Talking to the Teacher

At some point in your college career you’re going to have an uncomfortable talk with a teacher. Here’s how to have it successfully.

By Josh Fletcher, University of New Orleans


Talking to your professors is not always the easiest thing to do, especially when you know your they aren’t going to like what you have to say.

Yes, some teachers are overly strict or even flat out unfair. Still, there is a way to talk to your professors more successfully.

Here are five tips for having those tough conversations with your professors.

1. Use “I” Statements

“I” statements are phrases that put all the emotion on yourself. Phrases that start with things like “I feel,” “I need” and “I want ” promote listening and avoid making the other person feel defensive.

Tips for Having Tough Conversations with Your Professors

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By approaching a subject from your point of view, you are inviting your professor to have a glimpse at things from your perspective. Let’s look at some examples.

“I am struggling to keep up with all of my deadlines this semester.” This statement puts the responsibility on yourself. You are struggling; your professor didn’t do anything wrong. Stating things in this manner opens communication, because it is non-combative and invites the professor to discuss your options with you.

“There is just too much work to do before the deadline.” A statement such as this shuts down communication. It sounds like you have already given up, and it sounds like your putting the blame on your professor. This statement is more likely to get you into hot water than it is to get you any help.

2. Be Honest

Your professors have probably been teaching for many years. They’ve heard every sob story in the book. If you’ve messed up, it’s best to approach the situation with perfect honesty. You do not have to incriminate yourself with too many details, but telling your professor the truth of the situation might just save your grade.

Let’s say you failed your test because you went to a party and didn’t study for the test, and you want to ask your professor to let you retake it. Explaining that failing the test was your fault and you have no good excuse will lead to your teacher respecting you more than if you give some lame excuse about your aunt’s cat dying. Let’s check out an example.

“Professor, I feel awful. Failing the test was my fault, and I have no good excuse. This class is important to me, and I need to pass this test to pass this course. Would it be possible for me to retake the test?” Being honest in this manner puts all the responsibility on yourself without giving away too many personal details. Your professor will respect your honest answer and will be more likely to help you out.

“Professor? I’ve had a horrible weekend. My aunt’s cat passed away, and she called me for hours sobbing about it. I was so busy comforting her I didn’t have time to study for the test. Would you let me retake it?” Your professor will likely be insulted by your lame excuse and lose respect for you, as well as being less likely to help you.

3. Learn Good Timing

Having tough conversations with your professor can be scary, but whatever you do, don’t put them off. Your professor is more likely to be forgiving and understanding about problems either immediately after they happen, or well in advance.

The longer you wait, the less likely your professor will be willing to help you.

Another aspect of learning correct timing is knowing when to open a discussion with your professor. The middle of a class or lecture is not a good time to bring up a private conversation. It would be far better to approach a professor immediately after class the day you realize there is a problem. If the professor says they can’t talk right then and rushes out the door, then send them an email as soon as you can and ask to set up an appointment. Respecting the fact that your professor leads a busy life will help you and your professor discuss difficult topics and problems in a less stressed environment. This will give rise to a better resolution for the both of you.

4. Learn to Accept That Sometimes the Answer Is No

Most professors want their students to succeed. While they usually do want to help you, you must realize that they can’t assist you at the expense of their other students or their personal lives. Sometimes the toughest conversations professors have with their students happen when they have to say no.

If you can learn to accept “no” as an answer with grace and humility, your professors will be far more willing to work with you in the future. You will also present yourself in a more mature and professional light. Your professors won’t forget it.

5. Practice Good Listening

Part of good negotiating is good listening. Pay close attention to what your professor is saying to you. Do not interrupt them when they’re talking, and don’t be so focused on what you want to say next that you forget to listen to what your professor has just said.

Tips for Having Tough Conversations with Your Professors

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Your professor will be more likely to help you find a solution to your problems if they feel like you are listening to what they are telling you.

Good listening is a skill. It requires practice, but it is a skill that is vital to your success in school and life beyond the classroom. If you feel like your listening skills need work, then practice in your personal life. Study up on it and work hard to improve. Your professors, your boss, your family and your friends will all thank you.

Having tough conversations with your professors doesn’t need to be intimidating. Use these easy tips in all of your communications to keep the situation relaxed, to make yourself heard, and to allow your professor the space they need to best help you and themselves.

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