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Instructors: A Student’s First Line of Defense

The instructor-student relationship can be an important line of defense to students’ mental health.

An ever-evolving student body means that faculty need to be constantly changing tactics to not just communicate with students but create a necessary connection. This connection should foster a relationship throughout the course that not only promotes learning but serves as an important line of mental health defense should a student need it.

Get to know your students

Research has repeatedly shown that supportive relationships both inside and outside the classroom are vital to a student’s well-being. College students who feel like they belong do better than those who don’t. This is why it’s important for instructors to pay attention and get to know their students.

According to Assistant Director of Outreach and Community Engagement at the Counseling CenterAngela Landers, instructors need to be observant of their students.

“Everyone has an ‘off’ day, so it’s important to look for prolonged disruptions and patterns. Other changes could occur in the way a student performs in class,” she says. “Was the student consistently on time with assignments and with regard to attendance, then suddenly barely shows up or frequently misses deadlines? That’s a red flag and something to notice and ask about.”

One proven way of checking up on students is through classwork. Olivia Edenfield, Ph.D. teaches upper-level English classes, and in her 39 years as an instructor, she has found that working small writing assignments during class to give her the best indication of how things are going.

“They write for me, and that helps,” she explains of the advantage of being an English instructor. Edenfield’s current class is studying the American novel by studying Catcher in the Rye. “So instead of the topic being what does the main character, Holden, do, it was what would you want to preserve forever?”

Talk over assignments ahead of time

The exercise allows students to connect with Edenfield through the writing. She gets a glimpse of what is important to them and works it into her lessons. It also helps her to see if students are dealing with anxiety or personal issues during those assignments.

Edenfield explains she also tries to become aware of how certain portions of novels may trigger certain students. If she knows about it ahead of time, she will give the class a verbal trigger warning and be gracious if anyone needs to step out for a break.

“I had a student in the past who did not handle this well,” she says. “I didn’t know she had been a victim, and I had not given a warning. She went through a really bad experience. So that let me know that I need to provide these warnings even if I don’t know.”

If a student does have a hard time and makes an instructor aware of it, the Counseling Center is always available for help, and it’s open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to noon and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Some students can’t be left alone to go to the Counseling Center, says Edenfield. Sometimes students are in such a crisis they will just walk away if left to go to the Counseling Center alone.

“An instructor can walk a student over anytime during our hours for what is called a ‘same day solution session’. These meetings allow a student to talk to a counselor about their current distress, problem-solve their situation if possible, and connect with additional resources as needed,” says Landers. “If an instructor is with a student outside of the Counseling Center’s business hours, instructors can still help the student connect with a counselor by calling the Counseling Center, listening to the voice message, and pressing the number two for the on-call counselor.”

According to Landers, being direct with students is the best avenue for communication.

“Sharing your concern directly with a student is always a great starting place to let a student know you care and are worried,” Landers said. “An easy way to do this is to ask a student if s/he can hang back after class. Then, briefly share your observations and concerns. Let the student know you’re open to chatting privately to talk more and share information about campus resources.”

Edenfield agrees.

 “One student was stuck in the back last semester because that’s where the table for his wheelchair was,” Edenfield explains. “About two weeks into class, I asked him if he would rather be up front.”

That was when the student informed her that he preferred sitting up front and didn’t request changes because he didn’t want to disturb the class. Edenfield and her class moved him up front, and his fellow students made sure to move the desks in other classes to let the student sit up front.

Create a safe space

In one way, Edenfield notes the students haven’t truly changed over the years. They have the same fears, anxieties, and needs. While they have more technology to get their hands on information quicker, the only real difference she has found is that their vocabulary and ability to communicate those fears, anxieties, and needs is greater.

“I keep a tea pot, and they know that,” Edenfield says of her office. “And I keep extra cups. They know they can come in here. I keep food for students. They know they can come here if they just need a place to hide out. This is a safe place.”

Know your resources

But sometimes students need more help than an instructor can give. In that case, there are resources available on campus for both student and instructor.

If anyone is concerned about imminent danger to a student, University Police should be called first. However, if anyone has a student in distress, the HERO folder located on the Counseling Center’s website, is a great resource. It includes information about recognizing distressed students, responding to them, and connecting those students with campus and local resources.

Students can make an appointment at the Counseling Center by stopping by in-person or by calling. The Statesboro Counseling Center phone number is 912-478-5541, and the Armstrong Counseling Center phone number is 912-344-2529.

Last updated: 11/7/2022