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  • Writer's pictureBecca Dzombak

The bar for supporting students is so, so low. Why aren't we meeting it?

Being emotionally supportive and sensitive to mental health issues should always be a priority, but it's especially critical as we teach remotely... during quarantine... because of a pandemic. It's not rocket science.

We just received student evaluations for the term that ended in April, after we'd all switched to teaching remotely from quarantine. I thought we had done a pretty good job of transitioning the class, and I was pleased to see that the summary report for the evaluations was positive. I scrolled down to the second page, where my personal instructor comments appeared. Reading the comments from students, again, I was pleased - they were positive evaluations overall without any major gripes. It's always nice to know that you've done a decent job.

But I went back to re-read a few of the longer comments because I'd seen some specific emotions expressed, phrases I've seen before, that I wanted to revisit. For context, I think most people would describe me as a pretty nice person, and I always try to be helpful, available, and understanding of my students. I respond to their anxieties and issues like an empathetic adult. Not doing anything out of the ordinary - or so I thought.

I got several comments along the lines of, "I've never gotten a sense that an instructor really cared about me learning the material, let alone who actually cared about me as a person." Or expressed that no other instructor had been as understanding and supportive about mental heath concerns as we (the professor and I) had been. Or told me that no one had ever before asked why they weren't showing up to the morning class (back when we were in person).

And it's not just this recent term, which had its own set of issues for us to to deal with. I've received similar feedback in previous courses, too - students feeling relieved and grateful that an instructor is indeed a human who understands what they are going through, and if not directly, then who is at least empathetic and flexible. While it's good to hear that I was able to be this person for my students, it shouldn't be a standout case. It should be the norm.

I don't think it's true that prior to me, these students have had only cold-hearted, uncaring instructors*, because their instructors are my peers, my friends, and other graduate students like me - many of whom are struggling with similar mental health issues, although not everyone would be comfortable sharing that with their students for myriad reasons.

What I do think is true is that often, instructors do a lackluster job of communicating with their students, both at the beginning of a term to set up expectations and baselines as well as throughout the course. This probably isn't because they don't want to communicate honestly and openly with their students, or because they don't care*. It's because of structural problems with how mental health and academic performance have been treated historically (and differently among different demographic groups); we learn by example. And part of the problem is simply the lack of good examples. Thinking through my own academic history, I think I was lucky to have a handful of instructors who, through words and actions, made it clear that they cared about my success and well-being. Who, when I was depressed but taking (too many) summer classes, were flexible with me. Who were willing to talk to me. When I started graduate school, I knew I wanted to emulate those teachers: someone who students could come to if they were struggling, whether it was with the material or with something in their lives.

So when I started teaching, I knew there was more to being a "good" teacher than explaining material and not letting anyone fall off a cliff at field camp (although those are undoubtedly important). It's one thing to have an "Accommodations" paragraph in a syllabus directing students to a campus counseling center, or to announce during the inevitable first-day-of-class slew of logistics, "Please let me know if you're having trouble." It's another to remind students of your humanity throughout the term, to ask - often - how you can improve to best serve them, and to take the time to listen to their answers. That goes a long way.

Another problem is simply that in most research universities, even if undergraduate tuition funds much of the school, undergraduate education and dedication to teaching come second to research. Professors and graduate students are burning the candle at both ends, and the candle is also being held above another flame so it's melting in the middle. So it could be that even if people really want to be an empathetic instructor, and even if they had good examples to follow, they might not have the mental or emotional energy**. That's doing the students a disservice, and that's just one of the ways that academia should change for the better - teaching needs to be valued. (Society needs to make that change, too. But that's a discussion for another day.)

Based on conversations with students and my evaluations through the years, I think I've been pretty successful at being an empathetic, caring teacher. But it breaks my heart to hear that my students don't perceive all their instructors that way. My actions should not stand out.

The bar for helping our students is so low - asking, listening, and adjusting. If we all did those three things - really focused on them throughout a term - I think fewer students would feel like they're in it alone. Don't we want the same thing?


*An important caveat: There are, of course, old-school professors who think everyone should struggle and not everyone 'makes the cut.' They are not good teachers, but they may think they're great. There are people who do not want to take the time to improve their teaching, or who don't care about their teaching evaluations. They aren't good teachers, either, and they're fine with that. So while I like to think it's true that most teachers want to really be accessible to their students, and want to be perceived as caring, there are totally some who just don't care. Hopefully, they are part of an older generation who will retire one day.

**It's no great secret at this point that female faculty tend to do more emotional labor (e.g., students are more likely to approach them with personal/emotional issues than their male colleagues), and faculty in traditionally underrepresented groups often shoulder the additional emotional labor of URM students.

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