The Adjunct Files: What’s in a Classroom Policy?

So last week we looked at basic building blocks for your syllabus – what to include and why. This week, I want to take a closer look at your own policies – because let’s face it, that’s probably what you have the most control over. You can’t change the college’s policies; you can’t change the textbook; but:  your classroom, your policies.

pointing+hand+vintage+image+graphicsfairy2Nota bene:  different colleges offer instructors, especially adjuncts, differing levels of leeway in setting your own policies. Some departments may require you to do things their way; one college I applied to required instructors to use ONLY the course material they provided, in the course shell they provided, with the exams and assignments they set! There was absolutely no leeway there whatsoever, and even when adjuncts pointed out inaccuracies in the textbooks and quizzes, they refused to listen. So before you start to write your policies, double-check with your department chair or lead instructor.

Your policies are not going to be perfect out the gate. I promise that you will not be able to cover everything the first time out. What you need to decide first is what are you willing to enforce, every single day, in class?

My personal polices cover the following areas:

  • Late work
  • Making up tests (for my athletes who might be gone on an exam day)
  • Attending when ill (DON’T!)
  • Cell phones
  • Plagiarism, Cheating, Academic Integrity
  • ‘Helping’ others (teammates, significant others, etc.) with class work (it’s cheating, according to my school)
  • Best practices for contacting me (just to reiterate it)

For this blog post, though, I want to focus on cell phones and late work.

Cell phones. For some, students using cell phones in class is the biggest pet peeve there is:  it’s rude, disrespectful, and a barrier to learning. Just last week, I had a student who was playing on his cell phone, not listening as I spent 15 minutes talking about what would be on their first exam. Imagine what grade he got. (He did have the grace to scribble on the last page, “I didn’t know there was an essay.”) For some, however, if students choose to play on their phones rather than participate and take notes, that’s up to them; they’re presumably adults and if that’s how they choose to do things, they’ll have to live with the consequences. Still others have found ways to incorporate phones into their classrooms. Decide how you want to structure your course and what your policy will be when you see the texting begin.

Late work. I’ve seen the gamut. I knew an instructor who, in her online courses, opened all the assignments the first day of class and left them all open until the last day of class. No late work, no problem. Your college may frown on this. Mine certainly does. There’s a lot of options here, and you need to decide what works for you and your students. Can you offer a three-day grace period once for credit? A coupon for a missing assignment? I’ve seen both of these.

A lot of instructors offer a grace period with a set percentage taken off the total score for the late work. For instance, up to three days late, a 10% reduction; 5 days, a 25% reduction; after 7 days, not accepted at all. If you’re willing to take the late work and figure out the reduced points (and most importantly, stick to it!) this can be effective.

My personal policy is quite simple:  you get a week to do an assignment. If it’s late, it’s a zero. I will only reopen assignments in cases of extreme emergency, and those, I evaluate on a case by case basis. Your computer crashed at 7pm Saturday night, four hours before the deadline? Not good enough. I take into account when the student lets me know, the severity of the crisis, and what their previous work has been like. I really think you have to have a loophole of some sort. A small one, but a loophole. Bad things happen. I’ve had students hospitalized, students lose their parents (and children), students left without power by hurricanes and students flooded out of their homes. All that? That’s an emergency. That’s why, whatever policy you choose for late work, it should be fair to both you and the student – but it should also hold them accountable for their actions. I firmly believe it’s our job to not only teach them a subject, but also responsibility – and to be honest, this may be the first time in that student’s life that they’ve ever been responsible for their own actions!

Okay, I lied. I want to do one more thing:  The Unprepared Student. What about students who come to class unprepared? Let’s say you’re teaching Literature, and on Thursday you’ll be discussing “The Rocking Horse Winner” in class. You expect the students to have read the story by then and be familiar with it. You’ve told them this in class. You’ve sent them an email about it. And then – half the class shows up without having read the story. What do you do?

There really should be repercussions. You can choose to punish those who aren’t prepared in some way, or to reward the ones who are – and really, you’ll probably do a mix of both. Did you require them to answer questions about the reading? Can you give them a pop quiz? My guess is that you can’t waste a class period for them to read the story – you’ve got things planned. Do you excuse them, with the caveat that they can’t have the points for that day’s in-class assignments? It’s up to you.

On that topic, a small sidebar – I love pop quizzes. If students aren’t paying attention, or if I think the material isn’t quite getting through to them, I’ll surprise them with one. I’ve even made them up on the fly – a quick five questions, typed into Power Point and answered in just a few minutes. They can be for points or for extra credit, whatever you want to do. I’ve done both. They do tend to keep students on their toes, and it’s a great way to check for understanding on complicated (or boring!) topics.

My policies have changed dramatically over the past 12 years. Yours will, too. In fact, I guarantee they’ll change from semester to semester as you find new things to include, things to tweak, and items that the college may start policing on its own. But hopefully, this will give you some things to think about as you get started.


Dear First-Time Teachers . . .

I’m nearing the end of my first semester as a full-time instructor. It shouldn’t be earth-shattering; after all, I was an adjunct for ten years before this. Teaching at three different schools, teaching between 10 and 14 classes a semester (that translates into 30 – 42 hours, in education-speak). This should have been nothing to me, really. It should have been easy. 

