A growing number of instructors are proactively and directly telling their students that they care about their well-being and personal lives outside of the classroom, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports. Because students are more prone to mental health challenges like depression or anxiety now than ever before, some professors believe it is critical to begin communicating care and concern for students in their course policies.
Navigating the line between professor and counselor
However, there’s ongoing debate about how far and in what manner instructors should delve into the personal lives of their students. Some instructors vehemently oppose the idea, believing that personal matters are beyond their purview. Jesse Stommel, executive director of the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies at the University of Mary Washington, told the The Chronicle that some instructors even take a defensive stance, drawing on negative past experiences to shape their course policies. However, Stommel cautions that in doing so, instructors may come off as tone-deaf and unable to relate to the complex lives students lead outside the classroom.
Codifying compassion in the syllabus
Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of sociology and higher education at Temple University, experimented with encouraging students facing challenges outside the classroom to feel safe to share those concerns.
For undergraduate students, she suggests adapting the following sample statement on basic needs security and including it in a course syllabus alongside other class policies:
Any student who has difficulty affording groceries or accessing sufficient food to eat every day, or who lacks a safe and stable place to live, and believes this may affect their performance in the course, is urged to contact the Dean of Students for support. Furthermore, please notify the professor if you are comfortable in doing so. This will enable her to provide any resources that she may possess.
After Goldrick-Rab blogged on Medium about the experience, professors reached out to say that they would also incorporate similar language into their syllabi.
Stommel says “a culture where students feel confident to do the hard work of the class,” is better for learning than “a culture of fear.” He also advocates for professors to share bits of their personal lives in the classroom, so students feel free to share their “full selves,” as well.