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How to Handle a Difficult Dynamic with a Teacher

Navigating challenging teacher-student dynamics is a crucial skill. It’s important to understand your role as a student in learning, adapt to each teacher's style, communicate effectively, and seek feedback for growth. But owning your own success is sometimes easier said than done! This article contains key tips for self-advocacy that will make you a successful lifelong learner.

While some teachers inspire us, understand us and how we learn, and find a way to make even the most mundane content interesting, perfect student-teacher chemistry is never guaranteed.

At some point during your academic career, you’ll probably find yourself in a class where something feels “off.” Perhaps you simply won’t click with the teacher, or perhaps their pacing, delivery, or instructional style won’t work well for you.

It’s not easy when you don’t align well with one of your teachers or feel connected to the course material, but there are things you can do to make the most of a challenging situation.

Understand Your Role as a Student

Learning is a lifelong process, and the vast majority of our learning will take place outside of the classroom. Becoming a good lifelong learner involves knowing what systems, supports, and environments work best for your particular brain.

A good learner knows more about their ideal conditions for learning than any teacher ever can. How could a teacher ever know exactly what you need to optimize your learning, much less what every individual student in their class needs? You have to learn what you need and become a strong self-advocate to optimize your potential for learning in the classroom.

Whether you and your teacher are a great fit or you get stuck with a teacher you don’t like (or who you worry doesn’t like you), you have to own your educational outcomes. When you frame success as your own responsibility, even in difficult classroom situations, you’re able to transition from “this is not fair” to “how am I going to solve this problem?”—a much more productive mindset.

Communicate (with Words and Actions) for Success

Below is a list of tips that should help those with challenging classroom dynamics to better set themselves up for success.

The secret? All of this advice comes down to having the courage and self-awareness to practice stronger, clearer communication skills with your teachers—especially those you don’t “click” with immediately.

1. Study the teacher as much as the subject

Pay close attention to your teachers, particularly when you’re struggling in a class.

You are never taking Algebra or Chemistry, in the abstract. You are taking Ms. Alvarez’s version of Algebra or Mr. Nolan’s version of Chemistry. Even when you are in a class with a prescribed syllabus like an AP class, success in that class will look very different in different classrooms across the country.

Some teachers really care about class participation, while others focus exclusively on formal assessments. Some teachers lean heavily on the required text in the syllabus, while others neglect it entirely. Some love daily quizzes or projects, while others place all the weight on the midterm and final.

To be successful, you have to understand the specific system, the rules and requirements for success, as established by each individual teacher.

2. Listen when your teachers tell you what’s important to them

Teachers will signal, in the classroom, or in the syllabus, how they will assess your performance and what factors matter for success: pay very close attention when your teacher communicates what they value with you. Believe them.

If they value class participation, or timeliness, or creative responses, work towards meeting these expectations. If your learning profile is such that you will require an accommodation or adjustment to be successful, be proactive in discussing that with your teacher and self-advocating.

You don’t need to have a diagnosed disability to receive certain accommodations in a class. Sometimes you simply have to ask for what you need, and it helps to emphasize that you are interested in challenging yourself—simply in a way that is reasonable for your learning profile. Many teachers will want to provide reasonable support to help you succeed.

3. Advocate for yourself with humility and vulnerability

If you find yourself struggling with a class, embrace your vulnerability and admit you are struggling. Abandon the idea that you’ll naturally be a rockstar in every class context. You don’t have to be perfect.

Telling your teacher that you’re having a difficult time, but that you want to succeed, can go a long way.

The ability to ask for help and seek out support when you need it is one of the most adaptive behaviors you can have as a student and an adult. Self-advocacy is gold at every stage of your academic and professional career. And teachers are by and large empathetic.

This comes about from direct conversations with the teacher, affirming your commitment to grow and learn and stretch, but more than your words, this comes from your actions: showing up and taking advantage of every opportunity to succeed.

Show up when additional opportunities exist for learning/reinforcing the material: study halls, tutorial, office hours. Teachers notice this, and this can lead to something of a halo effect when they go to grade your next assignment. They can put you in the bucket of, “this is a kid who really cares about my class,” rather than the bucket of, “this is a kid with a low average who is clearly blowing off my class.” You’ll get better treatment in the former category!

See teacher feedback as an opportunity, not a mark of inadequacy

When you approach your teacher and engage them in a discussion of how you can improve your performance, there’s a good chance they may have direct feedback for you and your work in their classroom.

When a teacher cares enough to give you critical feedback, it means they see potential in you and in your work. It is so easy to take offense at feedback or feel as if it means the teacher doesn’t like you; in fact, it just means they believe you’re capable of even more.

Sometimes teacher feedback may feel off base and disconnected from your personal experience. Without getting confrontational, sometimes it’s important to explain your perspective, to give more context and backstory so the teacher can better understand what’s going on for you.

Own Your Success

1. Additional assignments, extra credit, reweighting of assignments

If you already have some less than stellar performances on graded assignments in the grade book, ask if you can count later assignments more heavily, have later grades replace earlier grades, or supplement with additional assignments (or extra credit opportunities) that could offset the weaker grades. Many teachers will work with a student to create opportunities to overcome early bad grades at the beginning of a semester.

It never hurts to ask, and while some teachers do not make individual exceptions to their syllabus, many will work with a student who is committed to doing better in their class.

Frame the conversation in terms of your ability to learn and master the material, rather than focusing exclusively on the grade. For many teachers, grading is a necessary hindrance, often the least enjoyable part of their job. If you can appeal to your commitment to learning and overcoming challenges, not just protecting your GPA, this may positively influence the outcome of the conversation (and your own learning!).

2. Resourcing up

Apart from showing up to study hall or office hours, look to supplemental resources online—ranging from Quizlet to Khan Academy to YouTube and beyond. Working with a mentor is likely one of the best ways to get through a situation where you are struggling, because they can help you both master the material and strategize for how best to work with the teacher. Contact Client Services to be matched with an expert mentor who can help guide you through any difficult classroom situation.

3. Clarifying when you can’t follow the lecture

You absolutely need to talk to the teacher when you are having trouble following and let them know that you sincerely want to follow the material. Sometimes teachers will share their notes with you, so you will have a written copy of the material they are delivering in class. Other teachers will allow you to record the course lecture and play it back at home, slowed down to a speed you can understand.

The long view: it’s all practice

Learning to deal with a variety of teachers and face academic challenges is good practice for life. You don’t always get a teacher you love, or a supervisor, advisor or boss you love for that matter. Learning how to navigate conflict, resolve tension, advocate for yourself, and recruit additional resources will make you better at school and better at life.