“Talk with your teacher” is usually advice that parents give to their high school aged student when an academic issue arises. Teens can typically have the following reactions to their parents’ suggestion: they silently agree, then don’t actually talk with the teacher or they protest, with reasons about the teacher not liking them or being unavailable or they’d rather deal with the issue themselves. In either case, parents can experience frustration at the teen’s seeming resistance to confront the academic challenge.
Resolving academic issues can be complicated. First, teens need to identify the issue. Often, I’ll find that the student knows they don’t understand what’s going on in class or are concerned about their test grades, but can’t quite pinpoint the exact missing concept. So, they use that lack of exactness in defining the issue as a reason to not talk with a teacher. Secondly, teens usually prefer turning to friends first for help. Thirdly, teens can be intimidated to talk with teachers. Teachers are seen as authority figures, so asking for help may also seem like being disrespectful to the teacher’s higher position. Plus, teens can sometimes assume the teacher will be punitive if the student asks for additional help, so would rather not put their grade at further perceived risk. Lastly, if teens perceive a personality conflict between themselves and the teacher, the teen may have even less motivation to ask for assistance. Underlying these complexities can be the difficulty of asking for help in the first place–not always easy to humble oneself and admit, “I don’t know.” So, parents–themselves thinking consciously or otherwise about the timeliness of resolving an academic challenges, so as to not lose any future opportunities, as well as being accustomed to playing the intermediary role between child and teacher, yet wanting their maturing offspring to begin advocating for themselves–debate when and how to get involved.
Since each teacher and academic challenge is different, general guidelines for parents to work alongside maturing teenagers to get the academic assistance s/he needs can be helpful. Teach teenagers the difference between being assertive about one’s academic needs and being aggressive with the teacher. Teens can sometimes misperceive that taking initiative means challenging the teacher’s authority. Role play conversations with the teen to help them practice before going to see the teacher. (If teens are resistant to working with a parent, ask a trusted family friend or favorite auntie to help out.) Another guideline is to defy the urge to rush in and contact the teacher without the student first attempting to work with the teacher. High school teachers may expect the teen to contact them first, and may simply refer the parent to have the student contact him/her anyways. Lastly, give the student some space to work through his/her concerns about contacting the teacher for help. The teen’s resistance may have nothing to do with the teacher, but more with wounded pride that s/he cannot resolve the academic challenge on his/her own. For high achieving students, who’re used to being at the top of his/her class, asking for help may be a totally foreign experience. Thus, the role playing/practicing the conversation before hand can help calm nerves and reduce the possible embarrassment of needing help. These guidelines are intended to help parents’ choose their battles wisely and know that any one individual parent is not alone in facing the challenge of helping their teens.
Working through academic challenges can be complicated, yet helpful in the long run for teenagers to learn successful problem solving skills. At the same time, parents are learning to pick and choose the academic “battles” they’ll fight and which to pass for another day. The consistent support and patience of parents can be tested while teens develop their “talking with the teacher” skills and confidence, without much thanks. But, like most people, we appreciate the wisdom of our parents decades later.
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