Five Tips to Make an Ally of Your Professor

by Matthew Cooper

There’s no two ways about it: College pushes students to their limits, and from time to time, we all need help to realize our goals. Writing centers, study groups, and online resources are helpful, but nothing can truly replace guidance from a professor. Whether you’re in a freshman lecture hall of five hundred or a senior capstone course of ten, having your professor know a little about you will always help further your cause inside the classroom and out. Over the course of a semester, something will inevitably come up which an instructor can help with. Maybe you missed class, or you couldn’t get your paper in on time, or you need clarification of an assignment or lecture. Whatever the case, it’s a bad idea to wait for a crisis to try and make a connection with your instructor. The earlier you make an ally in your professor, the more likely they’ll be sympathetic to conflicts when they arise.

But for many students, bridging the student-instructor gap is no easy task. Often, that aversion stems from the inherent dichotomy of the classroom. Teachers teach, students learn. If you’ve never done it before, the very thought of approaching a professor might be nerve-wracking. While the aversion is natural, a good student-instructor relationship simply has too many benefits to allow anxiety to get in the way: letters of recommendation are vital for graduate school; having a professor listed as a reference looks great on job applications; professors often know about or even manage job openings on campus. And all that’s not even mentioning the myriad of benefits inside the classroom.

It took me the better part of six years and two undergraduate degrees before I learned how to approach professors. It’s stressful for everyone, at first. But once I overcame those natural anxieties, I quickly began to appreciate the benefits of the relationship. The following tips are designed to help you successfully foster a relationship with your professor, and turn the person at the front of the classroom into an ally in making your time in college successful.

1. Read your instructor’s online bio. Before anything else, take the time to learn a little about your instructor. Most universities feature blurbs about their instructors which include information about their area of research and publications. Scan through what they’re passionate about, and mention it in class or private conference. Appear (or better, actually be) genuinely interested in their work and what they say. Not only is this easy conversation fodder, but your instructor will be impressed that you took the initiative to learn about them and will be more inclined to do the same about you. If meeting during office hours, tie your conversation back into the classroom.

2. Mirror their professionalism. No two instructors have the same set of standards for interacting with students. Some demand the upmost decorum while others will act like an old friend. It’s usually easy to tell which instructors expect which after a day or two of class, but the safest strategy is to assume a high level of professionalism. Show up to office hours with specific questions or concerns and leave after they’re resolved. Email with perfect grammar and etiquette. If they have a title such as doctor, use it. If your instructor lowers the level of professionalism expected, mirror them. Some professors love interacting and being affable with students, while others want to maintain the dichotomy of the student-instructor relationship. The protocol for the relationship is going to be on the instructor’s terms, so be aware and courteous of their expectations. Not every instructor is going to be your best friend, but that doesn’t mean the relationship will be any less rewarding.

3. Take advantage of office hours. Heed the aforementioned advice, and office hours are your best resource for building and maintaining a relationship with your instructor. Meeting with instructors is more personal than an email, and is generally not under the time constraints of a chat after class. Again, be mindful of your instructor’s expectations of how office hours are to be used. Some instructors use office hours to work and don’t want to be disturbed. Others love interacting with students, and welcome a change to the routine monotony. Always come in with specific questions or concerns about preparing for an upcoming test, essay, or an unclear concept from a lecture or textbook. Take notes and be attentive. If you’re eyeing a letter of recommendation or reference, mention it only after you’ve established and maintained a relationship. If you’re raising concerns over a grade, be proactive, humble, and focus the conversation on what you can do differently moving forward. Most of all: Be friendly and concise. There are other students in your class who might need help, and your instructor’s time is likely stretched thin as it is.

4. Stand out in class. Some instructors have class participation as an outright part of the overall course grade, and others retroactively alter grades based on in-class performance. Not only does class participation make you stand out from your peers, but it displays the breadth and depth of your knowledge (a useful thing to showcase in the event of a poor test or essay). Be willing to take stabs at answers when no one else does, but don’t overstep your role in the classroom. Try and speak an average of once or twice per class. If you are going to try this route, you better be caught up on the readings and subject matter. Consistently voicing an uninformed voice can significantly hinder your instructor’s view of you.

5. Be honest. There is no faster track to making an ally of your professor than displaying a little sincerity. If you’re having trouble engaging with the course material, say so. Be open about letters of recommendation or references. If you didn’t perform up to your standard on a test, admit you should have studied differently. Be they an “A”, improving a specific skill, or just “getting through” a course, be candid about your goals for the course and ask your instructor how they can help you achieve them. Your instructor can’t serve as a very strong ally if they don’t know what you hope to achieve. Be open and earnest with your instructor, and they will genuinely care about your success.

Inside the classroom and out, an instructor is one of the strongest cohorts you can have on campus. Some instructors may become friends, some you may never speak to again once the course is over, but all instructors are interested in one thing: helping you succeed in achieving your upmost potential as a student, as a future professional, and as a person.

Matt has a B.A. in English and a B.S. in Marketing. He is a freelance writer and has been published in the literary journals of Iowa State University and the University of Idaho.