How to Develop a Meaningful Professional Relationship with Your Instructor
You’ve probably heard it before: People have told you that it’s important to build a good relationship with your instructor. When you start a college course, the person teaching it is the one who will be providing the information, introducing key concepts that could be potentially important for your future career, and, at the end of the term, assigning grades for the class. Anyone can see that it would be beneficial to be on good terms with this person.
The standard rationale for developing a positive relationship with your instructor hinges on two things. First, getting your professor to like you will increase your chances of getting a good grade. According to this argument, if there is some point on an assignment or exam that could go either way, being on good terms with your instructor will help give you the benefit of the doubt. While there are certain facts that are completely objective—two plus two equaling four, for instance—there is also room for interpretation in many corners of academia.
Another reason for having a good relationship with your instructor involves their willingness to help you out later, after the course is over. Your instructor might write you a glowing letter of recommendation for school or work. He or she might know people in your chosen field and could put in a good word for you.
These are reasonable, practical motivations for developing that relationship. The problem is that they miss the mark. These things can become benefits of that relationship, but they shouldn’t be the sole basis for building one.
Why a good relationship with your instructor is important
Building strong relationships with your instructors is something that will serve you well throughout your career. One truth this process will teach you is that, as a professional, you will work with a lot of people. Treating them as individuals you value, rather than resources you can exploit, is vitally important to your development as a professional. People tend to see through others who are only looking to take advantage of everyone else. On the other hand, you and your instructor already have something in common by both being invested in the same field. If you approach them as a colleague who has valuable insight and experience into a field that interests you both, you can use that to build a relationship based on sincerity and respect. This by itself helps make the relationship stronger. It also helps you practice building good professional relationships, which is a skill you will always need.
What not to do
Absolutely do not act like you are entitled to favors from your instructor. Even if you get great scores throughout the course, if you treat your instructor like an ATM dispensing grades and recommendations, those recommendations will read more like an ATM receipt than a ringing endorsement. They may be factually correct, but they will lack any confidence-building sincerity.
You also don’t want to be a flatterer. This is a terrible practice to start that will also hurt you in the long run. True, some people love flattery and eat it up. But those are not the type of people you want on your side, because they are less likely to take much of an interest in others anyway. Flattery builds shallow relationships based on two-way self-interest, and it makes more sense to assume that most people you come into contact with will be savvy enough to see through false praise.
What to do
Rather than trying to butter up your instructo, approach the relationship with honesty. Having recommendations and good scores in mind is fine, but you have to go deeper than that.
The first thing you want to do is ask smart questions. By raising your hand during class and sticking around afterward to ask more questions, you not only get to learn more about the subject, but you show your instructor that you are interested. Assume that your instructors teach these courses because they find the subject matter interesting. They are probably even passionate about it. Anytime someone else shows an interest in something about which we are passionate, we feel (genuinely) flattered and want to share more. That is the perfect way to start building a positive relationship.
The next thing you want to do is work hard. You don’t have to get the best scores to be able to build a relationship with the instructor (though that probably doesn’t hurt). By working hard, you demonstrate your interest in the course and communicate that you take the subject matter—and therefore the instructor—seriously. So put considerable thought into your assignments, get them done on time, and do your best. You don’t have to kill yourself for each class assignment, but you should give each one the work and thought it deserves.
By taking a genuine interest in the subject and course, you will open the possibility of building a great relationship with your instructor. This will help you learn more and get more out of your entire college experience. Once these things are happening, you will also find other benefits, like good grades and glowing letters of recommendation, falling right into place.
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