One of the things that I’ve found I’m completely unprepared for as a new teacher and academic advisor is the level of emotion the students bring with them to talk with me. I’m just not a public crier, so it always startles me when someone lets the waterworks go during what seems to me to be a relatively benign conversation. Not that I never empty a box of Kleenex while watching a tearjerker with a group of friends, or think that crying in front of others makes you weak – it’s just not me. This has left me at a loss for what to do when someone breaks down in my office. Politely ignore? Offer Kleenex? Ask details? I should have paid better attention when friends talked about their experiences being the crier or the cryee!
It took me awhile (basically the third time the same girl cried) to realize that with some students intense displays of emotion isn’t really a big deal – or at least not a sign of something really wrong with the person or my class. The first time she cried I was upset about it for days – was I being too strict? Were the assignments too long? Were my expectations too high? But nobody else complained, and by the second and third time I realized that was just her. Even so, it was an awkward situation. And I still felt bad every time.
More troublesome, though, is when students come to my office and have more serious issues – either long term mental health issues or current serious crises. I was a little befuddled when my ‘mentor’ told me that if a student seemed to need real ‘help’ I should offer to take them over to psychiatric services – as if that was a common occurrence. I’ve only been here three months and I’ve had to offer once already. I have rarely felt so powerless as when an advisee started quietly sobbing because he had never really recovered from a traumatic tragic event two years before, and as a result might not graduate. I had NO idea what to do. Or when a student failing two classes (including mine) admitted three quarters of the way through the semester that he hadn’t been doing any work because his sibling is on their deathbed. Should I have reached out sooner, to find out why he wasn’t turning assignments in? This doesn’t really seem like something you should learn through trial and error!
I know that I’m not trained as a therapist (and certainly do not want to be) but there has to be a middle ground between that and completely shutting down and not listening/talking at all to a student in need. At the very least I need to come up with some survival mechanisms so that I don’t feel like utter crap each time someone with a real problem brings it to me. It’s kind of sad that I spent so many years preparing for the mechanics of a position like this, and yet have no idea what to do in these emotional situations that have the potential to have real long term impacts on students.
What do you do when a student breaks down in your office? Do you have different strategies for different types of situations? How do you balance being a fair teacher and an advisor, while also being compassionate?