New Teachers

Student Complaints as Teachable Moments

Students’ critical comments may throw new teachers off, but they can be useful for sparking engagement and learning.

March 11, 2019

Even if we want to keep our classes positive, all teachers field complaints from students. We’ve all felt the sting of one. And we’ve probably all reacted dismissively at times to complaints. But young people will always complain, sometimes in ways that seem negative—partly because they’re still learning how to articulate questions and effectively influence authority figures.

Listening for the teachable moment in these sometimes critical comments can turn some of them into opportunities for deepening students’ understanding.

Complaint: Why Do We Have to Learn This?

Recently one of my students was demonstrating noticeable nonverbal signals of disinterest. Then, during a discussion of our course text, he went on a tear. “Why are we reading this text? What are we doing this for? Why does the writer have to go on and on in such detail?” he vented.

I listened patiently until he was done. I might have begun by dismissing the complaint as disrespectful. Instead I leaned in on the positive: “Great questions! Why are we learning this material? Why are we reading this book? Why does the author write in this way? Anybody?”

Hands went up across the class. Students launched into a compelling discussion of the significance of the author’s work. And after some coaching on better ways to ask questions, the complaining student has become one of that class’s most engaged members.

Often teachers will hear “Why do we have to learn this?” as a challenge to their authority or an attempt to call the value of the subject into question—and sometimes that’s what it is. But if we don’t reinforce the value of students asking why they’re learning what they’re learning, we risk having a classroom in which students fear to think about the significance of their learning.

Complaint: But What About...?

Whenever I teach usage or grammar rules, students love to pose counterexamples. Is there ever a time when a comma immediately follows “which”? What’s the difference between an em dash and an en dash? When do you hyphenate modifying phrases? When I first started teaching, these questions embarrassed me when I did not readily know the answer. More recently, I’ve realized that they’re opportunities for me to learn things that I otherwise would not have considered.

New teachers may get flustered like I used to, seeing counterexamples as an attempt to derail the lesson or question the teacher’s authority. Sometimes they are, and sometimes the questioning student has just gotten sidetracked.

But such a student may be excited to test their critical thinking skills. They want to show their curiosity about the subject and—as young people are inclined to do—productively test the boundaries of the rules. Even when their critical thinking skills are being applied in ways that don’t further the learning or the instructional goals, it’s crucial to praise students for asking thoughtful questions.

Don’t get flustered when a student asks you a question you can’t answer. Acknowledge that you’re unsure and tell students that it’s OK to not always have an answer at one’s fingertips. Praise the student for practicing imaginative or critical thinking. Guide students back to the class goal and follow up with the student about the answer to their question later.

Complaint: I’m Confused About Every Part of This

I once had a student come to me outside of class, flustered and frustrated. 

“I’m so confused,” he said.

“About what?” I asked.


“Everything?” I walked him through each step in the assignment he had to complete and each of the course concepts. Within five minutes, by articulating which parts of the course he understood and which he didn’t, he had realized that his confusion was limited to one part of the assignment, and he actually felt confident about the rest of it.

Young people often catastrophize. When a student says, “I’m always so confused,” they probably mean they’re sometimes—or possibly often—confused. When they say, “I never understand anything in that class,” they may mean, “I’m not sure that I understand this one thing.” And when they say, “All we ever do in that class is ____,” they most likely mean that a particular strategy is important to a course but they don’t understand why.

These types of hyperbolizing can feel overly dramatic, but generally they just mean that a student simply hasn’t taken the time to reflect analytically on their learning. Maybe they don’t have the tools to articulate what they don’t understand. Or maybe they simply lack confidence.

Catastrophizing, for me, is a signal to check in with the student. Have I provided consistent, positive feedback to them on their work in the course? Am I giving them enough opportunity to reflect on what they do and don’t understand, where they’re progressing and where they’re not?

When my students catastrophize, I try to praise them for self-advocating—for letting me know that they need something. When students are confused, we should praise them for bringing a point of ambiguity to our attention. When they say they’re not learning, we can praise their desire to learn. And then we can help them articulate more specific concerns and coach them toward better self-advocacy.

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