When a class is harder than you expected


My entire life English has been my thing – my best class, I even just started writing a novel. And AP Lang is kicking my butt up down and all around.

Advice on avoiding the soulcrushing feeling that I lost a large part of my identity to this class?

realsocialskills said:

I think it might help to remember that this class is not an ultimate test of whether you’re good at writing.

It’s one class. I don’t know why it’s kicking your butt. There are a lot of possibilities.

For instance:

New skills that don’t come naturally to you:

  • Sometimes students who are good at a particular subject expect that everything about it will always come naturally to them.
  • In the long run, that’s unlikely to be true.
  • No matter how good someone is at something, there will probably be things that are difficult, unnatural, and have a steep learning curve.
  • This can be scary the first time students experience it, particularly if they have a lot of identity hung up in being good at something.
  • Particularly if they’re young enough that their peer group might be made up of people who also haven’t experienced struggling with their strongest subject much before.
  • If that’s the issue, it might help to remember that this is normal. Everyone struggles with something related to their field in the long run. That’s ok.
  • And it also might help to remember that part of being great at something is learning how to do hard things
  • Most people who write seriously consider writing to be difficult.
  • Writing is probably going to be hard sometimes. Sometimes it’s going to feel like a miserable slog. It’s still worth doing. For a lot of writers, writing through the stuck places is a vital part of what makes good writing possible.

The class might be designed to kick your butt. Some classes are like that, eg:

  • Some teachers assign things that they know are barely possible for their students
  • The point of this is to push you hard to increase your skills dramatically over the semester
  • Teachers who do this tend to keep making the assignments harder as their students develop more skills
  • Your teacher may be assigning books they expect most or all of the students to find extremely difficult to read
  • Your teacher may be having you write in ways that they know will be very difficult
  • Or holding you to very high standards that they expect to be only barely possible for you to meet
  • Struggling with that kind of class doesn’t mean you’re bad at English
  • It means that you’re in a class where the teacher is pushing you really hard, and not giving you any chances to do anything comfortable
  • If this is a factor, it might help to remind yourself that it’s ok to struggle when you’re being asked to do difficult things

The grading standards might be more difficult than you’re used to:

  • Different teachers grade differently
  • In most classes, there’s a default grade you get if you do all the assignments more-or-less competently. In some classes, that’s an A. In others, it’s a B. In others, it’s a C.
  • If you’re having to work much harder for grades than you’re used to, it may well just mean that the scale is different.
  • (Even if it’s a teacher you’ve had before; many teachers grade AP classes more stringently).

Your classmates might be different than you’re used to:

  • Sometimes students are used to being much better than their peers at a subject
  • Then they take an advanced class, and everyone else is good at the subject too
  • Then they’re not dramatically better at it anymore, and feel like they must not be good at it after all
  • This is also common among people who are used to being at the top of their class in high school, then go on to an elite school and have peers who were also at the top of their classes
  • If this is what’s going on, it might help to try to focus on doing things well rather than doing them better than your peers
  • And to remember that if you’re around others who are strong in your subject, you can learn from them as well as the teacher
  • You don’t have to dramatically outperform everyone else for your skills to be real
  • Writing well and reading seriously matter as ends in themselves, whatever test scores say.

The class might suck:

  • Some classes are terrible and make students feel terrible.
  • The teacher might be giving you unreasonable or unclear assignments
  • The assigned books might be excruciatingly dull.
  • The writing assignments might be pointless busywork that makes you hate writing.
  • The teacher might be mean.
  • Your classmates might be mean.
  • You might have access needs that the teacher isn’t meeting.
  • Or any number of other ways classes can suck.
  • Most people who go to school for a long time deal with classes that suck sometimes.
  • If that’s the problem, it might help to keep in mind that bad classes don’t mean you’re bad, and that the class will end.

You might have a lot of other stuff going on.

  • High school is hard on a number of levels for a lot of people.
  • Particularly the last two years, in which there can be a lot of pressure to believe that your future will be ruined if you don’t push yourself superhumanly hard.
  • Life in general can be hard for all kinds of reasons.
  • Sometimes when stuff is really hard, people find things difficult that they normally are able to do easily.

Mental or physical health:

  • If you have a mental or physical health condition, that can make school harder.
  • Some mental and physical health conditions tend to start in adolescence.
  • Long-standing conditions often also change or develop complications in adolescence.
  • Health conditions in adolescence are not always diagnosed quickly or treated appropriately.
  • Even when things are managed well, they still have to be managed, and that can still complicate things a lot
  • And that’s not always acknowledged, particularly when people want to reassure you that your brain is fine and you are totally mentally normal
  • The reality is that mental and physical health problems, as well as treatment, tend to make school harder
  • It can help to remember that it’s not your fault that dealing with health is hard and takes time and can suck in other ways and makes things other than health hard sometimes.
  • Or, as one of my friends once said to me, “it turns out that brains care more about oxygen than they do about academics.”

Disability issues:

  • Sometimes students with disabilities start needing academic accommodations when their classes get harder.
  • For instance, someone who could take notes by hand in an easy class might need a computer to take notes in a hard class.
  • Someone with dyslexia who can read 20 pages a week of standard print might need to use a screenreader for a class that requires 120 pages a week.
  • When students haven’t needed accommodations before, or haven’t needed them in a while, it doesn’t always occur to anyone that they might need them now
  • (Particularly if they were pushed really hard to learn to do something in the standard way, and were able to do so for a few years before classes got harder).
  • If you have a disability or suspect that you might, it’s worth considering whether you would benefit from modifications or support.

And in general: There are any number of reasons this class could be hard. This class is not a test of whether you are good at English, whether you are good at writing, or whether you should write a novel. If you want to write, you can do that, and do it well, no matter what happens in this class.

