Help! My teacher doesn’t understand me: How to get support & extra help in school

January 14, 2021

No one likes feeling overwhelmed and confused, and the very nature of virtual learning can make this so much worse for students. Never fear! In this post, we’ll tackle how to ask for help in challenging classes, how to get the answers kids need, and above all, how to turn academic struggle into success.

Easier said than done, right? 

Of course, but that doesn’t make it any less important. I’ve experienced this both as a student and from the teacher’s desk. 

I’ll never forget the anxiety of nearly failing a high school math class. Paralyzed with worry, I (in true high school student fashion) procrastinated until the stack of botched quizzes and mystifying, incomplete homework piled too high to ignore. I finally approached my teacher for help, and I cannot overstate how glad I am that I did. 

Mrs. Guda (yes, like the cheese, she owned it), one of the most outstanding educators I’ve ever met, held office hours after school and during lunch, and I became a frequent flyer. 

It paid off. 

When I left the midterm exam in a ball of nerves, she emailed 20 minutes later to congratulate me on my B- score—basically the equivalent of an Olympic gold medal at the time, and a far cry from the precipice of actual failure. 

Looking back on my own teaching experience, plenty of student success stories like this come to mind. But honestly, the ones that stick with me most are those who didn’t turn things around. 

I still think about what I could have done differently for those kids. I do wonder, though, if a better unit plan, more patience and practice, or increased differentiation would have been the real game-changer in every case. 

Although any teacher worth their salt works hard to ensure their students’ success, that isn’t always enough. Learning is a two-way street, and sometimes, that means asking for help.

Self-advocacy is as vital a skill as any that make an official appearance in K-12 curriculum. Mrs. Guda’s tutoring sessions wouldn’t have benefitted a single student if no one showed up, after all. 

My takeaway is this: when done right, asking for help never hurts. 

In fact, taking that first step will almost always improve the predicament. Not all teachers are rockstars, and students and educators alike have their good days and bad. So, let’s dive into the best way to ask for (and get) the help students need under (almost) any circumstances. 

How to ask teachers for help

If you’re reading this, I imagine you might be a parent, teacher, or a student yourself. For the purposes of this guide, I’m going to use student-centered language because they belong in the driver’s seat of this process, though a little help is always welcome along the way. More on that later. 

With that in mind, let’s walk through six easy steps to getting your student help from their teachers! 

Step 1: Take a deep breath

Really, I’m serious! Do not underestimate the power of taking a moment to chill; students will be better able to assess and address the situation once they do. 

Struggling in school can seem like the end of the world, so it’s important to have them take a step back for perspective. I won’t pretend there aren’t high stakes involved at times (my graduation from high school was on the line). However, the situation is never so dire that students can’t afford a 2-10 minute mindfulness break; here is an excellent resource to get started with those. 

If the issue is both with a teacher and their subject, this step is even more vital. Interpersonal relationships can be just as challenging as academic content. If you’re feeling like a teacher has taken a “I just don't like you” stance with your student, or is being unfair, I’m so sorry to hear that! Take a few minutes to center so you can approach a solution calmly. 

Step 2: Gather resources 

Do this in a timely manner, and you’ll already be on the road to success. The best time to ask for help is not Final Exam Eve or report card season, but rather as soon as a problem is identified. Lead time is crucial in moving towards a positive outcome.

Once done, have your student gather all the information they can about what they’re struggling with and they might be able to address it. Here are a few good places to start:

-Examples of work to be improved. Strive for specifics (Ex: specific quiz questions, parts of a homework assignment, or a particular project). I know “all of it” might seem confusing, but really try to have students pinpoint where they’re stuck, even if it’s in multiple places. They’ll get better assistance as a result! 

-Have students find out when/if their teacher holds tutoring and mark their calendar accordingly, just in case.  

-Have students find out if there are additional academic support resources at your school or school district.

-Have students identify parts of a typical class session that they find challenging. I recommend writing these down somewhere they can easily reference—they’ll thank themselves later. 

-Research a few supplemental resources outside school that could help right away. There are lots of great online tutors and content-specific strategies that could assist in the short term. 

-This is a great stage to get involved as a parent or trusted adult. You’ll be able to help students find what they need and prepare them for the next step. 

Step 3: Make a plan

This plan should be geared towards your student’s future in so-and-so’s class or particular subject generally. I’ve been on both sides of tough conversations about changing grades/decisions; this post is not geared towards those scenarios. 

Let’s look ahead to the bright future! 

Have your student make an action plan centered around what they can do to turn things around with their teacher’s help. Maybe it’s attending a virtual tutoring session once per week, setting up a 1-on-1 Zoom to talk things through, or asking for supplemental practice exercises. Have them use the resources gathered in Step 3 to decide what’s right! 

Next, have them run the plan by someone they trust (preferably you or another adult, though speaking with a peer in their class is a bonus); they may have feedback to make the plan even better. 

Using a goal-setting format like the SMART method can be hugely beneficial here (check out our recent blog post on goal-setting for kids for this for more). 

Step 4: Communicate your action plan

This step will set things in motion and should involve your student's teacher. 

It’s always nice to have your student give their teacher a heads up in person that they’d like some extra help, but in a world of virtual school and especially tight schedules, an email sent during school hours is probably the best way to communicate the proposed plan. 

Here’s a template to help them with this step:

Hi, [Teacher Name],

I’m struggling with [staying focused in class/this project/this concept etc.—use specifics here!], and I would really like to improve. I would appreciate it if we could meet for a [tutoring session/meeting] to work through [specific strategies/part of your action plan]. 

I’ll be at your extra help session on [date]*, and I’ll bring a few [ideas/past assignments] we can start with, if that’s ok with you. 

Please let me know if you have any suggestions or ideas for how I can prepare. Thank you!


[Student name]

*If extra help sessions are not already established, have your student propose a time to meet with their teacher or ask for their availability. Side note: If I had received an email like this from a struggling student, I would have been over the moon and eager to help; most teachers would be. 

Once your students communicates, they should hear back from their teacher soon! If they don’t hear back within the week, it’s ok for them to send a polite follow up. In the meantime, have them consult some outside resources and get going on their own as best they can. 

When everyone is on the same page, your student is ready for Step 5! 

Step 5: Follow through 

This is the hard part, but the good news is that they’ve done a lot to set themselves up for success already! Give them a pat on the back for laying solid groundwork.

Then, encourage them to give 100% effort to the plan laid out. This will not only show the teacher that they mean business, but students owe it to themselves to try their best. 

Think about it this way: by following through consistently and often, students have no bad outcome. Either they will see an improvement or they will get a step closer to improving. Hence, Step 6. 

Step 6: Revisit steps 1-5 as needed

Hopefully students have arrived at a great solution and start seeing results soon (though probably not overnight!) 

If that doesn’t happen, help them tweak their approach. This may mean trying a different strategy, increasing/decreasing extra help, or seeking out additional resources or expert opinions. 

Encourage them to not give up! Setbacks and incremental successes are an integral part of achieving anything. They’ve got this, and they need to be reminded of that :)

Keep the momentum going! 

Any student (and most adults, for that matter) can debate the real-world usefulness of grammar concepts or a trick to memorizing the periodic table, but self-advocacy just isn’t one of those things. 

Learning to ask for help is a life skill at work, in how we relate to others, and how we determine our futures. 

Speaking of which, to any teacher reading this, you never know when an act of kindness or above-and-beyond investment in a student’s success will be remembered well into their adult lives. Thank you, Mrs. Guda.

Thank a teacher, coach, or role model today by celebrating National Mentoring Month! 

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