Being Assertive With Teachers and Professors

I’ve always been a firm believer that the most valuable things a person learns in school (whether primary, secondary, or higher education) are not the facts and concepts of textbooks and exams, but rather, are the more general lessons of learning how to learn and learning how to navigate the world.  A key part of this growth involves interacting with people who may not be acting in our best interest.

Everyone who has attended school for at least a few years knows that teachers aren’t always fair, nor are their actions always constructive or beneficial to the student, even when their intentions are good.  Even the best teachers are still human, and every teacher will invariably put their students in a difficult position from time to time.  What’s the best course of action in such a situation?  I think assertiveness holds the answer.

Two intimidating-looking math guys.

These two guys might teach your classes...and they're sure as hell going to be assertive with you. Do you have the guts to be assertive with them?

From an early age, students are often taught to follow the rules and respect authority.  Unfortunately, at least in most contexts in American society that I have been exposed to, students are usually not taught to assert themselves with authority figures, nor are they taught the subtle distinction between assertiveness and defiance, or between assertiveness and complaining.  I have come to believe that many people, from children to young adults, are given bad advice when they are faced with unfair or sub-optimal classroom situations–advice which can be summed up concisely as “Suck it up and deal with it.”

But such an attitude often contributes to passive and depressed thinking and actions, because it teaches them that they are powerless to solve problems and that they might as well resign themselves to a situation that is not as helpful or beneficial to them (and to everyone) as it could be.  This attitude does not help people to become good leaders, nor does it teach them to work well with people, as equals, subordinates, or superiors.  It avoids teaching a key lesson, which is that when something is wrong, it is best to stand up for yourself within a context of respect for all people, and work together with peers and authority figures to address the underlying problem.

What are some examples of situations in which students need to be assertive with professors or teachers?

These examples all come from my own experience, or from first-hand accounts of people I know directly:

  • A college professor, without any advance notice, emails an assignment to a class at 8PM, and expects it to be completed by 11AM the next morning.  This unusually short time-frame of 15 hours, 8 of which is generally reserved for sleep, gives no room for effective time management–especially given that by 8PM, most people will already have budgeted their time through the next morning already, and a good number might not even check their email till the morning.
  • A high school course which is required for graduation is moving so slowly that it is boring most of the students in the class, and they are not learning much of anything.
  • A course requires the purchase of books costing in excess of $200, but many of the books end up not being used in the class.  This places an unnecessary financial burden on the students.
  • A graduate course assigns homework with a time frame of 5 days from the assignment to the due date.  Some weeks the assignments are diabolically difficult, whereas other weeks, they are trivial.  The inconsistency, combined with the short time-frame of the assignments results in students not having enough time to spend on the more challenging assignments, even if they may have ample time to spend in other weeks.

What do these situations all have in common?  They all involve wasted resources–usually time, but sometimes money–resources which could be dedicated to learning, but are not.  And they are all situations in which a student could be a model student in the sense of being self-motivated, hard-working, and good at time management, and yet the student would still be placed in this sub-optimal situation.  This is where assertiveness is needed.

What is Assertiveness?

Assertiveness is a subtle concept, and is hard to describe.  I like to think of assertiveness as expressing what you want in the framework of respect–which includes both self-respect and respect of the people you are voicing it to.

Assertiveness, Complaining, and Defiance:

If you are being assertive, you will speak up immediately as soon as you realize that you are being placed in a situation or are given rules or constraints that are counterproductive to their intended purpose.  You will voice your concerns directly to the authority figure (here, the teacher or professor).  You will focus on resolving the concern, and you will not question the authority, competence, or intentions of the person who has put you in the difficult situation–rather you will approach the person with the assumption that they are competent and are acting in good faith.  And you will show a willingness to take responsibility.

If you are complaining, on the other hand, you will probably not speak up immediately.  Instead you’ll wait till the authority figure is gone, and then talk about how unfair / bad / wrong it is behind the person’s back.  You may question the person’s intelligence, authority, and good intentions, either in your own head, or openly with your peers.  And yet, in most cases, you won’t take responsibility to rectify the situation in any way.  If you do talk to an authority figure, you will often ask for a freebie, without offering to take on any responsibility yourself.

