How to Talk to Your Teachers (So They'll Actually Listen!)

What do you do when you're lost on a class assignment? How about when you get back a grade that mystifies you? Do you cringe at the thought of asking the teacher for extra help? Or are you staying after every class to get advice? 

The funny thing about help is that it actually has the power to build relationships in two directions. Sure, it's obvious that the person receiving help feels grateful, but we may forget that the person offering help is also affected. For most of us, the act of helping others makes us more invested in them. We care about their achievements and we root for their success. This means that asking for a teacher's help is not only important for your short-term success with a project, but also for your long-term success and support in the class! 

But there is an important difference between seeking help and acting helpless. Moaning and complaining about a disappointing grade won't build good rapport with your teacher. Neither will breaking down in tears and giving up. You have to approach the situation with maturity and grace, and the best way to do that is to plan ahead and have a strategy. Here are the five secrets every student (and parent!) needs to know about the right way to get help.

1. Speak Up

You might think your teacher knows you are struggling and will approach you. But remember that even though they sometimes have eyes in the backs of their heads, teachers are not mind readers! The first step to getting help is asking for it. Cool fact: Research shows that students who advocate for themselves are actually more successful throughout school and life compared with their peers who don't ask for help. They are more likely to triumph over adversity, be promoted, and be given second chances. Learning to ask for assistance is an important part of your commitment to your own education.

2. Schedule a Conference

Wait for a moment when your teacher is not in the middle of something. Get to the classroom early or stay for a moment after the bell rings. But don't launch into a full conference right then. Instead, ask when would be a time that you could discuss an assignment, a test, or your performance in the class in general.

Scheduling will show how responsible you are. Your teacher will know you are serious when you volunteer to chat during your free period or to arrive early or stay late. Scheduling will also give your teacher a chance to think about the problem and brainstorm some solutions. And when you plan a time in advance, you're much more likely to get your teacher's full attention. She won't be distracted by the fact that she has another period to teach or is late for a faculty meeting.

3. Show Gratitude

Everyone wants an investment of time and effort to be respected, so make sure to thank your teacher for taking the time to meet with you. Gratitude sets the tone for your  conversation: Instead of jumping right in with a complaint or crisis, you are  starting things out on a positive note.

Showing your gratitude is also an easy way to let your teacher know that you take the class seriously and want to do your best. Try something like, "Thank you for making time to go over this assignment with me. I really want to do well in this class, and I know I need to  get a better handle on the content."

Remember, your teacher is an expert in her field. Treat her ideas with due respect, even if you aren't immediately sure how to implement them. Nothing puts a damper on gratitude faster than, "But that won't work!"

4. State the Issue Clearly

Focus on one issue at a time, especially in a class where you are falling behind significantly or are really overwhelmed. Remember that your teacher knows the material well but may not know exactly where or why you are stuck.

You can start by saying what you do understand and then move into one area of difficulty. For example, you might say, "I know that I need to add more textual evidence to my essay, but I'm confused about how to choose it."

Give your teacher a chance to respond to one issue before you bring up another one. It's better to schedule another meeting for another day than to try to cram all your concerns into one conference and run out of time to hear suggestions and solutions. 

5. Focus on the Future

Once you have talked about where you are now--your "stuck" places"--discuss what you would like to achieve in the class. Your teacher can help you set a realistic goal based on your current performance. It might not be possible to get an A on the current unit, but maybe you can aim for a B+ as a goal for the end of the semester.

Don't focus on changing your grade on a current or past assignment or test. Grading is not a democracy, and begging for mercy or throwing a tantrum won't help your cause! Instead, a disappointing grade might be an opportunity to show your maturity: You can say, "I know that this assignment is already graded, but I'm disappointed with my results and I really want to know how I can improve on the next one."

The better you can describe what you want out of your own performance, the more suggestions your teacher can give you. Sometimes it might even be possible to earn extra credit to make up for a botched assignment or test (but don't assume this is the case!). You can ask politely, but if the answer is "No", accept it with grace.

Hearing your goals will help your teacher see you as a serious, dedicated student who wants to work hard and who is invested in the class. She will be much more likely to support you because she sees that you are putting in your best effort!

Building a Partnership

Ultimately, your teachers are there to help you. But teachers work with many students and have a lot on their plates. The best way to build a strong partnership with teachers is to ask them for help directly. Using these strategies ensures that you get the help you need in the most effective way possible because you approach your teachers with respect and maturity. 

Do you have an effective strategy you've used to get help? A favorite question to ask to get good results? Leave it in the comments below!