One of the most common complaints I hear from my students is that their teachers are awful – “All she does is read off her PowerPoints and make us copy notes. We don’t learn anything in class!” or “He’s so mean. He took off points on my paper because he doesn’t like me.”
The truth is that every student will encounter difficult instructors in high school and beyond, whether you go to school in Northern Virginia, Charlottesville, or anywhere else. Sometimes it’s a simple personality conflict between teacher and student. Very rarely, a teacher is just plain mean—when I was in high school, one physics instructor made his students build elaborate roller coaster replicas from popsicle sticks then “tested” each model’s stability by smashing it with a hammer. But regardless of your situation, here are a few tactics that can help students navigate through challenging academic waters:
Simple and concrete, this tactic plays into a larger goal that is absolutely critical to doing well in tough classes – building a relationship with the teacher. This habit will also be useful down the road in college where professors get even less in-class time to connect with students. Going to office hours isn’t about manipulating your way to an A+ (“Wow, your smooth jazz collection is so cool, Mr. Burns!”) but showing commitment and learning the unique habits of your teacher. It’s always best to arrive with specific questions about the class material, but if you just want to get to know your teacher, you can try some of these conversation starters, which, although written for college students, can also work well for high schoolers.
“One of my students really struggled when he had to read The Epic of Gilgamesh, ancient poetry that he thought was just like his teacher – epically boring.”
Last year, one of my students from Langley really struggled in Freshman English, especially when he had to read The Epic of Gilgamesh, a 40-page piece of ancient poetry that he thought was just like his teacher – epically boring. Their final project was a 5-page analytical paper, and he went to visit his teacher the week before it was due to review his rough draft. Once he arrived, the teacher essentially graded his rough draft in front of him, then handed it back for corrections before he officially turned it in. Did the teacher get more exciting after that? No. But my student did get a better grade than he would have without extra help.
I saw his paper both before and after he visited his teacher one-on-one, and the largest difference in the paper’s structure was the way he argued two of his points. We’re talking small changes here, like “Gilgamesh’s epic flaw was arrogance” versus “Gilgamesh’s epic flaw was hubris.” Those are synonyms! The student not only got useful grammatical feedback but also learned that his teacher was very particular about her students’ phrasing. Two birds, one stone – meet with your teachers.
I’ve found that many students with difficult teachers don’t know what their teachers expect – they don’t know which topics will be on the test, the frequency of their quizzes, or exactly why their English teacher cares so much about those stupid apostrophes (Jones’, Jone’s, or Jones’s … they look so similar). One effective way to to understand what a teacher wants is to examine where you’ve gone wrong.
One of my McLean Algebra students and I did this recently with a quiz he took in class. We prowled each page for errors and found that many of the points he lost were due to formatting; his teacher asked for answers to be written in numerical order, a prompt which the student ignored. Now he knows the teacher is a stickler for style – no more skipping the prompts.
Reworking incorrect problems is also a great way to learn the style and difficulty of a teacher’s tests and quizzes. If you’ve ever taken a test and been blown away by how different it was from what you learned in class, you’re not alone. My students frequently tell me about the mismatch between what they are asked to study and what they are tested on. Even though you may feel there’s no way of knowing what to prepare for, don’t take this as an invitation to give up. Instead, see if you can find a pattern between the test and your notes. You may be surprised to find that you have, in fact, seen those difficult problem types before in some obscure slide or worksheet. This knowledge will help you prepare more thoroughly next time around and improve your score. Reworking challenging material also has the added benefit of increasing your ability to recall information in the long haul – scientists have proven it!
Although you may disagree with your teacher’s attitude or feel lost by his or her way of explaining topics, your average high school teacher can only test you on a limited amount of information, most of which has been standardized across the state. For this reason, a subject matter expert can be a huge help in overcoming the strange habits of your instructor. Many schools have peer tutoring services which your guidance counselor can direct you to – these are a great option if you like to work with other students who are only a year or two removed from the classes you’re taking. If you choose to go the private route, look for a service with both knowledgeable instructors and familiarity with your school and teachers. Again, knowing the teacher is half the battle.
GLC employs tutors with strong subject knowledge and local expertise, making us a great fit for those looking for tutoring in Northern Virginia and Charlottesville. We have been providing comprehensive subject help for students from McLean and Great Falls for over 16 years, which means that when you talk about that challenging Chemistry teacher at your school, we know who you’re talking about. We would love to help you achieve your goals, just as we’ve helped so many others before you!
Senior Associate Director
Georgetown Learning Centers
Have your kids complained about tough classes and teachers? How have you addressed these complaints? Share in the comments below.