How to Argue with Your Teacher
You do not win an argument by getting in the last word or the wildest insult. You win an argument by getting the other person to change. When a teacher does something unfair, winning the argument means getting that teacher to correct his mistake.
Some students put great energy into complaining and arguing with teachers, but never win. More students suffer in silence. There are, however, those students who quietly win arguments with grace. As a teacher myself, I have seen those students who win, and I have seen the smart strategies they follow.
Time and Place
The first key to winning is picking the right time and place to argue. The worst time to argue is while the teacher is trying to teach the class. The teacher has a lesson plan he wants to get through before the period ends, and telling you "no" takes less time than listening to you.
More importantly, in the classroom there is an audience of students. The teacher thinks, If I give this student what she wants, all these students will think I'm a pushover. For the rest of the year, every time any student wants anything, whether they have a good reason or not, they'll argue and waste so much time I'll never get anything done. If you confront a teacher while the class is watching, the teacher may decide that resolving your problem is less important than making an example out of you.
(This is a principle baseball players understand well. When a pitch is questionable, the batter may try to tell the umpire the pitch was a ball, not a strike. But a smart batter never turns to face the umpire. Why? Because if he does, the crowd will know he told the umpire to call it a ball; and if the umpire then does so, everyone who disagrees with that call will think poorly of the umpire. The smart batter always looks straight ahead at the pitcher while quietly saying, "Outside pitch," or whatever. That way the umpire can make that same call without looking like he caved in.)
To win, argue with the teacher privately. If you can pull him aside while the other students are busy, that is better than calling him out in front of the class. But the best move is to talk to the teacher outside of class. Catch him during lunch break, after school, or before first period.
Can't catch him at those times? Make an appointment. At the end of class, ask him if he will talk to you during lunch. Any good teacher (and even a lot of mediocre ones) will make time to talk to a student.
Talking to the teacher alone can feel awkward, but it greatly increases the teacher's willingness to listen to you and take your complaints seriously. As a teacher, I have learned students sometimes argue because they have legitimate grievances, but more often a student will argue in class simply because she is stuck in the classroom and thinks arguing is more fun than doing school work. Students argue over nothing just to kill time. When a student comes to me on her own time, however, talking to me when she could be laughing with friends or surfing the web, then I know she must be serious. That does not guarantee I will agree with her, but it guarantees I will listen. Any good teacher will.
Another key to winning is to approach the teacher respectfully. That does not mean kissing up. It does mean being polite, and it means giving the teacher the benefit of the doubt. Don't accuse the teacher of being out to get you if it is possible he just made an honest mistake. Don't accuse him of making a mistake if it is possible he just saw things differently than you. Teachers are like anyone else: when you accuse them, they may get so busy defending themselves that they forget to think about the situation from your point of view and to see whether you are being treated fairly.
To win, you do not want the teacher defending himself — you want him listening and understanding your problems. This is why it is better to use "I" statements than "you" statements. Do not say, "Why did you grade me unfairly?" (an accusation), but rather say, "I don't understand why I got this grade. I felt the work deserved better." Do not say, "You always give me detention. You never punish anyone else who does the same thing." Instead say, "I feel it is unfair to get detention when I see other people do the same thing and get away with it."
When you start a sentence with "you," the other person will come back with "You're wrong. I am not like that at all." But when you start with "I," you are talking about yourself, and on that subject, you are the hands-down expert; the other person would look silly calling you wrong.
Getting into Your Teacher's Head
Explain, calmly and respectfully, why you feel the teacher should make the change you want. Think out your arguments ahead of time. Try to figure out what objections the teacher might have and how you can respond.
Let's say you missed a due date for a major assignment and this teacher will not accept work late. When you try to persuade him to make an exception, he may think (whether he says it or not) that you did not take the assignment seriously or that you are lazy, and therefore you should lose the points so you will learn a lesson. Your best defense is to show that you are serious and willing to work hard. If the assignment was a three-page paper, offer to make yours five pages. If you normally meet his deadlines, remind him of how well you have done in the past and let him know what prevented you from meeting this deadline — everyone knows life cannot always go as planned, but sometimes people need to be reminded of that. If, on the other hand, you have a history of missing deadlines, your best approach is: "I know I haven't been doing that well, but I want to do better. Can you help me?"
When arguing about some disciplinary action, the teacher's objection is probably that you do not respect his authority. Your best defense is to come out and say, "I respect your authority, and I want to get along in your class." Then explain why this discipline should be canceled.
Similarly, to get the teacher to listen to you, it is important to listen to him, and to show that you are listening. If the teacher feels you're ignoring his points, he may retaliate by ignoring yours. So when the teacher makes a point (good or bad), paraphrase it or even repeat it. Like so: "You're saying [blah blah blah]. I understand that." Then go on to make your points.
