So Your Teacher is Darth Vader: How to Deal with Difficult Instructors

Throughout your college career, you’re going to (if you haven’t already) run into teachers who are difficult. I don’t mean the good-gosh-his-tests-are-hard difficult, I mean the I-think-my-teacher-might-be-at-least-partially-evil difficult. These instructors are often unfair, unprofessional, and disrespectful. Think of them like the Darth Vaders of education. At one time, they might have been good. But, somewhere along the way they lost that goodness and you’re waiting for them to redeem themselves. Some do, some don’t. These, how should I put it . . . “Dark Force” instructors can ruin your shot at a 4.0 GPA, and they can make your semester a living Hell if you let them. I’ve had my share of Dark Force teachers. Here’s the Obi-Wan Kenobi list of how to use the Force to your advantage and save your GPA from the Dark Side’s grasp. (On a side note, I just realized how much of a nerd I look like with all of the Star Wars references. Oh, well.)

Don't bury your head when it comes to dealing with a Dark Force professor. Photo By: Elizabeth Preston
Don’t bury your head when it comes to dealing with a Dark Force professor.
Photo By: Elizabeth Preston

1. Triple make sure that the teacher is being truly unfair to you. It’s a natural human tendency to get offended. Maybe the instructor said a quip that was in poor taste. Perhaps he wrote some things on your paper with which you don’t agree. Ask yourself if these things that you feel are offensive are truly attacks on you, or if they’re simply social missteps or matters of differing opinions. When in doubt, calmly talk to the teacher either after class or during his office hours and tell him exactly what offended you, when that occurred, and why you felt it to be insulting. We all make mistakes, so before you go on the war path, be sure that your teacher didn’t just make a mistake and that this isn’t just a misunderstanding.

2. Confront the teacher in a calm and respectful manner. Screaming, crying, whining, and being rude is not the way to win. You win with facts and evidence, not emotion. “I feel like” is not going to prove to your professor that you got number nine right on the test. Pointing to a section in your textbook that supports your answer, and respectfully showing this section to your instructor will support your claim that you got number nine right.

3. Have all your ducks on the pond. This means get all that you need to support your case.  If you feel like you were unfairly marked down on something, take a moment before you go to the instructor for answers, and get yourself into a calm state of mind. Go home, really look at his comments, and then prepare your case to argue why you should not have gotten marked down. By “prepare,” I mean go to your textbook and lecture notes, and find quotes and note the page numbers and lecture dates that support your answer on the essay, exam, or assignment. Write those quotes down, mark those pages, and bring those materials to the meeting with your professor. For example, I got a 60% on one essay question, and this brought my entire test grade down from an “A” to a “B-.” Steam came out of my ears when I got my test back and I saw that. I didn’t go straight to the TA who graded the tests though. Instead, I went home, calmed down, and then compared my test answer to the textbook. For the TA’s next office hours, I had all of my materials available with the textbook opened to the page I needed. When I questioned him on my essay, he said that I hadn’t even written down the term’s definition, so how could I possibly expect a higher grade than a 60%. Without missing a beat, I read the textbook’s definition of the term and then read my definition of the term that I wrote on my test. The two were almost identical. It turns out, he just hadn’t taken the time to actually read my exam answer. Needless to say, he quickly changed the grade from a 60% to a 90%.

Are all of your ducks on the pond? Photo By: Elizabeth Preston
Are all of your ducks on the pond?
Photo By: Elizabeth Preston

4. Don’t back down when you’re right. This is not the time to be timid and mousey. This is the time for the eye of the tiger (kudos if you get this reference). You’ve got to fight for all of the points you can. If you got marked off on something, then hold the teacher accountable for it and ask him “why.” If he can’t give you a reason, then keep pushing in a respectful manner. Teachers are not allowed to mark you off all willy nilly. They have to have reasons. If they graded you in a fair manner, then they will be able to explain their logic, and you’ll probably be able to improve your academic performance by knowing and understanding their reasons. Admittedly, sometimes Dark Force teachers appear to make up these “reasons,” and it feels like they’re just being impossible to deal with. Know this: if anything, asking “why” let’s the Dark Force teacher know that you’re not going down without a fight. Besides, as a student aiming for a high GPA, you should always be asking “why” and trying to learn from the answers anyway. But . . . .

