Monthly Archives: August 2008

I am a university academic in my 50s. Each year, before the start of the summer vacation, written student comments are submitted to all lecturers. All are anonymous and inevitably some are good, some bad. This year, despite excellent feedback on most courses, one group has written personal and distressing remarks that have left me wondering if I’m in the right job. There is no “right of reply”, and no way of discussing this with the students or finding out which ones are so unhappy. What should I do?
Lecturer, male, 50s

Lucy’s Answer

Unless you want to make a fool of yourself, there is only one thing you can do: nothing. To hunt down your detractors would be hideously embarrassing and would only confirm their dim view of you.

Instead you should try to rub the hurtful remarks from your mind, and stop the pointless agonising over whether you are in the right job. I imagine it is hard enough to keep up morale as a 50-something lecturer – what with the poor pay and the jostling of younger colleagues – without the nasty jibes from students.

Console yourself with the thought that the whole business of teachers being appraised by students is absurd. It is you who is paid to be teaching them and writing reports on them, not vice versa.

In a company there may be some sense in getting underlings to pass judgment on superiors, although most such schemes are badly designed. But to allow students to say what they like anonymously about their teachers strikes me as democracy gone mad.

When I was a student we used to whip each other up into disliking various teachers for mostly stupid reasons. We used to show our dislike of one poor physics teacher by putting crocodile clips on the back of her skirt while she was writing on the board. What your students are doing sounds like a legitimised version of that; you should do what this hapless physics teacher did and simply rise above it.

That doesn’t mean you should ignore all feedback; you should rely on better ways of measuring your worth. Do your students get good marks? Do they appear to be learning anything? Do they listen to your lectures? How many bother to turn up?

These are the things that matter. Whether or not they like you is quite beside the point.

I have been working for a large non-profit healthcare organisation for about a year now. My focus has always been on introducing efficiencies and my work is recognised by the board of directors.  My issue is that some of my colleagues are developing a Pavlovian reaction to everything I say or do and are opposing it on principle. I try to engage them and work with them but they seem threatened by my low tolerance for mediocrity and desire to challenge the status quo. I love my job but fighting them drains my energy and is not sustainable. What to do?

Healthcare director, male, 32

Lucy’s Answer

There are various things here that trouble me. The first is the phrase “non-profit”. The non-profit sector is full of people who are ideologues, unsympathetic to financial realities.

Healthcare is a problem, too, as the culture of suspicion towards managers is strong and deep. So anyone who wants to “introduce efficiencies” in your sector is going to be as popular as a fox in a henhouse.

From the sound of it, though, you are worse than unpopular. If they are opposing everything you say on principle it sounds as if they have come to dislike you with a fervour. And from your description of them, you hold them in contempt, too.

And so who has right on their side? In principle I’m inclined to side with you. I bet changes need to be made and I can believe your colleagues are behaving like babies. Yet the sentence that makes me worry is when you say: “They seem threatened by my low tolerance for mediocrity.” That sounds high-handed and, coupled with the fact that you are quite young, I can see it getting up their noses.

So, here are your options. Try to get one of your supporters on the board to help you force through the changes you want to make. Or try to win them round by behaving differently. This is going to take a lot of time and determination, given how much bad blood there is, and it may not work. You need to listen to them more. You need to try to find some common ground. You need to show them that you respect them (this may be hard, as it seems that you don’t).

There is another option, which might be better. You decide you will never win them over, and leave to work for a private sector company where you will meet lots of others of your own kind.

Dear Lucy

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Lucy Kellaway, FT columnist and associate editor, offers her solution to your workplace problems in a fortnightly column in the Financial Times. In this weekly online edition of her 'agony aunt' column, readers are invited to have a say too. Read more about Dear Lucy here.

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