I’m sure you can all relate: while making small talk with a stranger, eventually they’ll ask what you do. “Professor” is never a sufficient answer – they want to know what subject. And once you say “math,” the potentially interesting part of the conversation is immediately over. Maybe it’s that I’ve got a nonthreatening face and a Midwestern female inability to tell people to stop talking to me, but nine times out of ten I’ll get to hear all about every traumatic mathematical experience this stranger has ever had. And boy, do they have a lot of ’em.
Eventually, after tenure, I’d like to write a pop math book for these people. They’re (usually) not stupid by a long shot; successful in their field despite their past difficulties with calculus or statistics or algebra. Many of them are ashamed of their mathematical failings and have a strong urge to someday revisit mathematics and try to overcome their old obstacles. They just want someone to assure them that yes, math is hard sometimes, but you don’t have to be a wizard to learn it. Persistence is enough for most people, and if they didn’t have the grit when they were 18, they’ve probably got it now.
This math therapy is a little dull, but it’s easy to put up with, and (mercifully) over quickly. But this isn’t the kind that I want to devote the bulk of this article to. The other kind – the kind to scared, anxious students – is much more serious, and with terrifying consequences. I’ve been trying to write this post in my head for at least a month now, and I’m still not sure my ideas are fully-formed. But this work and these thoughts have been taking up a pretty big chunk of my mental energy lately, and I hope others can contribute to and benefit from this post.
Since my very first days working in the tutoring lab in graduate school, students have asked me for as many pep talks during office hours as actual mathematical answers. Sometimes it goes beyond light encouragement and into discussions of seriously heady issues. Depression and anxiety are endemic in our students, but many are secretly dealing with deaths in the family, difficulty with their relationships, identity issues, chronic illnesses or disabilities, financial problems, domestic abuse, and suicide.
I never realized what a charmed life I led as an undergraduate until my students started pouring their guts out in my office.
We’re a little past the mid-semester mark now, and I’ve had a good half-dozen come by with some kind of distress or another. Most of them are just pushing up against the limits of what their previous study habits (or lack thereof) can handle. Some just want to vent, some want help. This is when I break out all the growth mindset talk I can, and offer tissues and pamphlets from the counseling center when appropriate. But I’m never sure that what I’m doing is actually helpful. So I went looking for resources.
There’s not a lot out there for faculty on how to deal with students in crisis. While I was first pondering this post, a great Vitae article came out called, simply, “We Are Not Prepared for Students in Distress,” by Katie Rose Guest Pryal. Her article gives advice from a former professor and dean who is also trained in counseling. Two main themes are “Be Gentle With Yourself” and “Know Who to Ask for Help”, which, coincidentally, are also numbers 2 and 5 in the Top Ten Things I’m Terrible At. I’ve probably re-read this weekly since it came out.
In researching more on the topic, I found another post from my new favorite blog, Tenure She Wrote. The post, called “I’m Your Professor, Not Your Therapist,” is from another new faculty member who, like me, is not naturally comfortable with other people’s tears. The comment section is a wealth of tips, from the simple (keep tissues in your office) to the complex (don’t burn yourself out trying to help your students emotionally). Also: beware of crocodile tears!
The comments on that article also treat something I’d never really thought about, namely that female faculty bear more of a burden in this arena. We’re expected to be caring and nurturing, therefore more students come to us, where we feel more pressured to help them – to the detriment of our research programs. To my knowledge, there’s nowhere in my tenure dossier to list the number of tears dried or anxieties eased, and I need to remember that when students start getting too needy.
All this was complicated enough, but then a ProPublica article, “When Students Become Patients, Privacy Suffers,” came out last week. The first half of it describes a 21-year-old student who was briefly hospitalized for mental health issues after seeking help from her campus counseling center. The center notified her parents, even though her record noted a “broken relationship” with them. Her parents flew down to campus, where the student felt pressured by the school to go home. There, her family prevented her from continuing therapy. She ultimately graduated, but was only allowed to return to school if accompanied by her parents. The school was trying to do what was best, but for students from a toxic home, I can’t imagine a worse ordeal.
I’ve pushed dozens of students towards on-campus counseling centers over the years, and many of them are terrified that their families will find out. Going to therapy may be on the level of a regular dental cleaning for some, but for others it’s the equivalent of being thrown into the stocks in the town square. School counseling facilities are the only option for students who can’t afford private treatment, or who don’t want their parents to see that they’ve used their health insurance. I thought FERPA meant the worst that could happen is that they use up their allotted sessions too quickly. Now I’m not so comfortable.
I’ve asked around campus for more help. I want specific guidelines about when I’m required to report a student’s issues to the school. I also want the counseling center’s policy on reporting health issues to students’ parents without their permission. I’d like a list of best practices for teaching students on the autism spectrum. And possibly most critically, I’d like to know what to do when I suspect a student might be a danger to themselves or others.
This column will likely be the first of many over the next few years. One of the reasons I love my job is that I like helping people, especially with math. I like seeing students overcome their anxieties. I like trying to be the person who I would have wanted to talk to when I was younger. I’m glad my students see me as a resource both for their classwork and for how to be a grown up without going crazy. But I need to make sure that I’m actually a force for good in their lives, that my advice is valid. And more importantly, I need to not focus on their problems at the expense of my tenure obligations.