Whether it is talking with a student about his or her grade, or when you notice that a student is just hanging out around your office, not quite coming in, but clearly wanting to get your attention, or when an advisee calls to say that “I just need to talk to you” – we have all had those moments when students need us as a human being, not just in our status as professor.
They need us to be there with their frustration, their hurtness, sometimes even their joy. It might be as a witness to their truth or an advocate for their pain or a sounding board for their anger.
This kind of “being there” is not always—ever?—in our job descriptions as faculty members or staff members; rather it is part of our responsibility as a human interacting with another human being.
Sometimes “being there” means sitting with a student as the certainty of a poor grade sinks in—waiting for the student to cycle between anger at you, at him or herself, to worrying about what parents will say, to wondering how this might impact financial aid, and even more emotions. It’s letting that happen (for a while) without intervening, even when the anger is directed at you. It can mean being empathetic—nodding one’s head, leaning forward to listen more closely as the student’s voice drops off in despair. But mostly, it is waiting—waiting until the student wants to bring you in as a dialogue partner, waiting until the student is open to thinking about realistic alternatives.
Being there isn’t verbally cutting off the student with an “it happened to me too and look how I dealt with it” story (even if true), or telling the student that “this isn’t my job, you need to go see someone else”—it is taking a moment to interact with the real person before you.
I know that most faculty are not trained to be counselors and I support the division between faculty, other staff, and counselors on campus—all are valued, skilled members of the campus community. But sometimes students need a person who will be there in the moment as they face the hard stuff life can throw at us all…a person who can help them to get to a place where they can pick up the phone to call for professional help. Often that person is someone they feel they know or who at least is a routinized part of their lives, and faculty are that for many students.
I’ve sat with students as they practiced coming out to their parents, parents they knew would disown them (and did). Those students felt they had to tell their truth to their family no matter the consequences, but needed an adult to listen to how they framed their truth. I’ve been with students who had visible injuries from domestic violence incidents as they cycled between “how could he do this to me?” to “he must be so wounded emotionally himself” to “I have to protect my kids” and back again. I took a walk around the campus with a student so scared after being robbed at work the night before. She literally was unable to sit still for more than a few seconds; she felt safer out in the open than in my small office, similar to one where she was robbed. And I have been with a student at the county Health Department, waiting for the student to be called back to receive the results of an AIDS test. Those moments of waiting seemed to last forever, but the moment when the student walked out of the office, after receiving the results, and walked over to me, seemed even longer.
A few years ago, a student asked me for permission to keep her phone on, in order to receive a text concerning her father who was gravely ill. During the next class, I saw that she received a text and then left class. Since it was only about 3 minutes before class would have ended anyway, I didn’t send anyone after her but quickly left the classroom to try to catch up with her. I walked to the Student Union (across the street from my classroom) and saw her outside, on a bench, crying. I sat down on the bench and just said “I’m here.” After a few minutes, I found some Kleenex in my backpack and passed them to her. We sat there in silence—yet feeling connected—for nearly thirty minutes. Then she said, “He died—my world is gone.” I said I was very sorry, and just listened. For close to an hour, at breakneck speed, she spoke of all the times her dad supported her, challenged her, and made her feel loved. Finally, she took some deep breaths and said, “What do I do about classes?” With that, we walked back to my office and I talked about how we could alert one campus office and they’d reach out to all her professors and explain her absence. She did that from my office and then we talked about her options in my class. When she returned in a week, she gave me a thank you card. It said, “You just being with me on that bench, knowing why I was upset but not asking me to talk, meant everything to me. Just sitting with me—together—helped.”
Being there with a student in emotional distress takes its toll on all individuals involved. But remember, ultimately, it isn’t about you, but you do need to notice how you are doing in that moment. Each of us has internal wounds, some visible, many invisible, which can shape a person’s responses to the distress of others. It means that we need to be sure, in those moments of being there with a student, that if the conversation shifts to brainstorming solutions, that we help students to see all their options, not just the options we might choose.
That often means we will need to involve campus partners—sometimes that might be the Title IX Coordinator or law enforcement, the Counseling Center, the campus tutoring center, and most definitely, the student’s academic counselor and often, a financial aid counselor as well. Every campus will have official policies about how a faculty and staff must report certain kind of discussions (e.g., crimes, etc.)—we have to follow those policies obviously.
Sometimes the student is so distressed that she or he feels unable to take that next step. Don’t take it for the student without the student’s permission—that reduces the student’s agency—but I have offered to dial the phone, for example, to the Counseling Center and to get past the first layer of triage. I would do that in front of the student, so that he or she heard exactly what I said and could respond if I framed the need incorrectly. But then I would hand the phone over to the student and, unless previously told to stay by the student, I’d leave my office for a while so that the student could have privacy.
These are not comfortable moments, necessarily, but they are human ones that we all have had. And ultimately, I always tried to be a human first, a faculty member second. I tried to interact as I would want someone to do for me. I know I failed at that sometimes, but in those moments of “being there” I tried my best.
Readers, how have you been there for your students, in those moments of pain, anger, sadness, or shock—in moments of sharing humanity?
And readers, how is AcWriMo going? Are you writing? Remember, you are not alone!
Please visit the Pedagogical Thoughts website to contact me about institutional or individual consulting, dissertation editing, or coaching about writing.