When I first started teaching high school, a student in my school was found dead, a suspected victim of suicide We were given a letter to read to the students that detailed who had passed away and what had happened. The student who had died had not been one of my students, nor were any of my students’ particularly close with them, yet this incident affected me deeply. I was powerfully reminded that my students had just as many challenges as I did; likely, they had many more than I was even vaguely aware of. Throughout the rest of that school year, I continued to learn, at different points, about not only students’ academic but also non-academic struggles. Student challenges ranged from heartbreak and self-esteem issues to serious mental health issues and difficult home lives.
I don’t teach high school anymore, and thankfully I haven’t faced any more student deaths, but my students here at Michigan State still have challenges. They’re just different ones. Since I teach a math class commonly taken by freshmen and sophomores, I encounter students that are often in the middle of the difficult transition from high school to college and are dealing with the personal problems associated with this new phase in life. I have often felt a responsibility to do what I can to help my students with their challenges. My ability to help is limited (for example, I am not a counselor or social worker), but I have found there are some things I can do. In this post, I’ll share some reasons I’ve found to care about student challenges and why colleges and universities nationwide are recognizing the importance of supporting teachers and academic staff in providing a safer, more welcoming environment for students. I will share some ways you can recognize and respond to challenges that your students face, and will share some resources available to you to help students at Michigan State.
Why Do We Care?
With the ever-increasing educational demands on the American workforce, colleges and universities, including Michigan State, are taking more of an interest in students’ non-academic challenges. These challenges often affect students’ academic performance, and influence graduation and retention rates. Some may ask, though, why we should even care about our students’ challenges. Our students are adults and the final responsibility for their well-being rests with them. They have advisers and friends and roommates to help them. We have our own difficulties and demands in our life that can overwhelm us at times. Why do we need to care about our students’ personal issues?
We need to help because our students are people, just like us. One of my favorite parts of the Graduate Employees Union is their frequent use of the word “solidarity.” When there is solidarity in a group, the members of the group recognize a need to help each other, to stand up for each other as best they can. I have always believed in and sought for solidarity with the human race.
Every single one of my students is a person, a human, a fellow Spartan, and deserves the respect each of those titles entails. Yes, my students are not always responsible human beings, and sometimes they try to take advantage of me, and yes, they often frustrate me. But they are still human beings, still people, and when I recognize that, I feel a responsibility to do what I can to help them.
As teachers, we have especial opportunities to help our students. We are scheduled to see them at certain times each week. We have a responsibility to educate them and help them succeed in our classes. More often than not, a student’s personal challenges will make it more difficult for them to succeed academically. I see no reason why we cannot extend our academic responsibility for our students a little bit farther to caring for their personal success.
Providing a Safer, Welcoming Environment
My classroom environment is based on my belief in common humanity. All of my students are worth caring about because they are human, just like me. Because of that, I try to provide a safer environment for them. There may be no perfect way to make our students feel safe and supported in our classrooms, but there are some things I have done that have yielded success. I try get to class a little early to I can talk to my students as they come in. I learn as many names as I can, and try to call on students by name during class. If I see my students outside of class, I try to make sure they know I recognize them, either by saying, “Hi!” or just making eye contact and smiling. I talk to my students, I ask about them, and try to remember what they tell me. I try to make them feel recognized and known to me. I want my students to know that they are more than just the human aspect of my paycheck.
Doing these sociable things that make for a safer classroom environment are not always easy. We as graduate students sometimes end up in charge of large lectures where learning the names of all our students may not be as feasible. Sometimes talking and interacting with students is not something that comes easily to us. Our students themselves may at times be rude, shy, or closed to us. But that should not dissuade us from recognizing our students as human beings and then pushing ourselves further to reach out to them.
Recognizing and Responding to Student Challenges
One way or another, we know some things about our students. We may not know everything about them, but we get to know what “normal” looks like for them. Because of that, deviations from this “normal” can be an indicator of student issues. For example, I once had a student who was normally one of my most frequent participators spend most of class staring at her desk. After class, I talked to her and she shared with me that she was having troubles with a roommate. While teaching high school, I had a student who had started out as one of my highest achieving students, but started skipping class because he had developed severe difficulties with depression. I unfortunately did not realize this until another high school teacher made me aware of the situation. Other times I have had students who have disappeared from class after having almost perfect attendance for the semester, or have seen grades inexplicably drop. These are all warning signs that something is going on, and that we should do something to help these students.
As teachers, our options for helping students are limited. It is good for us to be aware of student challenges , but getting too involved in student problems is often a less than ideal solution, since we may not have the professional training to fully support them. If I notice a student is acting differently or if their attendance or grades have changed abruptly, I’ll simply talk to them briefly before or after class to check in and see how they are doing. If I’m unable to catch them in class, a simple email expressing concern works well. I’ve found that, in addressing students’ personal problems, sometimes my students need a listening ear more than anything. They just need someone to recognize that they’re struggling and let them know that it is okay to struggle.
Resources Available for Struggling Students
As teachers, the help we can personally offer students doesn’t extend much past providing a listening ear and perhaps making accommodations in class during difficult times.If students need extra help, there are many on and off campus resources available. Students may need professional help with emotional problems, or perhaps need help external help resolving a conflict. Some international students may be struggling with the transition to living in a different nation and culture. In more serious cases, students may need help dealing with discrimination, relationship violence, or sexual assault. Michigan State has many on-campus resources available to help these students (see links listed under “Additional Resources”). And many of our students live on campus, and thus have access to the Neighborhood Engagement Centers. In addition to providing academic services, these Engagement Centers provide health and wellness services, intercultural engagement, and residential support for students. More information about these services can be found at http://www.neighborhoods.msu.edu/. Also, you can share specific concerns about students with staff in the Neighborhoods by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
More than anything, make sure your students know there is help available to them and that there is nothing wrong with seeking help. As a mathematics teacher, I am overjoyed when my students ask me questions. I don’t always know the answers, and sometimes I push the students to find the answers themselves, but I am always happy that they asked. As TAs and instructors, we can help students feel comfortable asking for help, both academically and personally. And that is a skill more valuable than perhaps any of us realize.
Additional Resources at Michigan State University:
- Counseling Center
- Student Conduct and Conflict Resolution
- LGBT Resource Center
- Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities
- Office for International Students and Scholars
- Office for Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives
- Office of the Ombudsperson
- Campus Police
- Office of Institutional Equity
Michael Gundlach is a doctoral student in the Program in Mathematics Education (PRIME) at Michigan State University. Before coming to Michigan State, Michael taught high school mathematics. His current research interests involve examining undergraduate mathematics instruction, especially the mathematical instruction of prospective secondary mathematics teachers.