I have written before about the challenges that many of our students face in their lives.
Recently, I have had a few experiences with students in which I found myself sliding toward the role of counselor, offering emotional support and encouragement, and being asked for advice. In the online world, this is always risky business for mental health professionals. And certainly for teachers.
These experiences caused me to take a step back and think about my role in these situations. In the process, I came up with some ideas that I wanted to share with other teachers.
The situation I am describing is not one specific student. Instead, it is a composite of multiple students.
A student I’ll call Mike sent me a message during the first week of class telling me that his father had passed away and that he would be missing class that week. I followed up with my condolences, and told him how he could catch up during the next module.
I received a message back, thanking me. Mike described his relationship with his father, and how sad he was. I followed up, briefly sharing a similar experience, and encouraged him to take care of himself.
A couple of days later, I received a message from Mike describing an argument he had with his brothers regarding the estate, and how distraught he was.
I followed up expressing how sad it is that families fight during times like this. I encouraged him to get support during this difficult time.
The next day, Mike asked for advice on how to handle his brothers.
The story goes on from there. No, I didn’t give him advice. And yes, I encouraged him to seek out the services of a grief counselor or therapist, and gave him links to a couple of organizations who could provide him with referrals.
Yes, we exchanged more messages. And yes, I continued to encourage him to take care of himself, physically and emotionally, and to get support from a professional.
Mike did rejoin the class. The messages about his personal life, and his ongoing grief, continued. That’s why I refer to him as my new best friend. Seriously, I think I was his best friend during this time. Even short responses, “so sorry to hear this, I know this is a rough time for you” reminded him that someone was listening.
He finally did get help.
My interactions with the student I’m calling Mike was probably similar to those that any teacher and concerned human would have. I wanted to support another human in need. And from what I was hearing from Mike, I had the feeling I might be the only sane person in his corner, as well as the only person who might have any ideas for how to cope during an emotional crisis. In fact, I’m pretty sure I was.
So based on my experiences with Mike, I just wanted to share the guidelines I created for myself to follow when these situations arise. I am not necessarily saying they are optimal for anyone else, but here’s what I do:
Be supportive. This is another human in need, who looks to me as someone they have some kind of connection with and who is a caring person. I can offer compassion within my role as a teacher. Kind words, sharing an experience, letting the student know someone cares. Just listen (read).
Don’t be a therapist. As a licensed mental health professional, I can’t be in the role of conducting therapy via email. And it’s not a role I want to place myself in. For example, with a client in my office, I might strategize with them on the best way to handle a family conflict. I wouldn’t do that via email. Definitely outside of the teacher role. Also I avoid telling students how to solve a personal issue. A lose-lose.
Stay focused on the course work. As much as possible. Even just adding “And let me know if you need any additional guidance on the assignment” or “please keep me posted on your progress” are gentle reminders that helping them complete the course is my first responsibility.
Offer options while maintaining standards. There have been times when I felt like the student just wasn’t going to be emotionally stable enough, or had too many distractions, to complete the course. At that point, I might also suggest to the student that we consider a 30-day extension. Academic advisors can also be really helpful to students in these situations, and I have at times sent students in that direction.
Encourage self-advocacy. It would be unfair to the student to place myself in the role of problem-solver, and not good for me, either. I encourage students to use available resources to take care of themselves. I might send an article I wrote on “shrink shopping” to help them find a therapist. I might suggest a website on grief counseling. I might encourage them to take advantage of VA resources. Or I might encourage them to do some Googling on their own. I do encourage them to take some kind of action.
Get your own support. Students and their problems can push a lot of your own buttons. Don’t hesitate to call a faculty program advisor to talk about the situation, to bounce a few ideas around, and to give you some support. And to help you stay within your role and responsibilities.
This online world we are such an active part of provides all kinds of opportunities to connect with other people on a meaningful level. I’m proud to be able to be that voice of sanity and compassion for students in need. And to support their ability to advocate for themselves.
Image Credit: JOHNNY GREIG / SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY / Universal Images Group