Short version: A lot of things can make classes hard, even in subjects you’re used to being good at. Those classes aren’t tests of whether you’re good at the subject, or whether you can keep doing the things you’re interested in. They’re just classes. It’s ok to do hard things.

7 second rule

If you’re leading a group discussion or teaching a class, it’s important to pause for questions periodically. Part of pausing for questions is giving people time to react before moving on. People can’t respond instantaneously; they need time to react. If you don’t give them time to react, it can give you an inaccurate impression of their level of interest or engagement.


  • Leader: Does anyone have any questions?
  • Group: …
  • Leader: Ok, moving on. 

When this happens, it’s not usually because no students had questions. It’s usually because the teacher didn’t give them enough time to process before moving on. It doesn’t actually take a huge amount of time, but there has to be some. A good amount of time to wait is seven seconds. If you wait seven seconds before moving on, someone will usually say something.

Seven seconds can feel like a really long time when you are teaching. It can feel like an awkward empty space that, as the teacher, you’re supposed to be filling. That can lead to interactions like this:

  • Leader: I just said a controversial thing. What do you think of the thing?
  • Group: …
  • Leader (immediately):… none of you have opinions about this?
  • Group: …
  • Leader: (immediately):… Really? No one?

When this happens, it’s usually not that no one had anything to say. It’s usually that the leader or teacher kept interrupting them while they were trying to get words together and respond. It’s easy to inadvertently do this, because it feels like you’re supposed to be doing something to get your students to respond. But, often, the best thing you can do to get them to respond is to wait and give them space to do it in.

It helps to remember that as the teacher or leader, you shouldn’t actually be taking up all of the space. You should also be offering your students some space and listening to them, and allowing them to ask you questions so they can understand. It’s ok if that space isn’t immediately filled; no one can react instantaneously. 

Short version: If you wait seven seconds every time you pause for questions/responses, it gives people time to process, and some people will become capable of participating who weren’t before.

On being in school and working

What are some ways to balance work and school? Cus I’m working 25 to 30 hours a week and taking only three classes and I’m still behind. I don’t know how some people work fulltime AND go to school fulltime while paying rent and having kids.

realsocialskills said:

I don’t know how people balance that kind of schedule with school/kids/work. I think that it’s nearly impossible and that most people couldn’t do it.

Here are a couple of things I do know about passing classes under time pressure:

Choose your classes carefully:

  • Not all classes are equally time-consuming.
  • If you’re working a lot of hours, it’s probably better not to take all the really time-consuming classes in the same semester
  • (Eg: if you’re taking a class that has five papers, or lots of complicated programming assignments, it might be better not to take others than are like that at the same time).
  • It can also go a lot better to select classes based on who is teaching them rather than based on which description theoretically looks best
  • Classes go much more smoothly with teachers you’re readily compatible with
  • (particularly if you tend to need a lot of help)

Consider taking classes that are relevant to your work:

  • If some of what you’re working on at work can inform your class assignments, that makes life a lot easier
  • For instance, it’s much easier to write a paper on something you’ve researched for work than it is to research something else *and* what you have to work on at work
  • And more generally: if the concepts you’re learning in school are related to and overlapping with what you think about at work, it will be much less time consuming than if you have to do both separately
  • This can be true even if your work isn’t particularly intellectual on the face of it. No matter what your job is, it involves knowing things, and classes are easier if you can make knowing those things relevant.

It is possible to pass classes without doing all of the reading:

  • Most people don’t do all of the reading (except in seminar classes in which most of class consists of an in-depth group discussion of the reading).
  • If you are struggling to keep up, you may well be doing more of the reading than you should be.
  • It’s worth learning how to skim text in order to get the basic ideas
  • When a teacher cites something a lot in class, it’s generally worth reading it again after more closely

Having a study group or partner helps in several ways:

  • Perspective from other people can make it easier to tell whether you’re understanding what you need to understand
  • It can also make it easier to tell whether you’re doing *more* work than you need to in order to keep up and pass.
  • You can also pool knowledge. There will always be things that some people get and some people miss, and some people talk about it.
  • Meeting with others at a set time to do the work for a class can stop it from expanding to fill all available space
  • Even if you don’t have a regular study group, sometimes you can organize review sessions before tests. Those can also be helpful in similar ways.

On stimming in class

Do you know of any quiet or discrete fidget/stim toys? I find that I need to fidget in my school discussion group to keep from getting super anxious, but if I play with a hairband under the table or doodle then people notice. Most of the fidget toys I find online are colourful, which I don’t want because people will see. I will try a stress ball, but I think that my fingers need to be doing things. Thank you 🙂

realsocialskills said:

A couple of thoughts:

There probably aren’t many ways to stim that are completely undetectable. Some things I can think of that might be harder to detect than some others:

  • Rocking back and forth subtly
  • Chewing gum
  • Using typing as a stim (eg: typing out scripts or words you like over and over)
  • Using fidget jewelry .

Also, knitting and crocheting are not discreet at all, but they are often socially accepted in classes or group conversations. Depending on your particular group, that might be an option.

Another thought: maybe it’s ok if people notice:

  • Stimming isn’t necessarily as dangerous as it feels
  • Sometimes it’s okay to stim openly. Sometimes nothing awful happens
  • And sometimes people react badly, but in ways that are easier to put up with than the stress of suppressing stims
  • Stimming openly and conspicuously is not the right choice for everyone
  • But it’s probably the right choice for more people than realize it
  • So it might be worth reconsidering whether hiding your stims is the right choice
  • Or it might not be. You’re the best judge of this, and you have no obligation to stim visibly.