Although teachers and students are often doing their best, 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 don’t click with the teacher, or perhaps their pacing, delivery, or instructional style do not work well for you.
It’s not easy when you don’t feel connected to your teacher or the course material, but there are things you can do to make the most of a challenging situation.
Learning is a lifelong process, and the vast majority of our learning will take place outside of the classroom. Becoming a stronger lifelong learner involves knowing what systems, supports, and environments work best for you.
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.
Regardless of whether you and your teacher are a good fit or not, 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.
Communication is Key
Below are a few 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.
What are the teacher’s expectations?
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 what your teacher expects from you and never hesitate to ask for help.
Advocate for yourself
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. Teachers understand that students will struggle. Part of their mission is to challenge you.
Self-advocacy comes from direct conversations with the teacher, affirming your commitment to learn and challenge yourself. More importantly, this commitment comes from your actions: asking for help and taking advantage of every opportunity to succeed.
Take advantage of additional opportunities for learning/reinforcing the material: study halls, tutorial, office hours. Teachers will notice and appreciate the extra effort that you are making. Meeting one-on-one with a teacher also allows your teacher to better understand your learning style.
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, 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.
3. Clarifying when you can’t follow the lecture
You absolutely need to talk to the teacher when you are having trouble following in class and let them know that you are struggling with 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 overcome academic challenges is good practice for life. Successfully navigating conflict, resolving tension, advocating for yourself, and recruiting additional resources are not only essential for success in school, but also for success later in life.
Summit is here to help. Our expert tutors can help you stay on track with your classes so you maximize your learning this year. Call us at (800) MY-TUTOR or schedule a call to speak with one of our Program Directors who can help map out an academic tutoring plan that will work best for you.