When Your College Student Has a Problem with a Professor
Hopefully, your college student has a good working relationship with her class professors. The relationship between a college student and her professors, in addition to the formal teaching done in the classroom, is often an important mentoring opportunity. Of course, having a good relationship doesn’t necessarily mean that each professor will be on your student’s list of favorite people, but hopefully, she has at least found how to make each course work.
But what does your student do if things go wrong with his professor? What if he has a serious problem that seems to be getting in the way of his success in a course? What does he do then? Perhaps he picks up the phone and calls home. This would be a good time to provide that important listening ear, and perhaps some sympathy, but it is definitely not the time to pick up the phone and call anyone at school. This is an important time to help your student think through the situation, consider his alternatives, and create a plan of action.
First of all, realize that this type of very difficult situation is rare. Although not every student/professor relationship is ideal, and some are quite far from ideal, most students and their instructors work through difficulties, or simply wait them out and move on.
However, if your student feels that a problem exists, here are a few suggestions you might help her consider:
- First and most importantly – talk to the professor. Encourage your student not to just grab him after class, but to make an appointment during office hours and have a serious talk. Help your student think about planning ahead of time and thinking carefully about how to explain the problem as she sees it. Encourage her to listen to what the professor has to say from his perspective. Try to work out a resolution. Most problems between students and professors can be worked out at this level.
- If your student feels there is a problem that can’t be worked out, or that is too serious to bring directly to the professor, don’t suggest that he go immediately to the top person at the college. Suggest that he go first to the department or division chairperson and talk. Have him talk to his academic advisor. Investigate whether your school has a Student Advocate or Ombudsman or someone designated to work with students with problems. Finally, if nothing else works, and only after he has exhausted other options, suggest that he make an appointment to talk to the Dean or Provost. (Your student should handle this, not you.)
- Be sure to have your student handle any problems herself. Don’t intervene or call. Your student needs to take charge, take ownership, and advocate for herself.
- Remember that academic freedom means that a professor can determine her own grading system and scale. Your student should not ask someone higher up to ask a professor to change a grade unless he has absolute proof that an error has been made or that discrimination has occurred. These are serious charges and should not be made lightly.
- Remind your student that the term will be over soon. Depending on the problem, your student may need to stick with the course, get it done, and move on. Help him think about how these experiences will help him to make wise choices next term. (Of course, if the problem is extremely serious, such as discrimination or harassment, don’t ignore it. Report it.)
Classroom lessons are, obviously, an important aspect of the college experience. However, in addition to the subject matter lessons learned, your student will be learning important lessons at college about interpersonal relationships, handling conflict and uncomfortable situations, and self-advocacy. Experiences such as dealing with college professors and personnel may be among some of the most important experiences, and provide some of the most important lessons of college.