If you are defiant, you will speak up, and you will question the authority of the person placing you in this situation.  You may deliberately and openly break rules and/or fail to do what you are instructed or expected to do.  Defiance is not always a bad thing, as in the case of well-thought-out civil disobediance, but in the classroom it often not the best course of action.  Sometimes, however, defiance can be constructive in an educational context, such as when you refuse to do an assignment that is genuinely a waste of time–so long as you’re prepared to accept the consequences of your action (such as a zero on an assignment).  I find that defiance is generally constructive when it follows from assertiveness, but is destructive when it follows from complaining.  In a few cases, defiance can flow into assertiveness within formal power structures in an organization–such as recruiting a department chair, dean, or other administrator to resolve a serious problem with a professor, or filing a formal complaint.  In other cases it could evolve into a grass-roots student protest.  But the cases where such actions are necessary are genuinely rare; simple assertiveness can resolve an overwhelming majority of classroom issues.

Does assertiveness harm teachers or professors, or make their lives more difficult?

Absolutely not!  It has the opposite effect! As someone who has taught classes as a full instructor at the college level, I will say that being assertive is probably the #1 thing students can do to make a teacher’s life easier and help the teacher to be as effective as possible.  An assertive student will give immediate feedback if an assignment is grossly too easy or too difficult.  Assertive students will give constructive feedback regarding the scheduling of homeworks, exams, pace of the class, and many other aspects of your teaching.  In short, an assertive student continually guides the teacher by giving feedback about how to help the class learn the most.  And since a teacher’s job is to help the class learn, this is absolutely the most valuable kind of feedback a teacher can receive.

Complaining, however, does make teachers’ lives more difficult, and wastes their time as well.  I made the distinction above between assertiveness and complaining because I want to make eminently clear that I am not advocating complaining to or pestering your teachers or professors.  One of the most annoying and counterproductive things a student can do is to approach a professor complaining that a class is too hard, or that a grade is too low, without taking responsibility for the work and without setting learning as the highest priority.  In general, assertive students rarely focus on grades, except in the rare cases where there is a typo or other straightforward mistake in grading that is easily corrected.  An assertive student may raise concerns about the grading system used, but they will ask questions of a different nature, such as: “How does this grading system set up the best incentive for learning?” instead of: “How can I get as high a grade as possible?”

Assertiveness and responsibility go hand-in-hand:

The first part of being assertive is taking responsibility.  If you’re not doing your work in a class, not doing the assigned reading, or not coming to class and putting out effort to get the most out of it, and you approach a professor wanting something, you’re probably just complaining, and you’ll probably get nowhere–even if the professor’s demands are unfair.  Procrastination can make it hard if not impossible to assert yourself, and causes you to fall into a negative cycle in which the class isn’t working for you and you’re struggling to get by at a marginal level.

Two students paying attention in class

Paying attention in class is a prerequisite to being assertive.

On the other hand, being assertive can actually make it easier for you to be responsible.  The conflicts and situations that I gave as examples above are all ones that demand assertiveness, and that make the student’s life unusually stressful or difficult if the students do not assert themselves.  Just as responsibility is a prerequisite for assertiveness, assertiveness makes it easier to take responsibility.

An assertive student who consistently demonstrates a willingness to take responsibility will often find that professors are more than willing to change due dates on assignments, even change dates of exams, change the pace or format of class, or make other substantial adjustments.  Why?  Because the professor knows that these students care about learning, and aren’t just asking for a handout.  An assertive student tweaks the class to make it as easy as possible to learn as much as possible–which is not the same as trying to make it as easy as possible to get the highest grade.

What can you do?

  • If you’re a student, start by staying on top of your classes and approaching them sincerely.  Go to class, pay attention, do the assigned reading and homework.  When a situation arises that puts you in a difficult or uncomfortable position, assert yourself immediately, by a brief question or comment in class, by email, and/or by talking to the teacher or professor outside of class time.
  • If you’re a teacher or professor, make an effort to teach your students to distinguish between assertiveness and complaining.  Encourage the assertiveness and shut down the complaining.
  • If you have friends or family who are students, help them to understand the distinction between complaining and assertiveness.  Do not allow your friends to ramble on with complaining rants or sweeping negative statements about a teacher or professor; instead snap them out of it and, if they seem to have a legitimate concern that demands assertiveness, encourage them to go to the professor or teacher directly to express their concern.
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4 Responses to Being Assertive With Teachers and Professors

  1. Melanie says:

    I completely agree with you about being assertive. This is something I wish someone had taught me at a much younger age.

    I have a few questions, though.