But it hasn’t been easy. It’s been a HUGE transition. A transition that’s not done yet. It’s not even really a rite of passage, because at least that ends at some point. This doesn’t. Every week, there’s something new to learn, something else I didn’t know I was supposed to be doing. So let me share some thoughts:

1.) If you don’t say something, no one will ever know. I know it sounds so simple, but communication is so difficult. You feel like you SHOULD know, and you’re afraid that if you ask a question, you’ll be seen as incompetent or stupid, or that someone will say, “Yeah, that was in an email last week. Duh.” We tell our students all the time that there’s no such thing as a stupid question, but we don’t believe it ourselves, do we? The other day, another new teacher and I both admitted that it feels like there’s things we aren’t doing because we don’t know we’re supposed to be doing them. Sometimes it’s hard to put the questions into words. Sometimes (again), you’ll feel like you’re stupid if you ask. You need to ask anyway.

2.) Your office will NOT feel like home for a LONG, LONG TIME. No matter how many knick-knacks and photos you put up, no matter how many books you put on the ugly metal shelves,  no matter how many scatter rugs you put down – it just won’t feel right. And more to the point . . .

3.) You probably won’t feel you belong there. You might stare at yourself in the mirror every morning and think, this is the day they find out they made a mistake and they’ve hired the wrong person, and I’m a fraud. There’s actually a term for this:  it’s called Impostor Syndrome. I have it. No matter how much evidence there may be to the contrary – see, I said may be, not is – I feel like I have no business being there, and that if I make one wrong move, they’ll discover the horrible truth – I’m a fraud, a charlatan, a con artist (except, you know, I can’t pull off really elaborate, high-dollar heists).

4.) To quote Elle in Legally Blond:  First impressions are not always correct. I had a student who, when I first met him, seemed to have zero respect for me. He was rude, always questioning, insulting to me and the other students, and I woke up every day praying for an email from the school saying he’d dropped the course. But as I got to know him, I realized that he’s incredibly bright and hard-working; his mind works in a very specific fashion (he’s an engineering student); and what seemed like disrespect is simply how he deals with others. In truth, he ended up being one of my favorite students.

5.) Nothing will be perfect the first time out. I’m a perfectionist, and this one is SO HARD FOR ME. I want it all perfect, at once. But here’s the thing:  you’re probably going to be teaching at least one course (maybe three, like me) that you’ve never taught before. Never even had coursework in before. What do you do? You prep the best you can. Every semester is another chance to tweak things, to change what you didn’t like, to add something new, to change it up. Because . . .

6.) That first semester is all about survival. I had a meeting with my VP of Academic Affairs this week, and he asked if I had ever thought about doing xyz in the classroom. I think I took a smidgen too long to answer, because he said, “A perfectly acceptable answer is, ‘No, right now I’m just trying to survive!'” 🙂 It is, in fact, the only answer you can give sometimes, and everyone will understand, because everyone has been there. That’s why no one will really mind if you ask questions. That’s why no one will mind if your courses aren’t perfect that first time out. They know you’re doing your best.

7.) Your colleagues are your lifeline. Maybe you’ve been teaching for a long time already. Or like me, you were hired at the school where you already work. Either way – the learning curve is steep, my friend. I know there will be days when you want to shut your door and have a good cry at your desk. It’s okay. Do it. But don’t do it to the exclusion of have good conversations with your colleagues. I, for one, would not have dared pitch an entirely new degree program to my VP of Academic Affairs last week had my colleagues not pushed me forward. They’ve been there. Done that. And they (probably) want you to succeed.

8.) Keep your nose clean, kid. There are things that just have to be done, and you have to do them. Get grades and attendance in on time. Attend in-service. Don’t skip out on office hours. Answer your students’ emails. GRADE THINGS. Within a reasonable time frame. Attend required training sessions. You don’t have tenure. You don’t get a break. Not yet, anyway. And one more thing:  don’t make more work for yourself than you can handle. You may think that volunteering for this and that will endear you to your school, but – no. You will kill yourself. Just don’t do it. Remember:  survival.

9.) Be kind. Yes, there are deadlines, and yes, the college will back your play if you adhere to them and don’t allow late work. Yes, the student who comes to you during finals week (and you think, wait, are you in my class?) and says “Yeah, I haven’t been here and I haven’t done any of the work but I need to get caught up” is going to be up a creek without a paddle. But the one who has an emergency and can’t get to a final, or turn in a paper on time, needs kindness.

10.) Accept it:  not everything will get done. And I don’t mean at work. I mean at home. I had to choose priorities. Bottle-feeding my surprise kittens was a priority. Continuing to run my vintage shop was a priority. After that . . . let’s just say the house is a pigsty and I haven’t written on my novels in a month. And reading? I wish. My daily walks are just a dream. What will you have to give up? Sleep? Time with your family? Just do me a favor: don’t give up too much. Don’t give up the things that make you, you.

No, the transition is not done yet. Maybe it won’t ever be done, I don’t know. Too early to say. I’m just now beginning to take ownership of my position, to think of myself (sometimes) as ‘not an adjunct.’ And I’m hoping next semester goes easier for me. Hopefully, some of these things will make your first time out easier for you.