Empathy/sympathy/compassion for students

(70 Posts)
ZeroFucks Fri 14-Feb-20 14:49:15

I'm sorry that I'm starting lots of threads this week. I've been in my lecturing job for nearly a year so I'm coming up the review and thinking about how it's going.

One thing I'm struggling with is having empathy/sympathy/compassion for students. I wasn't expecting this part of the job if I'm honest. I've had no training in the pastoral side of my job yet I seem to have students regularly constantly expecting "emotional labour" from me. This week I had a student crying in my office over how hard a year she's had and how this is catching up with her deadlines approaching. Another student came to see me to ask for advice about her friend being sexually assaulted.

A colleague asdivsed me not to internalise their issues but I'm kind of having the opposite problem. Without wishing to sound crass and terrible and unkind, I don't really care and I don't really see it as my job to support the students with their personal and emotional issues.

That sounds crass and I don't mean it to sound that harsh. Of course I want my students to be happy and healthy and I'm happy to point them in the direction of support services but I feel as though it's crossing a line when they start crying and/or telling me their personal issues.

When they're seeking extensions to deadlines, I get why they'd say what's going on for them and this may cause them to get upset (though having said that, they should be going through the Chair of Examiners, not module leaders or individuals). But they're not always seeking extensions, it's as though they just see it as part of my job to be a listening ear for their unloading. But I don't really see this is part of my job.

Does anyone else find this?
How do you deal with this stuff?

I think part of the problem is that I'm very open and friendly with students but I don't know how to change that as that's the kind of person I am and I also find this pedagogically much more effective.

Sorry this is really long and I sound like a total cow!

OP’s posts: |
CuriousaboutSamphire Fri 14-Feb-20 14:58:12

I found myself in much the same brain space. I had a long chat with the counselling team and worked out a strategy that fit me, my thought processes

They were very helpful, didn't try to teach me some response that didn't suit me.

I still got all the emotional load from students but was able to support them and signpost someone else very quickly, without seeming disinterested or cold.

bibliomania Fri 14-Feb-20 14:59:17

I think you're right to be wary, and this can end up being a very gendered aspect of academic work - women get stuck with all the emotional labour and it eats into the time spent doing other things. The problem is that you get a reputation for being sympathetic and they'll all go to you.

It's also tied into the trend of parentification. I'm not an academic, but I work in professional services and it feels like there is an ever-increasing expectation that the university is supposed to wade in and sort out students' private lives, including friendship and relationship fall-outs.

bibliomania Fri 14-Feb-20 15:00:48

Sorry, the point I meant to add was that pointing towards support services is absolutely appropriate. You need to think about how you couch it, so it's not "I can't be bothered" and more "It's important that you get the right support, and the place to go is...."

ZeroFucks Fri 14-Feb-20 15:26:33

Thanks, both, for taking the time to respond. I'm so glad that you see my points, I was worried I was coming across as a total bastard here.

It's absolutely gendered, I agree.

I also agree about the parentification thing (love that word). When I said I didn't care I guess what I was trying to get at was the idea that these are young adults who have chosen to move away from home yet have very little resilience to deal with life.

Obviously, students who have horrendous things happen are an exception (though I'm still wary of them coming to me) but I mean those students who come to my office talking to me about their fallings out with housemates or relationship break-ups. I get that these things are hurtful and matter but they're looking for a parent substitute to talk to about it.

I think about my friends' kids who haven't gone to university who are working full time, have got husbands/kids, their own home and just seem so much more mature and able to deal with adult life.

Seeking advise of the counseling team is a great idea. I might look into that actually

OP’s posts: |
LizzyELane Fri 14-Feb-20 15:28:41

I'm a mature student and a parent and have had to get a couple of deadline extensions due to family/health issues. It's made very clear in my University where to go and who to approach, whether its support services for finance issues, counselling, etc. If it's an academic issue it's the lecturer leading that module. The only academic I would approach if emotional issues were affecting my work would be my personal tutor, who made it clear from the start that was ok, otherwise I'd go to support services every time. It sounds like lines are a bit blurred at your establishment around what appropriate services students can access for what issues.

ZeroFucks Fri 14-Feb-20 15:42:52

@LizzyELane My university is a collegiate one so students are well aware of where they should go for support which is their college as a first port of call. There are two problems with this, I've noticed.

The first issue is that the mentors and important people in the colleges (the people they'd go to for support) also have an academic role in departments. This means students don't always see the difference between academics in departments with no pastoral role/training and academics in college who are contracted and trained to be there.

The second problem is that there is a wrap-around the students. Our students are hugely cocooned by central support services, the union, and colleges and I think most of them see departments as just another arm of this support.

It sounds like your university has managed to articulate those boundaries well. Mine, not so much grin

OP’s posts: |
uzfrdiop Fri 14-Feb-20 16:00:22

But they're not always seeking extensions, it's as though they just see it as part of my job to be a listening ear for their unloading.