5. Be okay with the Dark Force teacher being right every now and again. Sometimes, your instructor will have a legitimate point. Maybe you shouldn’t have put that comma there, worded that sentence in that way, or used that particular source. When this happens, learn from it so that you don’t make the same mistake again and let it go.

6. Pick your battles. Some battles are worth fighting, and some aren’t. The odds aren’t in your favor of you winning them all. In fact . . . .

7. Understand that, sometimes, you’re not going to win. I once had an instructor mark me down on an essay because he didn’t agree with one of my points. I went to his office hours and we calmly talked about it. After several discussions, he flat out agreed that I had made a valid point, supported it with evidence and logic, and that it bolstered my thesis. He admitted that I was “right.” Then, he said, “But I’m not going to change the grade.” I asked him several times why he wouldn’t change the grade if he agreed that I was in the right. All he said each time was, “I’m not changing the grade so I don’t know what you want me to do.” I went around and around with this instructor for over an hour. I wasn’t going to budge him. There was something in him that just couldn’t let himself do the right thing. Something similar to this situation could happen to you. Indeed, one of the distinguishing characteristics of Dark Force teachers is that they can’t let themselves be wrong and they can’t admit to their mistakes. Luckily, I had enough points racked up in that class so that particular essay wouldn’t hurt my grade that much—I could make up for it. If you can make up for what you get marked down on and your instructor is like mine was, then let it go. If this could possibly ruin your overall grade for the class, thereby hurting your GPA, then take the matter up with his superior (usually the department chair). Luckily, there’s always a superior in academia.

This duck was not on the pond. *gasp* Photo By: Elizabeth Preston
This duck was not on the pond. *gasp*
Photo By: Elizabeth Preston

8. Academically shut out the Dark Force teacher. Don’t leave him any choice but to give you an “A” by putting effort into the class’s assignments, and getting as high of grades on them as you can. I once had a professor who, I believe, had a fiery hatred for me. If he could have given me anything but an “A” for the class, I believe that he would have. However, I made sure to study extra for his class, and I got high “A”s on all of the homework assignments, essays, and tests. Do so well on the class’s assignments and exams that if he does try to give you any grade other than an “A,” then his grading will look unjustified.  By doing this, you will have done yourself a world of favors should you have to go to student court with the matter, which, don’t worry, is pretty rare.

9. Do not accept “Well, I just don’t give ‘A’s.” Don’t let this line manipulate you into giving up. If the university says that grades range from “A” to “F,” then guess what—“A”s must be possible (but not guaranteed) in every class. An instructor does not have the right, nor the power, to make such a decree. If he should pull that line on you, try saying something like, “Well, I’m still going to try anyway. Now, could you please help me understand why I got marked off here so that I can learn from it and correct that mistake for the future?” This is the truth. You’re still going to try for that “A,” and now the instructor knows it. You’re going to correct that mistake and not make it again in the future. You won’t give up.

10. Know that your rights don’t stop at the schoolhouse door. You are a human being worthy of respect. Does the instructor have more years of experience than you? Yes. Does he have more power than you? Yes. Does he have the right to treat you as sub-human? Absolutely not. Instructors do not have the right to abuse you by publicly humiliating you, refusing to justify their grading systems, treating you with utter disrespect, and/or forcing you to do something that is against your belief system. There is such a thing as academic freedom, but there is also such a thing as students’ rights. If you feel like the instructor is being egregiously unfair or abusive towards you, then go to his superior with a list of each offense. This list should contain a description of the offense as well as an approximate date.

I hope that none of you run into a Dark Force professor, but I know that many of you will. You are your own best advocate, and I encourage you not to take abuse from instructors. If you’re at a loss for what to do, go to a professor whom you trust and explain the situation. Indeed, there are teachers on the light side of the academic Force, and they will help you as best as they can. These are the Jedi knights of education, and you should learn from them. Wow. I’m such a nerd.

Next week’s post will be about the characteristics of good professors in order to balance out this post. Until then . . . .

Bonne chance, mes amis!

Have any questions about this blog post, or have questions that you want answered about some other aspect of college and obtaining an awesome GPA? Do you think that I might have missed something? Write it in the comments below, and I’ll give it a go. 🙂


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