How to Talk To a Teacher – Bridging the Generational Gap

See this picture. It’s me and my college roommates – thirty years ago. When I look at this photo, I’m immediately transported back to the early 1980’s. For me, it feels normal. For you, it must seem antiquated. That age difference makes it hard for us to connect.

And yet, thirty years ago, no one was connected. There was nothing to connect to. I’d never seen a cell phone nor used a computer. My papers were typed on an electric typewriter. My housemates and I had one phone, attached to the kitchen wall with a cord that stretched three feet to the refrigerator. No one I knew had an answering machine. If a guy you liked said he’d call, you sat by the phone and waited. If you went to a college party, you had no idea who was there until you arrived and no evidence of the night’s shenanigans were captured electronically. This photo was as bad as it got. Personal information remained personal and ‘sharing’ was a behavior learned by nursery school kids. If a better party was happening somewhere else on campus, you’d never know, so you didn’t care. The party was wherever you were at – as this picture proves.

Pants sat above your hips (I submit my stonewashed jeans as evidence), undergarments remained hidden, sneakers had not become collectibles, flip flops were strictly a beach item, tattoos were unthinkable unless you’d been to prison, music was played on a stereo system with giant speakers. Check out the size of the black box behind my head. If someone told me they had earbuds in 1980, I would have suggested they see an ENT.

Rap music hadn’t gone mainstream. The term ‘urban lifestyle’ hadn’t been invented. Hair was big, shoulder pads were enormous and MTV played the same three music videos.

I’d never heard the letters ATM until I got my first real job after college. If I wanted money, I had to wait on a physical line to cash a check. No one lived at home after college and parents were not considered your friends. First week freshman year, you waited by the payphone to speak to your parents. If your family’s phone was busy, you waited until the next week.

If I wanted to speak to a teacher, I had to show up in person and hope the line outside their door wasn’t too long. Teachers couldn’t fire off emails to a class or post announcements on an e-board. My questions were prepared ahead of time so I could get the most out of my five minutes of face-to-face time. If I had to leave a teacher a note, I proofread it and included a formal salutation and close. I never called a teacher on the phone, and obviously, I never sent a teacher an emoji.

In class, students listened carefully. PowerPoint slides were not made available before or after class – or ever. There was no such thing as electronic slides. Teachers talked and students wrote notes. Lots of notes. With little else but our notes to go on, textbooks were very important. We bought them, we read them, we carried them to the library to study, we high-lighted the important parts in neon green and then we prayed the bookstore would buy them back after a  semester of serious abuse. I hope you didn’t miss the guy sitting on the couch in the back of this picture. He brought his textbook to a party!

So – is it hard to talk to your teachers? Of course it is. Our college experiences are formed by our generational differences. This makes our interactions difficult. Lots of times, I just don’t get what students are trying to tell me because their approach is based on their fast-moving electronic world. In my college world, circa 1983-1987, parental contact and support was limited, information was hard to come by (no google), distractions were minimal (no cell phones or YouTube), and class time had value simply because we had little else available to earn a good grade.

Here’s my advice. If you need help from a teacher, show up to their office. Email conversations with a teacher are often doomed for failure. Speak slowly. Introduce yourself. Be prepared and thank them when you’re done. Resist the urge to check your phone. If you want to take notes on your computer, have it booted up before you walk into the office. Don’t talk about your family. In fact, don’t say anything personal. If your teacher is distracted by their own cellphone or email, then they’re probably not much older than you. In which case, you’ll get along just fine!



