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At our nation’s colleges and universities, faculty members have become one part caretaker and one part educator. If you are anything like us, more office hours are spent helping students emotionally cope with the world around them than they are advancing learning.
Colleagues often will ask how we toe the line between being compassionate with students while maintaining rigor and accountability in their work. In essence, they want to be assured that in an era of extreme mental health challenges—student deaths by suicide on campus are unfortunately never far from the headlines—it’s possible to challenge fragile students without breaking them.
Here are four approaches to managing these concerns.
1. Thinking of the issue as both-and, not either-or
Setting up a continuum that suggests self-care is at odds with accountability is a false dichotomy that we must deconstruct with our students. Framing accountability as a part of self-care is, however, essential. We will encourage students to reflect on the times they were most and least successful, and our joint discovery is that success usually is the product of planning and consistency, even when it is uncomfortable. Persistence in the face of challenge can actually reduce stress, and it has the great benefit of increasing productivity.
Constant discomfort can lead to significant stress and burnout. Faculty can share with students early in the semester that, from a neuroscience perspective, a stressed-out brain is not a learning brain. Therefore implementing structure and healthy practices early will help students both emotionally and academically.
However, students must actually be present to learn. A learning brain must also be a present brain, so students should be encouraged to expand their self-care tool box to include strategies beyond mental health days. Being present means not only showing up to class but also being on time, having readings completed, staying on task and being prepared to engage. Learning is an active process, and students must contribute to their own learning.
2. Re-emphasizing the importance of communication between professor and student
Whether with a spouse or partner or at work, communication is a tool for accountability. We are noticing that students need to relearn after COVID that they are still accountable for their work, even when life events occur. We have seen many situations where students need to learn how to communicate ahead of time what their needs are and work out a plan with the instructor rather than assuming work can be turned in late. Sometimes assignments won’t be accepted, and that’s OK.
Faculty members can help students by reinforcing the ideas that grace and flexibility are often the by-products of good communication and early effort. If we know there are scheduled events, we can encourage students to work with us on meeting their academic goals and not always accepting that work needs to be late.
Many of our students need practice with interpersonal skills, which is why group projects are a requirement. We do allocate time in class for groups to meet, and at the first meeting students have a worksheet where they not only have to plan the project logistics (set deadlines, divide tasks, etc.) but also to reflect and share their working and communication styles. This helps them begin to understand important components of effective team participation but requires scaffolding in the class.
3. Setting boundaries with students, not for students
This approach is essential in that students are a part of the planning process for their assignments and classwork. In the beginning of the semester, set up class expectations that include expectations on the students and expectations on the instructor, plus a discussion on what students need to be successful in that course.
For example, students may suggest having lectures or class discussions be recorded or posted online, while instructors may suggest turning work in on time. When you have built the contract together, it doesn’t feel so one-sided for students.
4. Demystifying mental health and counseling services
The mental health struggle for college students—and faculty—is real, which is why no syllabus should be without self-care items. This includes contacts to any campus counseling center. Faculty should consider inviting the counseling center and/or student organizations focused on positive health/mental health practices to speak in their classes, as a way to connect students with resources available to them. We try to time these meetings around midterms, when stress is proliferating.
Teaching college students has never been easy, but adding layers of stress, anxiety and poor interpersonal communication makes the task exponentially more difficult. Additionally, it’s tough to be a great mentor when you are running on fumes yourself. As faculty members, we can model resilience by taking care of ourselves and sharing the coping strategies we use. By reinforcing that coping skills are life skills, we are strengthening their preparation for success in this semester and in the real world.