Distressed students create stressed professors

As academics, we’ve been trained first in research, second in teaching (if we are lucky), and rarely in interpersonal skills. This can lead to some distressing situations when we inevitably have a student enter our office upset about personal issues and wanting to share.

I find this problem is two-fold. First, students aren’t trained on how to communicate their needs without oversharing. For example, what we often hear from stressed students is along the lines of “My mom has cancer and I can’t focus”, “I have PTSD and the veteran’s clinic won’t refill my medications”, or “I am suffering from severe depression and just want to kill myself.” (all of which I have actually been told by former students). Often students don’t realize that saying “I’ve had some personal issues this week and I really need more time to finish the assignment” is usually more than enough for professors to extend a deadline. Its not their fault, we never told them how empathetic we can be without being privy to all the details.

Second, professors aren’t taught how to help these students in a meaningful way without trying to fix their problems. When a student comes to us stressed out, we WANT to help. We want them to succeed, to overcome their challenges, and to be happy. What we NEED to realize is that this is not necessarily our job even though we may have advice to give, and further, we are not trained to give advice on these types of personal dilemmas. Something has gotta give.

A new article from Chronicle Vitae addresses some of these issues and offers advice on how to help your emotionally charged students. While I am not a huge fan of the tone that article takes (i.e. assuming that all professors are completely incapable of handling student emotions), it does offer some great advice. The cliff-notes are below.

  1. Be gentle with yourself – You weren’t professionally trained to handle these situations, so its okay to feel uncomfortable.
  2. Know who to ask for help – Have a list of people who are trained to handle a variety of situations at the ready. This may include academic advisors, health professionals, school psychologists, etc.
  3. Mind the red flags – Recognize the moments where you definitely need to ask for help.
  4. Be compassionate – Do not make a student feel guilty or inadequate for having showed emotions in your office. We are all human and sometimes a little understanding goes a long way.
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