  • Cayley

    I liked this post, and not just for the great #TBT picture. Some
    of my most successful academic moments in college resulted from in person
    meetings with my professors. Yes, I used email to initiate the first scheduled
    visit, but I then found the one on one time with each professor invaluable. It
    is easier now to hide behind screens and avoid human contact when possible. However,
    I found that seeking help in person, no matter how hard it was at first, was
    much better than trying to figure things out over email. And it showed in my performance in the class
    and ultimately my grade. It was also good practice for life after college. Although life is increasingly lived online
    with little human interactions, in general people still have to interact with other
    people – job interviews, working in an office, going out to dinner, networking,
    and events – so it helps to work on those people skills in college. Often
    things get lost in communication over email.
    Being able to walk over to someone’s desk or office and resolve an issue
    in person is a much easier and faster way to get something resolved and avoid
    confusion. So, yes, there may be generational gaps between students and
    professors, but that doesn’t mean they can’t relate to each other. Both have obviously attended school and you
    never know, you could walk away with more than just help in a class.

  • Jonathan Leonardo

    This post provided a blast from the pass that I can not relate too, but luckily for me I can find out all this information about the 80’s in minutes! Thanks to the internet and the all the information in the whole wide world being a few clicks away. Our generations are completely different but in a sense I feel that because of the technology readily available for my generation, it really helps me to get along with all people (even my teachers) from any generation or background. I can always look up how things use to be and search through endless blogs of people reminiscing “the good ol’ days!”. Now the negative side of technology is that unfortunately everything has became completely impersonal and that is just the norm now a days. Emailing a teacher is always my go to thing, calling or coming during office hours is such a hassle. Or maybe that is just me being lazy, i’m not sure! Times change with the years that past and I think we all just have to adjust. I will say though, the older generation loves to laugh at the younger generation when we are obsessed with new technology like texting. Yet, when they finally get around to using it and seeing the convenience and awesomeness of it, years later, they are all over it! So I always find showing my parents how to use an emoji or “LOL” as a hilarious bonding time. Always bridging the gap between our generations!

  • Joseph Riess

    This post definitely touches on the subject of our generation, and the way we interact with technology, perfectly. While walking through campus I always see college students staring at their cell phones. What bothers me the most is people in a group, facing each other, on their phones not saying a word to each other. Now I am not going to state that I do not do that as well but it is definitely a huge negative impact on our society. Another example is when you had that one situation where something got awkward and you just pulled out your phone to escape it. People are losing that face-to-face interaction and spending it using technology. In regards to talking to teachers I think it is getting worse as well. I do have to admit emailing your teacher with a simple question is great but sometimes things do not transmit through emails or texts like they do when talking to the professor in person. Students are getting to use to emailing their professors/teachers instead of going to their office hours. I have personally had this experience recently when emailing a teacher for a project. I went as high as 10 emails before I asked if we could meeting in person and once we met it only took less than 5 minutes for him to answer my question.

  • Victor Alvarez

    This post is very enlightening. I never stopped to think about the cultural differences between a professor and myself. I was a pre teen right before the smart phone revolution happened so I can relate to the parts where the post mentions the lack of communication (we did however, have an answering machine.) I feel like this new generation of students (myself included) have a constant need to be entertained by new content. We get bored very easily, and we have no problem pulling out our phones and scrolling trough Reddit in the middle of a conversation. This is a clear contrast to how life was when our professors were students. This is a tough communication barrier to get trough but i believe the burden of breaking trough these obstacles lies on the student. As students we are supposed to learn to adapt to any situations as we will be facing a world filled with people who want to succeed and are willing to adapt. From baby boomers to millennials and everything in between, we will face/work along with/ work for/ or against different people with different beliefs and we will have to find a way to connect.

  • Robert Owusu

    This post really took me back as if i lived in that era. Sometimes i really can’t believe it myself that our phone does all this miraculous things (cough Steve Jobs cough*). But in all seriousness, having that connection with your professor plays a big factor. I can agree that our generation can get a little too comfortable with communication with professors with lack of manners. It’s important to respect professors as elders, not as their equal. On the flip side of things, some professors do have to adjust with the time. Some professors don’t understand that this generation attention span is horrible. Not everything that we’re going to learn will be interesting all the time, but for attention span sake, some lessons need to be spiced up, more relatable, and more interaction.