An easy way to shut down such conversations is "I have to leave for another meeting". It's not your job. Studies show that students expect more pastoral support from female academics.

puptent Fri 14-Feb-20 16:00:48

I think the key is that they are 'looking for a parent substitute' to talk to. I am on the other end of this as the parent of a fresher who has really struggled with their first term at uni. Her tutors have NO IDEA she's had such a hard time. Why? Because she tells me instead.

I'm just saying this to point out that perhaps those students who are asking for help/offloading really do have no one else to tell. In which case, signposting them to the counselling service would help perhaps?

My bet is that they are also seeing you as an extension of school. They don't want a formal extension to an assignment but a verbal cue from you to say 'oh don't worry, I'll give you an extra week.' (I'm also a mature student so can direct my DD to the appropriate channels for extensions etc but lots of students won't have that steer.)

Maybe not much help but just another viewpoint!

puptent Fri 14-Feb-20 16:07:53

(My point is that for every one pupil who is blubbing in your office, there will be at least another five who are miserable but silent. Or telling someone else. Usually their mum.)

Trahira Fri 14-Feb-20 16:17:21

Hi OP, I'm an academic and I completely agree that students are more likely to come to me about personal issues than my male colleagues. The thing I've found useful (after pointing them in the direction of appropriate support, as you already do) is the phrase "is there anything I can do to help?". This may sound counterintuitive, in case it prompts them to ask for something I haven't got the time to deliver and which isn't my responsibility, but in fact it seems to focus their minds into realising that, actually, there is nothing they need from me (other than continuing to moan at me, which they can't really say!). So it brings the interview to a close without sounding unsympathetic.

Hope that helps.

Pota2 Fri 14-Feb-20 21:17:20

It’s definitely gendered and I tend to get a lot of this too. I also get reference requests from students that are not my tutees because my male colleagues spend little time on pastoral support stuff.

I listen and am empathetic but I do send them elsewhere and I make clear to them when explaining my role that if they have any serious issues, I am likely to refer them to support services. I am happy to have a chat with students in my office hours but I have started to work from home a bit more or in the library, just so that I don’t get people stopping by my office on the off-chance that I will be available. If I contain it to office hours, it’s more manageable.

I do sympathise with them and I know some have a miserable time. However, as academics, we are already overworked and we are not trained counsellors. The universities need to invest properly in support services

MoltoAgitato Sat 15-Feb-20 08:18:38

A good starting question is “Why are you telling me this?” If you can get them to articulate what they want then it’s easier to give concrete reasons as to why they need to go away and find a more appropriate support mechanism.

ZeroFucks Sat 15-Feb-20 14:19:46

Thank you for all of your thoughts on this. I really like the questions to direct the conversation, that's a great idea.

Thanks for the parent perspective too. I know some of those who come to me won't have anyone else to talk to. I feel for them if this is the case but it's still not my job. I wonder who these students would go to if they weren't at university - their boss?!

I have started to work at home a lot more over the last couple of months and that's been really helpful for students (and colleagues!!) perceiving me to be constantly available.

OP’s posts: |
MaybeDoctor Sat 15-Feb-20 14:31:29

Being aware of pastoral issues that may impact on a student's learning/progress is part of inclusion, which is a key responsibility for anyone in an education role.

(I have a qualification in teaching adults and just pulled down my folder to double check this point!)

I get the points about workload and I can see that it must seem bizarre if you have arrived at lecturing from a research perspective, but this is what teaching (which is fundamentally what you are doing) involves. However, you can be aware of issues without necessarily needing to solve everything yourself, so documenting and signposting is the way to go.

Do students have peer-supporters?

Pota2 Sat 15-Feb-20 19:37:33

It does involve pastoral support and I am happy to give it but the universities often place too much of a burden on academics, demanding that we deal with increasingly complex MH issues, including students who are suicidal. That isn’t fair on anyone involved. The university needs to pay for a proper support service with trained counsellors and stop over recruiting on courses. Of course students will feel lost and isolated if they are one of 600 others on a course and have minimal contact time with tutors.

ZeroFucks Sun 16-Feb-20 00:14:49

@MaybeDoctor I understand that being aware of pastoral issues that may impact on students learning is important but being made aware and the responsibilities for these issues being laid at your door are two very different things. I find myself tied up with much more of the latter. Academics absolutely shouldn’t be seen as the first port of call (by students, parents or the university) for serious, or even minor personal issues. As @Pota2 said we’re not qualified, trained or paid to deal with these issues that they bring to us.

OP’s posts: |
Double3xposure Sun 16-Feb-20 00:49:22

Are you fully aware of all the support services that are available to students at your institution ? Because I think the key is to be very specific about where they should go for help.

