Some teachers inspire us, understand us and how we learn, and find a way to make even the most mundane content interesting. But this kind of student-teacher chemistry is not universal.
At some point during your academic career, you may find yourself in a class taught by a teacher with whom you simply don’t click. Perhaps their pacing or delivery or instructional style doesn’t work well for you. Or the format and structure of the class proves challenging. You may struggle to make sense of the course content or stay engaged in the class.
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
In my philosophy of education, teachers are primarily facilitators for learning who set the stage and context in which learning can occur. They are not there to fill up students, empty vessels, with their knowledge. The teacher is there to assist and facilitate learning, but it’s incumbent upon the student to find a way to learn the material, regardless of the dynamic/fit/chemistry/connection with the teacher.
Learning is a lifelong process, and the vast majority of our learning will take place outside of the classroom, decoupled from the realm of formal instruction. Becoming a good learner involves knowing what systems and supports and environments work best for your particular brain with its unique characteristics, inside and outside of the classroom.
A good learner knows more about their ideal conditions for learning than any teacher can ever know. How could a teacher ever know exactly what you need to optimize your learning, much less what every student in their class needs? Neurodiversity is real. 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 (perhaps they don’t seem to like you, or you have a hard time understanding them), 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 built from many years of my real experiences with students 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
I encourage my students to pay close attention to their teachers, particularly when they are 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 often share their values with you. If you understand what a teacher values, you have a much better chance of succeeding in their class. Ignoring their values can come at a price.
Years ago, I made a strategic error in college when I didn’t take one professor’s values seriously. She had a policy that if you walked into her classroom late twice, you were getting a B for the semester. Long story short: I got a B in her class, in spite of my solid A average on assignments and assessments. I ignored one of her chief values, promptness/respect for her time, and paid the price.
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 this information to 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.
My colleague knows an incredibly successful and brilliant entrepreneur who happens to be dyslexic. He shares the story of how he navigated advanced literature classes in high school and college. As those classes often required long written assignments and writing was not his strongest skill, he would approach his teachers at the beginning of the semester and ask if they would be open to some portion of his literary analysis being performed as an oral exam, where he could speak his thoughts and insights rather than express them in writing. He always made a point to explain that his goal was to challenge himself and have the opportunity to share his insights. While different teachers allowed the accommodation to varying extents, they all appreciated his proactive interest in doing his best and taking ownership of his own learning.
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. 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, admit you are struggling, and slough off the burden of having to be a perfect student for whom everything comes easy. Move beyond any self-imposed shame for your humanness and abandon the idea that you’ll naturally be a rockstar in every class context. Where did that idea come from anyway?
Change gears and own the struggle: “I’m having a hard time.” And then talk to your teacher. “I’m having a hard time, and I really want to do well in your class: it’s important to me, and I need some help.”
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. Most of them will work with you when you signal that you care about their class, learning the material and succeeding.
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, 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 feedback comes, do your best to let down your defenses and find something true in what they are saying, even if you don’t agree with everything they have to offer. Critical feedback may help you in their class and even beyond.
Looking back at my life, I’m most grateful for the teachers who took the time to give me critical feedback. They didn’t have to, but they cared enough to. And ultimately it helped me.
When teachers see you are responding to and integrating their feedback, they feel good and feel like they are having an impact. Teachers typically love seeing student effort, change, and growth.
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. A dialogue can emerge that is beneficial.
As strange as this sounds, the teachers with whom you work through conflict may end up, over time, becoming your favorite teachers. You form a different kind of bond with a teacher when you work through conflict. I’ll never forget my 8th grade English teacher who gave me my first F, and demanded more from me. He challenged me and ultimately made me a better writer, for which I am eternally grateful.
Own Your Success
1. Additional assignments, extra credit, reweighting of assignments
If you already have some less than stellar performances on graded assignments/assessments in the semester 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—and in my experience, the majority—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 focus 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, you may find there are other resources available to you through your school’s tutoring or academic support center. Look to supplemental resources online—ranging from Quizlet to Khan Academy to YouTube and beyond. If you have exhausted the resources provided by your school, outside private tutoring has helped thousands of students make their way through challenging classes.
3. Clarifying when you can’t follow the lecture
I’ve had several students, especially college students, who struggled to understand their teacher and consequently struggled with the material covered in class. 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.
4. If things are truly untenable, don’t be afraid to withdraw from the class
When the struggle is so great, and a single course demands so many resources that it throws off the school/life balance, it’s not unreasonable to consider a pivot. Over the years, I’ve had numerous students struggle with a particular class and finally resolve to withdraw and take the course later, over the summer when academic demands are lighter, or at a different time with a different teacher. This has been a successful strategy and helped numerous students keep their mental and physical health as well as their GPA intact. Consider this a strategic pivot, rather than the waving of the white flag of surrender — a demonstration of flexibility and adaptation, rather than failure.
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.