• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

“I Wasn’t Trained for This.”

Student mental health issues, in the classroom.

February 6, 2019
 
 

You’re teaching a class. It has twentyish students, ranging in ability, interest, age, and background. One student seems a little offbeat, but nothing out of bounds. One day, about a month into the course, that student starts rocking back and forth aggressively in his chair, and ignoring requests to stop. He doesn’t seem to be malicious; for that matter, he doesn’t seem to be entirely in control of what he’s doing. The other students notice and are visibly uncomfortable. What do you do?

Most college faculty never took “education” courses. They studied deeply in their own disciplines, and sometimes had some training in online teaching and/or very basic classroom management techniques, although even that can’t always be assumed.  (The sum total of my pedagogical training before t.a.’ing my first class consisted of the professor saying “you’ll be fine.”) Teaching is often picked up through trial and error, usually first by imitation.  

That can be fine, with many students.  But some students present behaviors that are far enough outside what’s expected that a layperson may be utterly flummoxed.  Behaviors like that -- which I am basing on an actual incident -- aren’t criminal, exactly; calling in the police seems more like escalation than solution.  But they’re disconcerting, and they can be disruptive.

I was never trained for that, and I don’t think most college faculty were.  But these situations happen, often abruptly.

In the moment, most professors improvise as best they can.  (When all else fails, I’m a fan of the “let’s take a break!” move, having the other students clear out for a bit while addressing the one student directly.  It’s not always appropriate, but it’s a good technique to keep in the back pocket.) My question here is about how best, from an institutional perspective, to equip faculty to handle situations like these in the moment.

The question is particularly urgent for adjunct faculty, who may or may not have informal connections with people on campus to ask for help. 

Student mental health is often treated as a private issue, and in many ways, it is.  But when it spills over into the classroom, it becomes more than that.

Ideally, we’d have a small army of mental health professionals at the ready, able to respond to a distress call at a moment’s notice.  But that’s not where we are. The austerity agenda rules that out.

I’m hoping that some of my wise and worldly readers have seen, or heard of, colleges that do a particularly good job of training faculty to deal with situations like those in the moment.  We have protocols for filing reports after the fact, but I’m looking particularly at the moment itself. I don’t have a great answer for the scenario above, but I’d like to, and I’d like my colleagues to.  Has anyone seen a really good institutional approach to equipping faculty for moments like those?

 

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