What Do I Do if I Disagree With My Student’s Teacher?

Anna Wittwer

May 5, 2021

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Note: Here at Lisa’s Study Guides we specialise in English subjects so you’ll notice the examples we use below are English-focused. Regardless of which subject(s) you tutor though, this advice can be adapted to suit your situation. 

Has your student ever told you about something their teacher instructed them to do that's made you go huh? Usually, there are two kinds of 'clashes' you'll encounter as a tutor. 

1. Instruction that you don't fully agree with, but that fits within VCAA guidelines. 

2. Instruction that directly contradicts VCAA guidelines or that is inconsistent and/or incomprehensible. 

In Both Cases:

1A) First of all, have some faith in yourself

Don't automatically assume that in the case of a disagreement, the teacher is always right and you are always wrong. As tutors, we might assume that because teachers often have more training and qualifications than we do, we shouldn't contradict or criticise them. To be clear, I am in no way suggesting that you should underestimate yourself or think of yourself as superior to teachers. However, here are two things you should remind yourself of. 

First, even great teachers get it wrong sometimes because they're human, and not-so-great teachers do exist. 

Second, your success and proficiency in your subject make your input valuable, and your student hired you for a reason.

1B) Investigate the teacher’s preferences 

Just because a teacher's advice is different from what you were taught at school, that doesn't necessarily mean it's going to be incorrect or detrimental.  

First of all, you should make it a priority to always ask your student for the marking/criteria sheets provided by their school. Avoid relying entirely on your student verbally relaying criteria. 

You might also want to have a discussion with your student to clarify their teacher's approach using the questions below as a jumping off point. 

  • How do they want essays to be structured? 
  • How many paragraphs and pages/words do they want per essay? 
  • Is there a specific piece of evidence or character that they love or hate being used in essays? 
  • What common errors are they on the lookout for? 
  • Are they a stickler for correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation
  • Is there a piece of feedback that the student has received numerous times? 

The annoying thing about the above questions is that these can differ from teacher to teacher. English, EAL, English Language and Literature are subjectively judged subjects; teachers and examiners make subjective assessments of the quality of students' work. Although things are not completely arbitrary (resources like rubrics and VCAA documents are used as points of reference - see 1C), sometimes, doing well in English is about accommodating the preferences of your assessor, whether you like it or not. 

This means that your student's 'mission', in order to appeal to their assessor's tastes, is to learn what those tastes are, through getting the answers to the questions above. This means that it's really important for your student to actively chase up feedback. Encourage them to get into the habit of asking questions when they can and asking for extra feedback if needed. They can do this by: 

  • Submitting additional work. 
  • Revising already-assessed work and checking with the teacher that their revisions address the initial problems flagged. 
  • Asking their teacher for pointers on specific skills/areas their tutor (you!) can help them with. 

1C) Focus on concrete points of reference 

Not all students are given or encouraged to read official VCAA resources by their school. There are a few key documents that you should go over with your student: 

  • The study design
  • The examination report
  • The examination specifications & criteria

These are crucial since they act as a central point of reference that your student can return to if they're confused by their teacher's instruction. 

1D) Talk about the reasoning behind teacher’s decisions

Below are some possible reasons for 'odd' teaching decisions that you might want to talk about with your student. Please note that if you mention these, you should phrase them as possible reasons. At the end of the day, you're almost never going to know the information that you and your student would need to answer the below questions. The main purpose of mentioning these is to show students that there might be a method in the madness.

1E) Talk about teacher vs. VCAA assessment

You may want to remind your student that their teacher will not assess their Year 12 exam, which contributes 50% of their final score. On one hand, this is a good thing if your student doesn't agree with the way their teacher marks their work. However, some students find it frustrating, because it can feel like they have to learn to play by two different sets of rules to appeal to both their teacher and a VCAA examiner.  

This puts you in the position of deciding whether or not you need to teach them to write one way for their SACs and one way for the exam. Obviously, this depends on how bad the advice is and how capable your student is of tailoring their writing to two different sets of criteria, so you'll need to weigh up the pros and cons in this situation. 

If the Advice Is Just ‘Not Great’

2A) Go with the flow 

Even if the specifics of how a teacher teaches (e.g. preferring a certain essay structure or way of using evidence) aren't to your taste, they might still fit fine within the VCAA assessment criteria.  

Sometimes it’s best to just go with what the teacher wants so that your student doesn't have to learn two ways of doing the same thing (see 1E). This could be a greater detriment to your student than adhering to slightly iffy advice, but obviously, this depends on exactly what the advice is and on your student’s capabilities.

2B) Suggest an alternative 

Give your student an alternative to the teacher’s advice. The most important thing to remember here is to explain your reasoning. I would also recommend that you stick to a  ‘different, not better/worse’ angle when comparing your approach to the teacher’s. 

2C) Try both! 

Suggest to your student that they can try following the teacher’s advice, and then following yours. Have them submit the work done the teacher’s way and the work done your way to their teacher, then go over how the marking and comments differ together.  

The most important thing is to check in with your student to see which approach they liked best. Both you and the teacher have good reasons for your preferences, but finding the approach that your student is the most comfortable and confident with is always going to be the best way to go. 

If the Advice Is Detrimental

3A) Get more information

If possible, have your student make a time to see their teacher in order for them to hopefully explain the reasoning behind the 'bad' advice/instruction/feedback. During this meeting, it would be fine for your student to say something along the lines of 'When I had a  look in the study design it said THIS, so I was wondering if you could go over why we're supposed to do THAT'. This raises the contradiction between VCAA's and the teacher's advice in a non-confrontational way and hopefully clears things up for your student. 

3B) Consider escalation

If meeting with their teacher doesn't clarify anything, or if your student only feels more confused or frustrated by the meeting, this is when escalation is the next option to consider.  By this point, your student has attempted to understand and employ the teacher's advice and has spoken with them directly about their instructions, so it's clear that they've given it a  fair shot.  

Your student might like to speak to their parents about raising the issue with a year level coordinator - this is an instance in which a good tutor-parent rapport is helpful. Evidently, this is a fairly serious course of action, so I'd only recommend this in cases where you believe a teacher has ventured into incompetence. 

Note: Please don't be alarmed by this section. Most of the time, any disagreements that do occur are minor and can be resolved. I also want to emphasise that I've had plenty of students with great teachers whose instructions I wholeheartedly support!

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