Lately, I’ve been hearing a common refrain amongst some of my clients to explain why they are performing poorly in a class:

“My teacher sucks!”

Today in my session with Claudia, this was her excuse about her lower-then-expected performance in geometry.

“My teacher doesn’t teach! He just jabbers away at us for the full period, and my brain is too full. I can’t think! He doesn’t give us time to practice what he’s sharing with us!!”

Sigh. Human beings can be so brilliant about what they need — and so blind!

I love that Claudia’s complaint shows a deep and intimate understanding of her own learning process. She wants to get a small chunk of information, and then be allowed to practice that before she moves on to getting larger chunks of information! It turns out that Claudia’s desire (what I might call her “inner authority”) is confirmed by research (which I’ll call “external authority), which suggests that brains take in information in 20 minute chunks.

How wonderful that Claudia knows what she needs in order to learn geometry more effectively! And how disappointing that in THIS teacher’s classroom, she is feeling overwhelmed with too much information.

Does this mean, as Claudia has interpreted, that her teacher “sucks”?

Consider this: I’m less interested in judging the teacher’s methods, and MORE interested in helping Claudia figure out how she can be a better teacher to herself!

Take a look about this conversation that took place during our coaching session:

Gretchen: “So tell me about the test review on which you scored 0/5 points. What happened there?”

Claudia: This was a review for a test. We’re allowed to use our textbooks, but I like to take my reviews the way I’ll have to take the test: cold, without looking things up. I feel like that’s a better way to see how I’m getting the information. But it’s stupid that my teacher grades reviews for the tests. I think they should be assessed without actually being graded!

Gretchen: Great! Yet again, you’re proving how naturally insightful you are about your learning process. Research also shows that the best way to prepare for a test is to simulate testing conditions, so I applaud you for figuring that out on your own.  And yes, it does seem counterproductive to grade what is meant to be a helpful review for a test. However, the reality is that your teacher DOES grade the review. So let’s not fight with reality.  Instead, I’m noticing a potential blind spot in your otherwise excellent process; may I point it out?

Claudia: (looking dubious but giving her assent)

Gretchen: I’m noticing that you waited for your teacher to grade the review; as you tell it, this makes you somewhat of a victim to his decision to grade your review. But there was something else you could have done prior to turning it in, to take the teaching (and the power) into your own hands. Got any ideas?

Claudia (thinking): Can’t say I do.

Gretchen: It occurs to me that you could have taken a few extra minutes to get out your textbook and double-check your answers before you turned in the review.

Claudia: Oh. Yeah. I guess I could have. It didn’t occur to me.

Gretchen: How might this have helped you?

Claudia: Well, I would have been able to catch some of my mistakes, and correct them before turning them in. I would have gotten a better grade…

Gretchen: AND you would have learned the concepts more deeply. When you take the time to teach yourself, you are also strengthening the neural pathways in your brain for this information. So, I’m curious: can you see a reason NOT to try double checking your own work next time?

Claudia: No, I guess not. I do think it’d help. I just never thought about doing it before. I’ll try it next time.

In this conversation, Claudia was willing to admit that she’d had a blind spot, that there was something she could do to support her own learning. This took courage and humility!

So now back to you, dear reader. Next time you think your teacher sucks, try the following simple steps:

First, notice whether your judgment is helping the situation.

Next, look at your own behavior. Is there any way you can shift your process so that you are being more responsible for how you are learning?

Finally, check this out these step-by-step instructions for how to become a better teacher to yourself. It might take a bit more effort on your part, but it also will make you a much more effective life-long learner. You won’t be dependent on teachers to make you learn.  It might even shift your relationship to that teacher; whether or not the teacher “sucks”, you get to learn a lot and make awesome grades in the process.

Photo Credit: From the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.