If the teacher makes a point you can agree with, say so. When you concede the teacher is right about one thing, he will become more willing to admit you are right about something else. If you defensively insist the teacher is wrong about everything, he may well do the same to you and this argument will go nowhere. So look for points of agreement. Like so: "You're right about that. [Blah blah] is [blah]. At the same time ... " Then go on to make your points.
Likewise, don't show frustration. When one person in an argument keeps sighing or repeating herself loudly, this indicates she is not giving serious consideration to the other person's viewpoint. And yes, there is often good reason to dismiss the other's viewpoint. If the other person's viewpoint is based on a misunderstanding of the facts, you'll see little reason to listen and it will be tempting to get frustrated. Don't. Instead, remain calm and look for areas of agreement while also looking for diplomatic ways to correct the teacher's error.
Let's say a classmate leaves a junk food wrapper on the floor, and the teacher, mistakenly thinking it was you, gives you detention. You explain it wasn't you, but the teacher responds by simply lecturing you about why it's wrong to leave a wrapper on the floor. You're likely to feel frustrated. After all, the teacher has not only dismissed what you've told him, he has essentially called you a liar; plus he's still planning to punish you for something you didn't even do. Who wouldn't feel frustrated?? But if you respond at this point with an exasperated sigh, followed by "I told you five times already, it wasn't me!!" you're probably going to lose this argument. When you imply the other person is an idiot, whether you're correct or not, you're saying something the other person does not want to hear and you decrease the chances he will listen to you. A smarter approach is to show you understand his view. Like this: "I can understand you being angry. People shouldn't throw wrappers on the floor. [agreement] You should be angry. [agreement] I don't like seeing a mess on the floor myself. But in this case, you're directing your anger at the wrong person. It wasn't me." Not only have you gotten around his defenses, you've shown him that you are not the kind of person likely to have thrown the wrapper on the floor. Your chances of winning just went up.
Before walking into the argument, think of ways the teacher might benefit by giving you what you want. If, for example, you are being punished unfairly, your argument might be, "This punishment is going to make me feel resentful, which is going to make it even harder for me to get along in your class. I don't want that to happen." When speaking to the teacher's interests like this, however, it is vital to do so with subtlety. Don't let it sound like a threat, or the teacher will get defensive again.
Putting It All Together
Here's a sample argument using all the above suggestions. Let's use the example of trying to turn in late work:
Student: I would like to turn in this paper. ["I" statement]
Teacher: That paper was due three days ago. You can't turn in a paper after the due date.
Student: Yes, it was due three days ago, and I'm sorry I didn't meet that deadline. [repeating, agreeing] But I have the paper now and I'd like to turn it in. ["I" statement]
Teacher: I don't allow late assignments. You have to meet the deadlines.
Student: I know. I should have met the deadline. [agreement] I tried to meet it. ["I" statement, showing you took the assignment seriously] Unfortunately, I got hit with a lot of homework this last week and couldn't get it all done on time. [explaining your situation]
Teacher: You should have planned better.
Student: Maybe I could have planned better, and I'll certainly try harder next time. [agreement] But after I did all this work, if I feel like it's just being thrown away, that's going to make it harder for me to be motivated about future assignments. [speaking to the teacher's interests, showing you take the class seriously] I don't want that to happen. I want to do well in your class. ["I" statements] If you let me turn this paper in, I promise I'll work harder on meeting your deadlines in the future. [speaking to the teacher's interests]
Teacher: Well, I'll let you turn it in this one time. But don't be late again.
Student: Thank you. [polite, respectful]
Following the above advice will greatly improve your odds of winning. Of course, you will not win every argument no matter what you do. Prepare for that by coming into the meeting with a Plan B: one or two alternate solutions you can offer as a compromise. If he refuses to accept your paper late, even after he has listened to all your arguments, ask if you can make up the lost points by doing some extra credit assignment. If the teacher will not cancel your inconvenient detention, ask if you can serve it at a better time, or if you can do an extra homework assignment instead of the detention.
When a teacher refuses to give you everything, a compromise is a great way to get something. It is a win that does not leave the other person feeling like he lost.
If you approach a teacher calmly and respectfully, offer thoughtful arguments, show that you're listening to him, do not show him up in front of the class, and come prepared to offer compromises if needed, you can work with the teacher to solve nearly any problem. And even if you do not win that argument, you may still win in the long run — because even if that teacher will never admit he was wrong, even if he will never agree to change, he may still think about what you have said and then treat you more fairly in the future. Even better than winning an argument is not needing to have one.