventually I want them to act off script, improvise, blend words and music in different ways, experiment with tonalities. All of that requires imagination.

How important is imagination in my business ethics classes? It couldn’t be more so. You might say that acting ethically requires more imagination than most things in life, especially when you consider that imagining something new (e.g., changed behavior) demands courage and initiative to make it a reality. That’s a dance many adults are not capable of, which is a major reason for the increase in scandals and cases of corruption in recent years.

Thankfully, there is an insight to be gained from being the “best teacher” and a “horrible” one at the same time. It is that teaching has its own ethic, which involves approaching it with humility and a sense of the transcendent. If I have not always done that, at least I can find comfort in the words of historian and teacher Henry Adams (1838-1918), who wrote that the “secret” of education is that it hides “behind ignorance, and one fumbles over it as feebly as ever.”

So, count me among the fumblers, which is another way of saying that they love me and love me not.

Haven’t had enough? Go to Robert Brancatelli. Photo of knights by Syed Hasan Mehdi from Pexels. Note to self: in the next business email, see how many times you can use the word “landscape.” Happy third birthday to Ryder Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance.


  1. Robert, I just wanted to add my favorite quotation about teachers I have loved:

    “…and gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche.”

    The Canterbury Tales
    Original Spelling

  2. Robert, Thank you for such a thoughtful essay. I appreciated the chance to think back on my own years teaching at the university level:)

    I certainly relate to those terribly long night classes! The counseling classes I taught met from 4:30 – 10:00 for six week quarters. This meant that every six weeks, I needed to prepare three new classes. Yes, exhausting is the word for it, especially since the majority of my students spent their days as teachers or administrators.

    Notably, the psychological assessment classes for psychologists in training were three hour sessions for twelve weeks. We could have used more time for these classes in child neuro assessment.

    It was interesting to observe the changes in student backgrounds and goals for taking the programs and classes over time. When I began teaching classes in the graduate and doctoral programs, the majority of my students were middle aged, experienced educators who wished to obtain greater and deeper knowledge to add to their significant experience with children; persons with similar backgrounds and goals to my own.

    In the last years I spent in university teaching, my students were primarily students just graduated with undergraduate degrees in a multiplicity of areas, without backgrounds or experience in child or human development. Those last years were challenging for me. There was a shortage of child counselors and psychologists in public education and great need. These students were focused on obtaining positions as quickly as possible and did not believe they needed the texts and materials of the curriculum. What I most recall was that my students wanted a “cut to the chase curriculum.” This period definitely required significant adjustments on my part!

    In terms of notable student evaluation comments, the one comment that stood out was a student’s description of my voice and manner as like “Snow White!” It’s embarrassing to admit that this one evaluation resulted in my asking family, colleagues, and friends about my likeness to Snow White, and whether I needed to present a tougher or more aggressive image and voice:)

    I liked what you said about your intention for students to take what was taught and to develop and create beyond. As a student, I always struggled to know whether I was going too far out from the purpose and objectives of the class:) That’s hard to imagine in a class of psychological research statistics, I know.

    . I experienced both positive and negative responses from my professors; one of my more creative role playing exercises in a doctoral consultation class caused my professor to become extremely angry with me, proposing that I delay my graduation; a story for another time.

    Good week to you, Robert.

    1. Thanks for this, Susan. I suppose the really hard part for me is having something that other people want: a grade. It’s kind of like being in a dog kennel with a bag of Big Macs. They go crazy and will do just about anything to get a bite. I’d just as soon give them the hamburgers for free…

      About the angry professor, it reminds me of what I read about alligators. You can actually get really close to them if you stay out of their “hot” spots, which could be to one side or the other or anywhere, really. But once you do, you’re a goner. Must have been a “complex” situation…

  3. Robert, 40 years ago when I had the ” privelage” to fill out these evaluations it was more of a nuisense and distraction more than anything.
    I was in college for two good reasons, # 1 was to learn and get insight. If the proffessor had too many idiosyncracies that prohibited from conveying knowledge from point A to point B, I would let him and the College know that for the most part they waisted my time for the money I spent. I will call this inability ” friction”. The other reason was to get my degree with good grades. If he was trying to teach me something other than the subject material and didnt bring with it humility I wrote him off. There are too many Egotists in Academia for my liking.
    If he required a great deal of work, didnt invite class participation or was anal about spelling Id rip him another one.
    If he or she interjected their politics, that was another demerit!
    Ultimately if he the Proffessor was an easy marker and marked on a curve for that individual respective class environment they had my respect. (Im not being compared to William F Buckly’s achievements at Harvard back in the day)
    For the most part students didnt take these evaluations serious, I wouldnt either! Considering Colleges use these as a measure of your effectiveness it may somewhat raise an eyebrow on your part.
    Ultimately, if I learned a good deal,was able to score a B with average effort and the teacher made the class stimulating rather than a cross, I was happy to give him cred for the future of other students coming up and learning.
    Good luck in your continued growth as a human being.

    1. Thanks for the comments and insights, Bernie. If there is one thing I am careful not to do in the classroom, it’s talk about my personal political opinions. Religion is another matter, though, since we look at religion-ethics and I teach at a religious institution. As for spelling and grammar, well…

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