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Asking students how they are really doing should not be a rare occurrence.

For several years now, I have scheduled a day midsemester for wellness in almost all of my classes because I have seen my students arrive more and more stressed every semester. The results are always amazing.

In hopes of encouraging more professors to adopt similar practices, the following recounts what part of our wellness lesson looked like and how students responded.

When my students opened their daily quiz, they saw the following:

Surprise: To begin today’s conversation about wellness and body image, I’d like to do something different. Hopefully, something that will help improve our body image and/or mental health, even if just a bit. Please take about 10 to 15 minutes to call a friend or relative you haven’t talked with in a while. Tell them hello, see how they’re doing, tell them how you’re doing, etc. That’s it! Submit this quiz now, and talk away for 10 to 15 minutes. Feel free to step outside the room and go down the hall for a minute, if you’d like.

At first, I saw looks of mild confusion and shock. And then one by one, they started smiling and reaching for their phones. Some stayed seated. Some walked outside. And they came back with the brightest smiles that I have ever seen.

Then we sat in one big circle so that we could all make eye contact with each other. I explained that I wanted to take time to go beyond everyday pleasantries of how things are going. I asked them, “How are you really doing? How is school and work? What family member is driving you crazy? How are things in my class really going for you?”

After waiting a few seconds, if even that long, each student began to naturally share their thoughts for the next 30 to 45 minutes. Their comments opened doors for conversations about privilege and oppression, as well as impostor syndrome and student loans and ongoing illnesses. People shared examples of being hungry, of having extreme debt, of struggling with dependence issues and of fearing the federal government. I learned yet again that 90 to 95 percent of college students today are extremely stressed -- far beyond anything I experienced in my undergraduate days a little over a decade ago.

We talked about coping mechanisms, but mainly, I have always found that students benefit from and enjoy speaking about their struggles, being heard and hearing others share that they confront continuing challenges and trials, too. As always happens, a good portion of the students in the class cried at least once.

While acknowledging that I am readily able to spend class time doing this because I teach women’s, gender and sexuality studies; religious studies; and first-year writing with no more than 30 students per class, such a wellness day easily belongs in other subjects. A calculus class could talk more specifically about the emotional and psychological struggles of learning math or about how various life issues present challenges when thinking about equations and formulas. Twelve years of teaching have taught me again and again that “off-topic” lessons are sometimes more meaningful than “on-topic” ones -- and can result in more effective teaching and learning in subsequent classes.

I got an idea of how much students needed this mental health check-in day after reading their responses on the next quiz I gave them. One of the questions asked for thoughts about the wellness discussion. I'll share a few representative examples to tangibly show how important students found this exercise to be. I also share these responses because they indicate how seldom such conversations happen -- a reality that makes me sad. Asking students how they are really doing should not be a rare occurrence.

  • “Wow. Powerful! That was pretty amazing, Dr. Pegoda. I have never experienced anything like that in any of my courses. It was nice to watch people get things off of their chest. We need more of this.”
  • “This Tuesday was heavy for me. I don't think I will ever experience something like that in my college career again. To sit in a classroom and listen to people open up so freely where there was no judgment, just listening, was a really awesome experience. I think the environment that is in this class is a unique bond. All of us are really different, but our issues and struggles are all very similar. We can all relate through one life struggle or another and that's something that people don't normally talk about. I liked it a lot. Felt better. So thank you.”
  • “That was one of the most valuable experiences I have ever had in a college-level course. I cannot thank you enough for that. My oldest sister is pregnant and due any second now, and I have been really cramming for school lately. I didn't realize how much I really needed that time to talk to her because it has been months since I have last seen her. I cannot thank you enough.”
  • “I constantly feel like as humans we forget that we aren't as alone in struggle as we might think, and I could relate to a lot if not all the students who spoke in their highs and lows because not all days are bad, and not all problems are mine, but the feelings have been shared. Earlier in the semester you said your classes tend to get close, and I often hear this but always think it’s a joke. But I actually care for these people. I consider them my friends as do I consider you my friend. Even though you are my professor, this class made me feel safe, a safety I don’t think students often get in college.”
  • “Our check-in earlier on Tuesday was well needed because it made me realize how many real-life situations people go through and we would never know because they're always smiling and happy. It's great to have a professor who actually cares about his students and checks up to see how we're doing.”
  • “I really enjoyed this approach to the class. I found it refreshing that, for the first time, it seemed that a professor actually cared about the well-being of their students, and I really appreciated that. It was a bit hard listening to the hardships everyone is going through at the moment. But in a way, it was relieving to hear that I am not alone in some of my feelings and that everyone has a way to relate to each other.”

So, what are you going to do? Are you going to continue a traditional march through the curriculum? Or are you going to make some time to allow new connections and conversations to happen? We have much-needed opportunities to create brave spaces for students to truly see and know they are not alone.

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