How to Help Your Teen Have the Best Relationship They Can With Their Teachers
A few months into her freshman year, Emma's grades began to slip. She was typically an A and B student, but the transition to the high school where I work as a school psychologist was tougher than she had expected. Her parents couldn't figure out what was causing the decline in her grades or what to do about the problem. School had always come so easy to Emma. She was involved. She had a great group of friends. So, what was the real problem?
In my conversations with Emma, I discovered that she was a bright girl, but her classes were difficult, and she was outright terrified to talk to her teachers. When she had a question about something that her teacher was explaining in class, Emma would look around the room and think to herself, "I can't ask her a question, everyone will think I'm stupid." When I relayed this information to her parents, they didn't understand why Emma would have a hard time talking to her teachers.
"As adults it seems obvious to us that if a student needs help, going directly to the source (the teacher) is the best solution. Teens don't see it that way," says Koli Stefanos Storer, a guidance counselor at Notre Dame-Cathedral Latin School in Chardon, Ohio.
The truth is that talking to teachers is actually pretty complicated for some teens. They are fearful of what others think about them, they don't want to be seen as a burden, and they aren't as comfortable with face-to-face conversations as many adults are. (Yes, I blame social media for that one.)
Kristina Dooley, founder and educational consultant at Estrela Consulting, where her team of college advisors helps families navigate through the college search process, notes how important it is for teens to learn good communication skills and high school offers the perfect opportunity for them to do that. These skills are also critical for the next chapter in their life.
"When students begin college, it's common for them to struggle with self-advocating because they've not yet mastered the skill of conversation with adults," says Dooley. "If teens have learned how to appropriately communicate with the adults in their lives, they will be much more likely to reach out for help before their academic struggles spiral out of control in college."
The good new is, for most teens, communication becomes easier each year. "In my experience, as students approach their junior year, they generally begin to open up more and develop relationships with their teachers. They understand the value in seeking their expertise and utilizing their teachers as a resource," says Stefanos Storer.
But parents can certainly help their teen feel more comfortable talking to their teachers. Here are some of my favorite and effective "teen-friendly" strategies:
Meet them where they are. For some teens, it's difficult to make eye contact or even say hello to adults. For others, they can engage in casual conversation, but have a hard time asking questions. Determine where on the spectrum your teen falls, so that you can help them take that next baby step. For example, start with an email if your teen seems stressed about face-to-face conversations.
Encourage the buddy system. It's OK if your teen wants to bring a friend with them to talk to their teacher. It can feel less intimidating if they aren't the only one in the room with the teacher. It's the same idea as getting a workout partner. The accountability and support are invaluable. And during the pandemic when face-to-face meetings aren't possible, you can offer to have a parent sit in or nearby for a virtual chat with a teacher.
Prepare questions ahead of time. Many teachers get frustrated when teens say they "Just don't get it." Help your teen identify their specific question or the part where they get stuck ahead of time. For example, "Can you help explain when to use the quadratic equation?" is much better than, "Can you explain chapter three?"
Arrange a time to talk to the teacher. Have your teen email their teacher to ask when they are available to meet—that means virtually during the pandemic. This avoids your teen thinking they are a burden or that the teacher is too busy since they have arranged a convenient time that works for both of them.
Practice the conversation. I know, this is the part where your teen rolls their eyes, but giving them the language to use and asking them to put it in their own words will prepare them for the real dialogue.
Prepare them for the "What ifs." This is a game changer for teens because it allows the potential unknown to become a little bit less scary. What if your teacher says this? Or that? Walking through how the conversation may go will help them be more prepared.
Not only will these tips help your teen have successful conversations, but they will also prepare them for the future. Whether it's a college interview, internship, or future job, these are skills that your teen will use for the rest of his or her life.
Natalie Borrell, Ed.S., is the founder of Life Success for Teens. She has more than 10 years of experience working as a school psychologist and an academic life coach. Her areas of expertise include working with students who have ADHD, executive functioning weaknesses, and other learning differences. When she is not coaching students, Borrell can be found traveling with her family or reading cookbooks.