The importance of direct communication in a school setting

How students navigate engaging in conversations with their teachers

“I went to go talk to [this student who was] missing a bunch of homework. And I was about to go through my whole spiel about why they should do their homework. [But] I saw something on their face and I just shut my mouth. I was like, “Can you tell me what’s going on?” And of course, they tell me the whole story about some personal problems they were having … at home, and how that made it really difficult for them to focus on [homework]. And I was so glad I shut my mouth and just listened. That’s always been a lesson to me — students are much more likely to want to communicate with me if I give them some space and actually listen, and not just have it be one-sided.”

Biology teacher Lora Lerner acknowledges that for a lot of students, their teacher is not the first person that they would go to about personal matters — they would rather talk to their friends or parents. But for some students, they actually prefer going to their teacher, because it’s not their parents but they still receive adult input. In those cases, she focuses on building some level of trust with her students so they are aware that she is going to be on their side and try to help them sort out their problems.

Although sometimes hesitant about communicating with those she isn’t already close to, junior Anusha Sainarayanan often enjoys having conversations with her teachers because they help her view them “as friends rather than adults.” She tries to ask school-related questions during class and tutorial as she doesn’t want to utilize her time unwisely, but outside of class, she prefers talking to teachers about their lives to “get to know them better.”

“I [want] to know my teachers, especially because I’m spending so much time with them. As of today, I literally had a conversation with my teacher, and she was telling me about her high school experiences with her teachers, because she also went to Monta Vista. So most of the time, [the conversations are] not school-related, which I think is really valuable.”

Senior Shalini Krish was also initially apprehensive about communicating with her teachers, but has been able to build up the courage to do so. She claims that this has not only helped her redeem points and understand her mistakes, but approach her studies in a more efficient way.

“I forgot to turn in this lab for [Ms.] Moore, and I talked to her and she said she would give me half credit. And I was like, half credit is a lot off. And then I tried communicating with her because if I were a ninth grader or 10th grader in her class, I would have left and I would have accepted the five out of 10. But I feel like, being a senior, I’ve got the courage to be like, ‘Well, is there anything else I can do?’”

“And it actually worked in my favor because she was like, ‘Alright, if you bring your lab notebook during lunch…’ because I left it at home, ‘Then I can give you full credit, if your [work] is good.’ If I had gotten a five out of ten, my grade would not be where it is right now. That was a positive experience because I realized that if you communicate with your teachers, you can get what you want, or at least some compromise that might benefit you.”

Krish states that, from personal experience, she believes it’s difficult for many students to communicate with their teachers because they view their teachers as authority figures, rather than mentors who are there to provide guidance.

Lerner agrees, asserting that because of the relative position of teachers and students and the pressure associated with grades, it’s inherently intimidating for students to reach out to and communicate with their teachers. Therefore, she keeps this in mind when coming up with a method of communication that works for both her and her students.

“I’m just some stranger at the beginning of the year, and it takes time to build up the familiarity, the trust, the comfort level. I think students start to see me as someone who [has] their best interests at heart. Even when I’m telling them something they may not want to hear, it’s coming from a good place — I want them to improve and be stronger. As the year goes on, students tend to be more comfortable coming to me either with academic or personal things.”

“But I think that’s not a teacher thing. That’s a life thing. The more we trust people, the more we feel like we’re gonna get a reasonably OK reaction if we tell them something hard. If you think somebody is gonna jump down your throat, you’re not going to tell them stuff. But if you feel like somebody might actually listen and care, you’re more likely to open up.”

Sainarayanan feels that having conversations with teachers offers insight into their character and helps her understand their perspectives more. She also feels that a more informed perspective of a teacher’s viewpoint can help dispel surface level assumptions about them and their actions, which can foster closer relationships between teachers and students.

“If you’re not as close to the teacher, it might be harder to talk to them because you don’t know how they’re gonna react. [You don’t know] if they’re gonna support you, or tell somebody else or just be like, ‘Oh, I get you, but I can’t really do anything about it.’”

Krish concurs, stating that many students who have preconceived notions about their teachers resort to other, less effective mechanisms than direct communication.

“A lot of students find roundabout ways to do well in their subjects, rather than talking to the teacher. I feel like s— talking [your teacher behind their back] is just… useless because it’s not going to change anything. Number one, the teacher is not going to hear or if the teacher hears it, they’re not going to do anything. If you have a problem with a teacher, you should confront them — in a respectful way, of course. And if you say it in a polite and more constructive way, they’re probably more than willing to fix it.”

Lerner believes that it’s crucial to be explicit about social emotional learning and communication in school because if “we aren’t, we won’t do it.” Lerner feels that it is necessary to learn how to navigate difficult conversations, not only for students and teachers, but for everyone.

“Everybody has a hard time having difficult conversations. Our parents have a hard time [because] they weren’t taught a lot of good communication skills. So when we talk to our parents, it’s challenging. When I talk to my colleagues, it can be challenging. I see a lot of young people with friend drama, where you can tell they aren’t even willing to sit down with their friend and have that conversation. I think it’s a wider problem [that] we’re not trained at all as human beings to be good communicators. I believe we have to make a conscious effort — it will not happen on its own.”

Music Credits | Floating in the Air by Adi Goldstein