How ( not) to Talk to a Teacher

I recently read an article written by a college professor, the gist of which was what professors need students to know when they come to college.  I fully expected to see certain content and skills at the top of his list. Not so. The article read like a basic lesson in manners.  His point was this:  teach them how to talk to a professor.

“Is it that bad?”  I asked myself.  It is.  I teach in a private, college-preparatory Christian school. Our students come from homes where the parents are choosing and paying for a certain type of quality education. One assumes manners and courtesy are taught at home, but maybe the pull of the culture is too strong and when the students come to school and hang around their peers, those early life lessons  are temporarily forgotten, or maybe manners just aren’t being taught any more.

I have two children in college now, and I may be an anomaly; but I have preached the following to both of my children their whole lives.

  •  Respect the authority of your teacher.
  • Be polite.
  • Talk to the teacher.
  • Ask questions of the teacher.
  • Act interested, even if you are not.

Accuse me of teaching them to brown-nose, to politic, to be fakes; it matters not. I’m old enough to know that courtesy, respect, pleasant engaging conversation, and common interest can take you a long way in life, or at least in school.  Since I suspect my grown children have quit listening to me, I now preach this to my ninth graders.

Last spring, a student  entered class complaining about all the test and projects that particular week. She was lobbying me to move a test, which had been marked on the school test calendar for two weeks prior.  Before I could compose a thought in my head to answer her, she was joined by several other students, all talking and complaining to me at once, practically shouting at me.  A mob mentality was beginning. I stood before them feeling under siege in my own classroom.  It’s one of those frozen in time moments in my memory. They think if enough of them talk loudly and longly enough, I will change my mind. 

They have reason to think I’m approachable. I am.  My own daughter just finished her senior year and I have watched her juggle a heavy academic and extra-curricular load for four years.   I know what their lives are like; I realize the students in honors classes are often the busiest students in the school, serving as leaders in the arts and athletics. Still, they signed up for this class.  I have a “No Complaining: You chose to be here” rule for my Honors English students.  I have also moved a test or quiz in the past – so their request wasn’t unfounded; but I did not move that test that day.  Why not? Because  it wasn’t a request. It was an attack. They  were rude and arrogant.

Somewhere the lessons (previously listed) were forgotten. Showing no respect for my position, the students tone and volume was indicative that they saw our relationship as that of two equals.  It is not.  I’m 49 and they are 15, but even if respect for elders is passe’, I know the subject matter; they don’t. Knowledge should be respected, whether you like the person who has it or not.

Not all students are pulled into the vortex of rude, obnoxious behavior. Occasionally, when a student becomes argumentative over something in class ( usually a test question he missed)  and  classroom decorum deteriorates, another student will speak up and say, “Quit arguing with her; she’s the teacher!”  I want to commend that student’s parents; you have trained him well.  There is a way to appeal to the teacher, but that’s another post.

Good teaching is based on relationships and relationships are based on good communication.  Good communication fundamentally requires good manners. So the professor was right, before anything else we have to teach them how to talk to a teacher.

My son, a senior in college, recently said to me, “ You know, Mom,  I’ve noticed if I go by and see the prof and talk about my paper, it seems more likely he’ll bump me up on a paper from B+ to A-.”

I smiled.  He won’t admit it, but he listened to me (or somebody) who taught him how to talk to a teacher.

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3 thoughts on “How ( not) to Talk to a Teacher

  1. Pingback: It’s not You; it’s ITB | This is just to say -

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