8 Signs You Should Talk to a Teacher About Your Studies

Talking to a teacher can feel like a last resort when things have gone horribly wrong.
But here’s something that more students should understand: teachers don’t want you to talk to them solely when things have gone horribly wrong. They’d much prefer that you talk to them sooner, before things start to go wrong, so that you can tackle issues before they become major problems and keep your studies on track.
There are good and bad ways to go about talking to your teacher. For instance, if they have set office hours, that’s the best time to go and have a chat. If not, it’s worth talking to them or emailing them, letting them know you have something you’d like to talk about (and giving them a rough idea of what it’s about if you feel comfortable doing so), so that you can arrange to time to talk that suits you both. There’s nothing worse than preparing to get a major problem off your chest only to discover that your teacher has to rush off to a meeting before you get a chance to say anything.
But even if you choose the worst possible time – like their only break of that day when they were planning on having lunch – your teacher will still prefer that you spoke to them about a problem rather than suffering in silence. If any of these problems sound familiar, it’s worth seeing if your teacher is free for a chat.

1. You have too much to do or the work is too hard

A boy stares at his laptop, looking stressed.
The overload might be unintentional, but nip it in the bud.

Possibly the most common reason for wanting to talk to your teacher is that the work that you’re doing feels too hard for you, or like there’s simply too much of it for you to manage in the time. It’s particularly worth talking to your teacher if this is the result of some kind of change, or a clash with your other subjects – such as several teachers setting significant projects to do at the same time. Schools usually try to avoid this kind of clash so that students don’t end up feeling overworked, but sometimes they’ll slip through the net, especially if you’ve chosen an unusual combination of subjects.
It’s unlikely that your teacher will end up giving you less work to do, but they might give you help with the work you find too difficult, or extend an upcoming essay deadline. There can also be times when giving you hard material is unavoidable, and your teacher may be able to reassure you that it’s normal to struggle a little at that stage, but that it will all become clearer as you progress through the course. If it seems like the problem is more significant, they might investigate moving you to a different set if that’s an option in your school. But rest assured that this is a problem teachers deal with all the time, so they should be easily able to help you.

2. You have too little to do or the work is too easy

A girl leans her head in her hand, looking bored.
“So that’s done. Now what?”

A nicer problem to have is when you don’t feel sufficiently stretched in a particular subject, so that you’re doing the work in much less than the time allocated for it, or even getting bored because it’s too easy. Before going to your teacher about this, make sure that it really is a long-term trend, and not just a couple of weeks on a particular topic that you happen to find easy. But if you’ve gone several weeks and the work isn’t getting any harder, it’s time to speak to your teacher about it.
The solutions are often the inverse to the problem of work being too hard. If your teacher agrees that you’re not being sufficiently challenged, they might look into moving you into a higher set, or giving you more difficult exercises in class than they had been doing previously. They might also be able to reassure you that this is a period of laying the groundwork for further study, so it’s normal to find it straightforward, and that the subject will become more challenging later on. Just be prepared that if you go to your teacher with this problem, you should find your work becoming more difficult – so do be careful what you wish for.

3. You’re having difficulties in their lessons for some other reason

A hand holding lots of pencils protrudes from a box.
If your desk-mate keeps stealing all your pencils, it’s hardly conducive.

There are plenty of other reasons to have difficulties in a particular teacher’s lesson that aren’t to do with the difficulty level of the work. For instance, you might have a group project where the other team members aren’t pulling their weight, or a desk partner who constantly comes to you to explain the topic rather than asking the teacher. Your teacher is probably already aware of these things happening, but may not know the extent to which they’re bothering you.
A rule of thumb is that if it’s something that’s making your own work more difficult to complete, then it’s definitely worth mentioning to your teacher even if it seems trivial. You might hesitate to mention something – even if it’s a significant problem – because you’re not sure what your teacher can do about it, but their long experience of education might well translate to being able to think of creative solutions that wouldn’t occur to you; it’s part of their job, after all. And if you do have ideas, don’t be afraid to go to them with solutions of your own; they might end up explaining to you why your ideas aren’t practical, but they’ll undoubtedly appreciate that you made the effort.

4. You would like different feedback

A man writing on papers.
A rushed teacher can give vague feedback, so ask for clarity

We’ve written before about how to interpret essay feedback, but sometimes the problem is not in your ability to interpret the feedback, but in the feedback itself. There are lots of different forms this problem can take. You might have feedback that’s too positive, so you might ask your teacher to be more critical so you know what to improve. Or you might get feedback where the score is high, but the comments are quite negative, and you need more guidance on what it is that you’re actually doing right. Or a very common problem is to need further explanation of the feedback because you simply can’t read your teacher’s handwriting.
It’s asking a bit much to expect that your teacher does a bespoke approach to feedback for your work and your work alone, but it is fine to speak to them and ask how much they can tailor their feedback to your specific needs. For instance, if you’re already set on your university plans, your teacher might be able to give you feedback that relates to the particular subject you’re planning on taking. To illustrate this, if you’re going to be studying Philosophy, your English Literature teacher might focus more on your ability to structure and defend an argument than on your close reading skills.

