I started teaching college writing in 2016, and I was burned out by 2021. After a brief spell of unemployment, I was hired to provide full-time administrative support at a university counseling center. I took the job because I had bills to pay, I needed to get my teeth cleaned and I still wanted to have meaningful interactions with college students. I only lasted six months.
I left mental health care and returned to teaching, thinking it would be less emotionally taxing. I was wrong. Even though I’m no longer answering daily phone calls from students who are actively suicidal, some of the students I teach now have run out of rope, just like the students who needed immediate triage in the counseling center, and they tell me everything—the good, the bad and the ugly, all unsolicited.
Unfortunately, however, I’ve found that I don’t get paid enough as an adjunct instructor to teach writing as well as be a life coach. Nor do I have the training. And I think the fact that the once clear-cut boundaries between students and their instructors have evolved and blurred, in part because poor mental health is no longer bound so tightly to shame, is worth more examination and discussion in academe.
I graduated from college almost a decade ago, and to be clear, I’m not trying to flex any weird survivor bias when I reflect on my own experience. Instead, I want to illustrate how much the student-instructor relationship has changed since I was an undergrad in rural Minnesota. My honest expectations of my professors were that they’d offer me an intellectually stimulating environment where I could learn cool stuff while understanding why there would be consequences if I didn’t attend class or turn in my assignments.
I knew my professors were good people, but I never thought of them as my confidants. Maybe partial blame can be directed toward the congenital Midwestern stoicism my parents bred into me and my brothers. Or maybe it’s because I was a first-generation college student, so I didn’t really know what else was possible to imagine or demand from my educators.
But today, my writing students don’t always recognize the appropriate circumstances for sharing their vulnerability with me. Perhaps one reason is that significantly more individuals than in the past believe that expressing vulnerability is a character strength instead of a defect—a viewpoint that I agree with. However, young adults cannot neglect the importance of displaying emotional professionalism, a term I first heard the author and motivational speaker Simon Sinek use.
Having an occasional bad day is normal. Having crappy mental health has been normalized, too. Yet broadcasting negativity through a lack of engagement—or, worse, treating the classroom as an emotional dumping ground—impacts an intellectual community in the same way that blowing off job duties or unloading uninvited personal problems onto co-workers would be seen as unprofessional behavior in the workplace.
I care about my students a great deal, but it’s not my job to totally take care of them. And I have to set some boundaries for my own health and well-being, so I can be the teacher in the classroom that I need to be. I would never want any of my students to feel like they must suffer in silence, but as one of the many faculty members who are often thought of as the most expendable, I question whether we should be doing this kind of emotional and psychological heavy living on a regular basis.
Some student needs for mental health support are more urgent than others, and I don’t want to leave readers with the impression that I blow them off. I can’t resolve every problem that arises by myself, though. Directing students to campus counseling is the best resource I can offer them. Other students have needs that appear serious to them but maybe aren’t so much in the grand scheme. One classic example is when a high-achieving student will overextend themselves, leaving almost no time for prioritizing their actual academic work. Instead of matching their doom spiraling when they share this very human mistake with me, I give them the grace and flexibility they don’t grant themselves.
Setting Clear Boundaries
Our emotions—good or bad—are transferable. This past spring, a student of mine told me minutes before class started about a personal problem that was impacting her mental health. I excused her from class to go make a walk-in appointment at the university’s counseling center, but I still had to teach and be fully present for the rest of my students. First, I set aside the genuine sadness and concern I felt for my student because I’m not a total monster. Then I shook off my resentment for being on the receiving end of yet another unsolicited mental health disclosure. (The list of personal challenges students HAVE shared with me in just this past year alone was almost as long and diverse as the menu contents at The Cheesecake Factory.) Again, acknowledging and processing strong feelings are signs of emotional maturity. Temporarily compartmentalizing those feelings so they don’t jeopardize learning or work is an example of emotional professionalism. Students need to learn that, too.
Educators, particularly ones who are still early in their careers like me, should feel emboldened to set clear interpersonal boundaries for how they communicate with their students in and outside class. I’ve lost so much free time waiting for students who never visit during office hours (they just don’t show up at all, since most of their questions can be resolved via email or during class), and I’ve expended so much mental energy fielding countless emails containing alarming information I never asked to know. I can’t eliminate grading, lesson planning or instruction from my list of job duties—most of which I enjoy—but, in reflection of my low pay grade, I can control how much time I devote to the administrative and care work that accompanies teaching.
Here’s how I currently set boundaries:
My students are aware of our university’s mandatory reporting policy. If a student divulges information indicating that their personal safety is at risk, I’m required to report what I’ve learned. Knowing that I’m not a confidential source, students may be more likely to seek out an alternative trustworthy support person who is less obligated to spill secrets.
I don’t check my email after 3 p.m. on most weekdays. And I only give my inbox a quick peek on Sunday afternoons, refraining from replying to any emails until Monday morning.
I make it clear that if my scheduled office hours aren’t used, I change them to “By Appointment Only” at midterm. There’s no point in freezing to death in my English department’s shared adjunct office if nobody is going to show up.
The suppression of empathy is not something I’d ever endorse, but re-evaluating what I will and won’t do for future students was at the top of my summer to-do list. I work hard to minimize the number of fiery hoops students must jump through to grow as writers and thinkers, but I can’t forget to perform that same kindness for myself if I want to grow as an educator, too.
As the landscape changes for how we address mental health, presuming that I will continue stretching my time and emotional bandwidth is an implicit demand that remains largely ignored. Over all, I’m glad talking about mental health has been destigmatized and people are more open about how they feel. But I’d still like to decrease the amount of pro bono amateur counseling that’s expected from me.
I will join countless others in saying that colleges and universities across the United States must continue finding ways to allocate more funding for hiring additional qualified counseling staff and providing accessible resources to their students. In the meantime, college students need to learn how to be proactive in finding healthy coping strategies that work for them and display better emotional professionalism when they communicate with their instructors.
Determining who will be responsible for teaching young adults these skills is hard to express in just a paragraph or two. Mostly because only asking instructors to establish solutions for the problems we observe places an undue burden on some of us during a time when many great educators are leaving their profession. This demand for immediate troubleshooting also wedges us into a potential double bind: either we make space in our curricula to (re)teach this skill set, or we must be patient and let life teach our students how to cope instead.
Neither scenario is ideal. The first possibility is difficult to achieve, because a set curriculum like first-year writing often isn’t as malleable as some people might think. Plus, I’m of the opinion that being expected to teach life skills with no additional training or pay might qualify as a form of low-tier sadism. I also recognize that redirecting attention to the “school of life” as an alternative option could be a tough pill to swallow. That type of mind-set pushes the onus back onto students, which also doesn’t seem fair.
So, to each of these points, it bears repeating that I was hired to teach writing, not be a life coach, because I don’t have all the answers.
Poor mental health isn’t solely affecting college students; it’s impacting the jobs we do as faculty members, too, And, ultimately, that will also affect those students’ academic performances in other, just as deleterious, ways.