How to Talk With Your Instructors

A while back I asked some TCL Facebook friends for their advice about how to communicate effectively with professors. Here’s what they (students and instructors) had to say:

I believe the best way to communicate effectively with professors is to think of each teacher/professor as your “partner” in education.

—Connie S.

In the beginning of the semester, don’t assume they know who you are (unless you’ve worked with them before). Profs meet many new students each semester, so when you first contact them be sure to identify yourself and tell them which class you’re in. If you meet with them during office hours and ask questions that show you’re interested in the class, they’ll figure out who you are pretty quickly. In a good way. Also, don’t email a prof and expect an immediate answer. Most profs don’t check their email as often as students do. If you don’t get a response and you need to hear back from her, be respectful in your follow-up email. Remember that your first email may not have reached her, or it may have been deleted in error, or she may have been too busy to check her email at midnight or whenever. Always be respectful; profs are people, too.

—Bette E.

Don’t be intimidated by them; assume they want to see you succeed… which means you have the same goal. That’s the biggest difference between me as a returning adult student and the “kids” in my classes.

—Monica G.

Make contact. Make an effort to show the professor that you have a functioning brain and personality and give him/her a reason to care about you.

—Meaghan O.

I always spoke with them in person, then followed up with an email if needed. It was a good way to remind them and myself of the important points of our conversation (or what still needed to be addressed).

—Alexander P.

Before and after class is a stressful time for many teachers. They often have many students coming at them with questions and they have their own pressures to get to another class or meeting, etc. I always appreciate it when a student takes the time to seek out the teacher in an office hour. I am relaxed and ready to handle what they need.

—Jacqueline D.

Helps to have actually read the material, too.…

—Norman D.W.

Amen. Good teachers are interested in the subject and in students learning the subject. Professors profess. We want to talk to people about our disciplines. In that respect teachers are still students who love to discuss their favorite ideas. Really, I should have put Norman’s quote first. Do the reading, engage your teachers in conversations that have to do with their profession, and not only will you become someone they love talking to, they will do backflips to help you in any way they can, even if—often especially if—you’re having difficulty with the material. We don’t only want to talk to people who are, “Oh, yeah, I get this; it’s easy”; we think the whole world needs to know what we’re professing, and nothing makes us happier than the opportunity to introduce, orient, guide, and support others who want to get in the know.

Nevertheless, approaching a professor can be intimidating. While many professors do possess these qualities in abundance, neither gentle bedside manner nor social grace is a requirement for becoming a teacher. And sometimes a professor and student are just not on the same wavelength. Yet being able to talk to your teachers is a necessary skill. So treat it as a skill.

In her book, Say This, NOT That to Your Professor, Ellen Bremen offers short scripts to help you navigate every kind of nerve-wracking conversation with your teachers, from asking about a bad grade or requesting an Incomplete, to using e-mail wisely and getting extra help. Her book teaches the skill of communicating effectively with teachers.

The bottom line? It’s not generally known, and be careful whom you tell this to, as you might unduly shock someone who isn’t prepared to hear it, but… teachers really are people, too. People who love to talk, who talk for a living.

Talk to them. That’s the way we did it in the olden days.

—Christine M.


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