    Why do you emphasize assertiveness as an immediate reaction? I think there’s a good answer to this, as someone who has only had about two immediate reactions to things in my entire life, I have trouble finding it. Teachers are often offended by assertive comments that aren’t carefully thought out.

    Also, your ideas of how to be assertive make sense in college, but what about a situation where you have no choice about being in school, such as elementry school?
    Is assertiveness always the right reaction when you have no power? Should someone sincerely try to stay on top of class they genuinly don’t want to take?

  2. Alex Zorach says:

    Hi Melanie; thanks for your comment!

    I think that teachers rarely react negatively to assertive comments–they react to complaining, insulting, or aggressive comments. I think it’s pretty easy to gauge whether your comment is genuinely assertive and not any of these other negative things by thinking about how you feel when you imagine saying it, before you speak. If you feel frustrated or angry, then you’re in danger of making a complaining, insulting, or aggressive comment and it might be best to hold your tongue. If, on the other hand, you feel level-headed, and you are still fully respecting the teacher in their role of authority, and you are simply making a useful observation or providing valuable feedback that will help them be a more effective teacher, then it’s fine to turn off the filter and just speak your mind.

    People can talk at length about the details of word choice but I find that the words chosen follow from the intention. I think the reason that people struggle with being assertive is that, on some level, they don’t respect themselves and they don’t respect the teacher fully. If you believe that you deserve the best possible classroom instruction, and that the teacher is capable of delivering it, then you will not react negatively, but rather, will simply guide the teacher into delivering the best instruction for you and for the other students.

    As to elementary school, that’s a tough question. Most kids at that age are not sophisticated enough intellectually or mature enough emotionally to fully grasp all these concepts. But they can still be taught basic things about being respectful and assertive, from a very early age.

    Unfortunately, the school system isn’t always designed to encourage assertiveness in students–in many cases it promotes passivity. What’s the appropriate response? In some cases, being quiet and just getting by might be the best choice, but in other cases, respectful defiance is warranted. The key though is to be respectful and positive. As a parent, I would want to teach my child to be respectful and positive as much as possible–and if they turn out to be outright defiant, then so be it, so long as they’re staying respectful. I’m not going to teach my kids to follow rules, I’m going to teach them to question rules, but I am going to work to help them to be as respectful and positive as possible at all times.

    As to your last question, should someone sincerely try to stay on top of class they genuinly don’t want to take? That’s a different question, I think. It really depends on the situation; I’ve been in that situation, and honestly? I don’t have a problem with eeking by, if you consciously decide it’s the best choice.

  3. Melanie says:

    I’m still thinking this over.

    You said that when someone is being assertive, they’re “still fully respecting the teacher in their role of authority.”

    I think I’m having trouble understanding what authority means here. There’s a whole range of meanings, from, “The teacher is always right,” to “If I shout at them too much, they could fail me.”

    Obviously, the ideal is somewhere in the middle, but it’s important to know what exactly the boundaries are, since being assertive generally involves not crossing them. What sort of authority should be given to a teacher in their classroom?

    I usually feel that if I question a teachers methods at all, I’m crossing a boundary. In my experience, they react that way. If I’m too careful of that boundary, they don’t get the hint, and try to explain to me how to do the homework I’m having trouble with.
    There are some wonderful exceptions who react well when I’m assertive, but they usually set up their class so I don’t have to be in the first place.

    Any suggestion?

    • Alex Zorach says:

      Apoolgies for the very slow reply..

      By respecting the teacher’s authority, I don’t mean treating them as if they are “always right”, only that they are in a recognized position where they are presumed to have knowledge and experience that greatly exceeds the student. So for example, if you’re thinking to yourself: “This teacher is completely incompetent.”, even if you don’t say that, you’re probably not going to be respecting their authority when you talk to them.

      What I think is a healthier approach is to think: “This teacher has a lot more knowledge of the subject than I do, and has taught a lot of students over the years. It is possible that they understand a lot of things about this situation that I do not.” — and then to assert yourself within this framework. Voice your own needs, but when the teacher does not agree, listen to what they say. Listening to them does not mean blindly agreeing.

      If you are fully respectful to a teacher, and the class is still not working for you, and you talk to them about it and they get offended, then that is their issue, not yours. In some cases like this, it might be appropriate to involve an administrator or outside authority, or at least, come back to talk to them on another day if they simply got upset. But I do think that these situations are very rare. It’s hard for me to give more specific advice without knowing about a specific situation.

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