  • Jennifer Ruiz

    This post was so interesting! These were all completely different things that I never imagined actually happened. I just never realized or was aware of how completely different things have become nowadays. I can completely relate to using the typewriter however. I used to love using it for many things, despite how young I was, being that I was born in 1996. I love how the style of high waisted pants has come back. I personally love using them with my everyday outfits. I do slightly remember having a computer but only using it for playing games such as Pinball. People were more dedicated to their studies back then. Nowadays teens and young adults want to live their lives to the fullest, and not just spend it all on hard studying. I do understand how frustrating it can be when trying to communicate with a teacher. I had one philosophy teacher that prevented the class from using any technology in class, including laptops. It was not because he thought it was distracting, but because he simply just wanted to go back to “old times”. He was young also, which I found a bit odd. Students should try to be more comprehensive however with the age of the professor and communicate with them in the manner they were raised by.

  • Nikola Shkreli

    I couldn’t agree more with this post! Even though I’m a 90’s baby and don’t know what it was like to be around in the 80’s, it wasn’t hard to see how technology had boosted even for our generation. Also as an employee at apple i constantly have children as young as 10 years old come in and inform me on stuff i didn’t know! Thats crazy! I can definitely see how our phones and computers and fast-paced life can become a distraction to our education and educational staff though, and that definitely is becoming a problem. In the past i never cared to communicate with my teachers. It was all just about showing up and doing the work and getting by. That all changed when i started to take my education serious though, and thats when I really found out that no teacher wants to fail their students. I feel as though email conversations are ok once in a while, but if it becomes the primary source of communication something has to change. Recently i have been very close to my teachers, mostly my marketing teachers. Its a great idea to show them that you’re really trying to understand the material and even to let them know what you don’t get so they can go in depth with you. I have realized that the relationship between student and teacher do vary according to age differences. When the teacher is younger, its easier to communicate because of common interests and common language as appose to being corrected on every grammar mistake. When they are older i feel as if more of a professional conversation is required. There is nothing wrong with that because just like you want a social life, you also want to be able to build a career and thats not going to happen by speaking slang all day.

  • Greg Bourne

    What I find interesting (or even more disappointing) is that even in social situations like a party or even a concert people whip out their phones to go on social media. I understand a status or two about how you’re at the concert or how you just met your idle, but you poking your phone in my view of the band for the 30th time just so you can post another photo to Instagram gets quite annoying, even hanging out with friends I’ve seen people pull out their phone and check Instagram or Facebook, I can hardly imagine doing that! Let alone in front of a professor! Anyways, back on topic. I guess I’ve been lucky enough to have professors I can easily talk to in person, simply because they are approachable. Even a professor I had who was in his 80’s was very easy to talk to despite the HUGE generational gap, I came to him with a question, he answered it, and we just talked about politics (relating to the lesson) for a good 15 minutes. I couldn’t imagine emailing him (he admitted that he could barely get his hearing aid app on an iTouch to work, and called it the Devil Box). Talking was simply the best and only option, but I enjoyed it. With everyone connected I feel like students may avoid asking the professor something in person, simply because they might not know how to approach them. Your advice is very helpful! And I do wish more people would learn to not be as connected, especially in social situations.

  • Leonard Picun

    First of all, I’d like to say that sometimes I’d prefer to go to a social gathering or party and not know who will be there. Social media and cell phones have made it increasingly hard to not know things that should sometimes be private or just unknown. After reading the first couple of paragraphs, I immediately thought of my parents. They are always saying “back in my day” that they never did the things that we do now and that it was a lot easier for them to focus on productive things like work and school. I agree with them. Technological advances since the 70’s have ultimately changed the way we work and commit to things. However for students like me, the internet has helped me further pursue my education. I know speaking to a teacher in person is probably best because it shows dedication and character, but I try to put considerate details into the emails I send. You see, I’m usually cluttered with work and don’t have a drivers license so it’s difficult to make time to go to school just to ask my teacher a question. The deeper I go into marketing, the more I find how important it is to have a great relationship with your professors. I will indeed take your advice and show up at my professors offices more often.