So when a student breaks down crying because her Bf has dumped her, I don’t think you should say “ Why are you telling me this ? “. That sounds cold and heartless and such a brush off is a neglect of your pastoral responsibilities.

However I do think it’s fine to say “ I can see you are very distressed about this “ and ask a few more key questions to ascertain the level of distress.

Because a reply of “ I don’t think I can go on any more, last night I took some tablets and just didn’t want to wake up “ clearly needs a different kind of response.

For those less urgent matters , I think it’s good to say “ I’d like you to go and see someone at student services. They are in the open from 10-6 each day and you don’t need an appointment / phone this number and ask for Jane Smith. They can help you like this ........”

Or “ please drop me an email to let me know that you’ve made an appointment. It’s important that you talk to someone about this soon”.

Or whatever . That way you show that you care about them and want them to get the right help from the right person. It’s just that person is not you.

I think it’s inappropriate to say to a distressed student “ sorry I can’t help you “ even if you can’t / don’t want to. “ Its not my job to help you “ is even worse IMO.

I do realise that it takes time and energy and not everyone is naturally empathic or has good listening skills . But I’m sure you are aware that mental health problems are common among student and institutions in general ( not you as an Individual alone ) have a duty of care.

Think of it this way - it will take a lot less time to get the student help early on, before it affects their work, which will take even more of your time to deal with. If they fail, it reflects poorly on you and your department. Aren’t you evaluated on this ?

Trahira Sun 16-Feb-20 07:19:51

OP, if you want to you could write a reply and then burn it. Don't send him anything in response, because anything you do send will be twisted to his own ends. Silence is a powerful tool here. Ignore, delete, block.

I'm so sorry about your DD flowers

Trahira Sun 16-Feb-20 07:20:21

Sorry wrong thread!

VivaLeBeaver Sun 16-Feb-20 07:41:59

I’m an academic and also personal tutor to a cohort of students so pastoral care is my responsibility. Yes, I find them quite needy at times but it is very much my role to support them. Saying that I’m not an expert so signposting is generally the culmination of my support but I’m happy enough to spend ten minutes or so being a sympathetic ear before telling them to go to wellbeing, etc.

MindyStClaire Sun 16-Feb-20 07:50:30

I completely hear where you're coming from. But I've only been an academic for a few years and we've had multiple student suicides in that time. So yes, I encourage them to speak to whoever they feel comfortable approaching if they have issues.

Once they come to you, you can offer sympathy, refer on to student support services and make their personal tutor aware.

Also, I put the contact details for our student support services on the last slide of every lecture, just as a continual reminder of the services that are there.

Pota2 Sun 16-Feb-20 07:52:39

Yes, I should say I am happy to do it too, but I also agree that the burden is increasing. I agree that ‘why are you telling me this’ is not a good response. Student suicides do happen and if you’d sent someone away who then harmed themselves, that would be terrible.
I also resent my, mainly male, colleagues who are unapproachable and therefore do not need to do the emotional labour that I and other female colleagues do.
I don’t think it’s possible for someone in a teaching role to claim to have NO responsibility for pastoral support either. I mean, if you worked in a school, you’d have way more of this to deal with. People have problems. Also, my friend is a line manager and, yes, people do tell their bosses about personal problems too.
So I think, as lecturers we do have to do it. We have a duty to be empathetic while not absorbing the student’s problem and we need to acknowledge that we don’t have to be available 24/7 but restrict it to our office hours. We also have a legitimate complaint in that the universities are not providing enough support for students and personal tutors are bearing the brunt.

Annebronte Sun 16-Feb-20 08:30:47

I really don’t think you can separate academic teaching and pastoral support in the clear cut way that you seem to want to. I say this as a secondary school teacher and parent of a university student. Schools are increasingly strong in the pastoral care they provide. School students are very much encouraged to see all their teachers as potential sources of support; there is not one of my colleagues who would see this support as ‘not my job’. Bearing this in mind, it’s not surprising that new university students assume this might also be true of their tutors/lecturers. As human beings who have chosen to work with young people, lots of them are also happy to help! I know that lots of academics come to teaching from research rather than from a genuine desire to teach, but they are still teachers, which does have implications and responsibilities beyond the academic.

MindyStClaire Sun 16-Feb-20 08:52:30

I would see my pastoral care duties as very far removed from those of a secondary school teacher. I'm teaching adults who have chosen to be there, and not teenagers. The dynamics are (and should be) very different.

However, I'm still a person, and they're still people, and I'm happy to lend an ear and refer on to the relevant service. I understand that when they see me every week (and this semester I have the same cohort for two modules so they do get sick of the sight of me) I'm the most visible face of the university structures to them. But I don't see my role as being anything beyond referring to the relevant service and keeping an eye on a student of I know they have serious issues.

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