My master’s degree in higher education taught me all of the pedagogical basics necessary to be an effective professor. Upon graduation, I could write a syllabus, plan and implement a course, generate and lead a lively and intelligent course discussion, and even deal with student disciplinary issues and problem administrators.
Overall, despite my nerves about going from an exciting full-time career in journalism to a flexible job in education, I felt prepared.
I wasn’t prepared for what happened my first semester as a teacher.
Lindsey (I changed her name, just in case.) was a bright, engaged student. We bonded immediately, probably because she was attentive and always bailed me out when it seemed like no one else in the class was going to answer my discussion questions. Perhaps she could see my new professor nerves. Either way, she was a model student. She began coming to class a bit early and chatting with me about class-related topics. I genuinely liked Lindsey.
One day around midterms, Lindsey didn’t come to class. It was unusual because she hadn’t missed the class before. I figured she must be ill or maybe she accidentally overslept, since the class was early in the morning and probably her first of the day. I thought I would get an email from her, but none came. She missed the next couple of classes as well. I was concerned. It was out of character for Lindsey to miss one class, let alone three. Just as I was beginning to think I should figure out the process for inquiring about her, I received an email from her. Lindsey wouldn’t return to campus. Her parents had moved her back to her home state after she tried to commit suicide.
I was stunned. It was the first of several times in my decade of teaching when I offered students my help and cried for or with them.
Lindsey never returned to campus. I’m ashamed to say that I lost track of her after we exchanged a few emails. I never forgot how woefully unprepared I felt to help her. I felt it again when female students came to me for help in coping with being raped, when a student told me about surviving Hurricane Katrina and when another student told me about having nightmares after a classmate was killed.
Students come into professors’ offices and display their heartbreaking traumas. Professors are intelligent. They respect us. They trust us. The need help. It’s far outside of the lessons outlined on our syllabuses and well outside of our training.
I am not a counselor. When students come to me, I let them tell me as much or as little as they want. I give them my sympathy. I listen and to understand. Then, I help them with any academic problems I can and connect them with campus professionals there to assist them with other issues.
As a social scientist, I study emotional trauma in relation to the journalism profession. My expertise in this area may make me more equipped than others to recognize the symptoms of trauma, but I am not a therapist. There’s a fine line between professor/mentor and counselor/confidant. I try to stay on my side of that line.
Being an educator means we want to help young people. Students are increasingly likely to experience a life-changing traumatic event during their college years. As a professors, we will deal with these issues. I invite you to join me on Twitter for a special #profchat at 7 p.m. CST tonight where we will discuss Helping Students Cope with Trauma.
I hope those who attend can use their experiences to learn how to guide those we care about through tough times.