So. I survived a semester without having a single undergraduate cry on me!1 I’m really not sure that that’s cause for celebration, though.
What I’m telling myself instead is that this semester, I talked one of my friends-and-former-students into applying for an extension when it was needed. I talked one of my current students through Special Consideration applications which she’d started. I’ve had a couple of honest conversations with undergrads about Ye Olde Mental Health Problemes and academia – some in a teachery capacity and some in the context of less formal relationships built up through extra-curricular CMS activities. I’m starting to get a sense of how much I’m happy to say and in what contexts.2
I think can be pretty happy both with the coping skills demonstrated by some of my students, and with my own behaviour/example/wossname. But. But. I’m still not used to the fact that every semester it seems like I have to watch some kids slip through the cracks.
There’s the ones who come to you at the end of semester in despair because of problems that have been going on all semester, maybe longer, and say “what can I do, I can’t afford to fail anymore courses?” There’s some who turn up to most classes and suddenly stop handing in work. There’s some who have every right to special considerations, alternative assessments, whatever, and just… never asked for them.
It breaks my heart, every time. It’s also a good case study of Professional Boundaries and all that: there is help I must give (according to the institution’s rules and my immediate supervisor’s policys); and there is help I can give, mostly advice, because I am basically a nice person, or perhaps I spent too long in the Brownie Guides and ended up with a compulsive urge to ‘lend a hand’. But there’s also a whole range of stuff clearly outside of my power, like the extension system and so on (we have a faculty-wide policy and system here, which is great for uniform practice, but intimidating to use as a student). And regardless of how much concrete help and practical advice I give, first, the student has to ask for it and then the student has to use it.
I have to get used to the fact that some kids will never ask, and others won’t put into action the advice they get. That might be their own silly fault, or it might be because whatever their problem is, they’re kind of drowning in it and can’t get the logical-thinking thing together to fix it.3 It may not be the student’s fault, and I really wish the university’s support systems were less confusing to find and use, but there’s still nothing I can do about it.
But. When students do talk to me, y’know what I keep seeing? Students with actualfax perfectly legit problems are afraid of talking to their teachers, and of using the support systems available. Because they:
– are ashamed of themselves
– are scared of disappointing their teachers
– think the support systems aren’t for people like them, they’re for people with real problems
– don’t want people to know they have real problems.
I haven’t had any of my students say as much to me, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if there was a fear that People In Positions Of Power would dismiss/laugh at/be unwilling to help students, especially those with invisible illnesses of the mental-health type. I like and trust my supervisors, but I’ve also seen other faculty members laugh off, or gripe about, students requesting help for mental health problems.
I can’t fix all the problems in the world, but if I could wave a magic wand and make all my students not afraid to talk to me I would be a very happy person. (My second wish, mind you, would be that this not-afraidness come with a sensible concept of the difference between ‘asking for advice on coping with study and personal crises’ and ‘telling me waaaaay too much about your personal problems on the first day of class’; but if I only get one wish, then I’d rather enforce that boundary myself.)
In some parts of the world – not here, so far as I know – there are whole programs set up to train staff and faculty in being aware of the particular problems faced by queer students, and how to help them. Such programs, I am given to understand, also have ways of identifying “this staffmember is not an arseface” for students who need to seek advice. Last year (wow, was it only last year?), in the aftermath of a spate of campus suicides, the internet was awash with advice on how to be a visibly-queer friendly academic.4
Have any of you encountered such a program for training academics to deal with students who have legit life and health problems? Is anyone running programs like that? Sometimes I think teachers ought to get basic… pastoral care training, or whatever the term is for the secular equivalent. Or possibly everyone should line up to be administered a dose of the Cluebat, that’d also be nice.
What does one do to make it as safe as possible for students to talk to you when they need to? I mean, I have my personal toolkit – I have and keep office hours and tell the class that I’ll be horribly bored if no one comes to talk to me during that time. I try to remind them a couple of times per semester about a. where the extension system is and b. that really, I promise, they’re entitled to use it. This semester I also added in some personal comments, letting them know that I don’t see the applications or the reasons, and that the course co-ordinator, who makes the decisions, is an understanding and fair person and I ought to know, she’s my supervisor. I specifically mentioned mental health problems as legit reasons for special considerations.
I know that, no matter what I do, I can’t actually make all my students get their shit together. Perhaps I’ll develop a thicker skin with time, or when I’m no longer teaching in my own undergraduate institution. I don’t think I want to lose this concern entirely, though. Even if there’s a limited amount or nothing at all that I can do, I don’t want to turn into the person who doesn’t care.
Advices, O Internets?
1. I did make a student cry, but she left the room to do so. Pretty sure that wasn’t because of my unusual meanness, just a matter of straw, meet camel’s back, in the form of midsemester results.
2. Case in point, apparently I’m telling the internet that I’m both not-straight and not-entirely-mentally-well. Interesting. For reference, anyone who deals with me IRL, neither of these are secrets, but nor are they things I go around shouting from rooftops in professional contexts. I have no problem with people knowing but I don’t necessarily want to talk about it.
3. I have seen this student, and I have been this student.
4. A lot of this advice actually upset me a lot, and did not make me feel very comfortable. I strongly resist the idea that anyone is obliged to Come Out, even for the sake of the Yoof of Today. What of teachers who are just figuring this out? Who don’t feel safe themselves in their classrooms or workplaces? When it comes down to it, too, if you expect of me certain behaviours or public declarations in a classroom that you wouldn’t expect of my straight best friend (who’s just as down with queer theory and rights and whatnot as I am), then you have a sexuality-based double standard, and I don’t wanna play. I much preferred Lesboprof’s very concrete, curriculum and policy oriented advice.