5. You need accommodations for a disability (even if it’s minor)

A girl struggles to see the board in class.
If you are struggling to see or hear during lessons, it’s time to speak up.

Students often make the mistake of thinking that accommodations for a disability are only available if the problem absolutely cannot be overcome any other way and you have a formal diagnosis to prove it. That can be the case for disability accommodations in formal exams, but it shouldn’t be (and usually isn’t) the case day-to-day in the classroom. In terms of physical issues, you might not be able to see the board from the back of the classroom without wearing your glasses, and you prefer not to wear your glasses all the time. Under these circumstances, it’s perfectly OK to ask to sit near the front instead, even though you don’t technically “need” to.
And that doesn’t just apply to physical conditions. Students with conditions such as autism or ADHD might find that fidgeting, far from being a distraction as it can be for other students, actually helps them concentrate (because they’re not distracted by trying not to fidget). If that sounds like you, it may not matter whether you’ve had a formal ADHD or autism diagnosis; if you think finding a discreet way to fidget (so you don’t annoy other students) would help you concentrate, it’s worth asking your teacher if that would be OK. Ultimately your teacher is likely to want whatever whatever will enable you to thrive in the school environment. They might also be able to talk to their colleagues on your behalf to ensure that you receive the appropriate accommodations in all of your subjects, not just in the lessons they teach.

6. Your experience of their lessons has suddenly changed for the worse

A teacher writes problems on a blackboard.
Maybe his teaching standards have dropped, but be careful how you say so.

“I used to really love this subject but now I’m struggling” is the kind of warning sign that most teachers would like to hear about before it turns into a major problem. Ideally, present this as a problem that’s focused around you, not your teacher; so preferably not, “you used to be my favourite teacher and now I don’t like your lessons”, as that’s not likely to make them feel positive about helping! Of course, it’s useful to them if you can put your finger on the problem – perhaps they’ve changed their approach, you’ve moved to a different set, you’ve moved on to harder or different material, or anything else that marks a clear change – but even being able to identify that you used to enjoy the subject (and their teaching) is useful.
Your teacher, if you explain this to them, may be able to help you figure out what’s changed, and by extension, figure out some strategies to cope. As with many of the above problems, that could be reassurance that things will soon be changing back, or just a bit of additional support to get through a tricky patch before you find your feet again. It may even be that the change is reversible; for instance, you might be able to move back to your old set where you could learn more effectively.

7. You have a personal problem

Two girls lie upside down on the bonnet of a van.
Maybe you’ve just split up with your best friend, and it’s making you miserable.

It’s not just academic problems that you can talk to your teachers about. As a teenager, it’s natural to have things that you don’t necessarily feel comfortable talking about to your parents, siblings or even your friends. A trusted teacher can be a good person to turn to when you need advice or simply a listening ear. It’s worth remembering, though, that there are some things that your teacher will have to tell your parents about, such as suicidal thoughts or self-harm; in some cases this will be a legal requirement, or it may be a school policy. So if you want a conversation to be kept confidential, you should ask first if there are any such topics that your teacher would need to inform a parent or guardian about. After all, you might prefer that if your parents have to hear about it, they hear about it directly from you.  
You should also remember that a teacher with even a couple of years’ experience under their belt is likely to have heard most student problems before, so don’t worry about shocking them. If they do feel that the problem is beyond their knowledge to help, they may be able to refer you to a school counsellor, nurse or someone else who can help you. Sometimes, even if they can’t help, it’s simply reassuring not to be keeping a problem to yourself any more.

8. You really love their teaching

A woman looks through the books on library shelves.
Even your teacher needs to hear when she’s done something right.

Teachers are human beings too, so if you really love a teacher’s class, why not mention it to them? There’s no need to make a song and dance about it, but taking a moment to say, “thanks, I’ve really enjoyed learning about this subject and I really like your teaching style” is likely to make your teacher’s day. You shouldn’t keep saying it all the time, and don’t say it if you don’t mean it, but teachers appreciate this sort of comment more than you might realise. It can also help in the context of going to them with a problem – especially if it isn’t immediately related to their subject – to know that you’re speaking them because they’re someone who you like, respect and trust.
Images: teacher looking through library shelves; girl with textbook in classroom; two girls on van bonnet; teacher marking work; teacher writing on blackboard; hand holding pencilsyoung girl can’t see the board; stressed guy with laptop; bored girl;