Failing to keep agreements, asking for extensions, not participating during lectures, being absent more often and seeking less contact with others; for most lecturers, these are signs that set alarm bells ringing. But what do you do next?
That is something many lecturers struggle with, say Lut Duerinckx and Eva van der Zee of GGZ Rivierduinen. They regularly discuss this topic with lecturers and study advisers, most recently at a symposium on student well-being at Leiden University.
‘The best way to start the conversation is to try to communicate from the I-message’, Duerinckx argues. ‘For example, you could say: “I’ve noticed that you ask for an extension quite often”, or “I notice that you’re very quiet during lectures”, without expressing any judgement. This gives the student space to explain the situation.’
This is also the technique used by Esther Op de Beek, lecturer in the Dutch Language and Culture programme. She has spoken to an ‘alarming number’ of students with psychological complaints, she says. ‘I have to refer someone to the coordinator of studies or the psychological counsellor almost every lecture.’
In contrast, Tjerk Oosterkamp, professor of experimental physics, sometimes tries to avoid such a referral. ‘In lots of situations, a simple conversation with fellow students or lecturers can go a long way.’ He initiates such a conversation by sharing his own frustrations or problems with students. ‘During lectures, I also talk about my own procrastination tendencies or how I don't feel like writing a research proposal, for example. That lowers the threshold for students to speak up. Now, students sometimes stay for a chat after lectures or they come talk to me at the coffee machine. I try to normalise certain problems so that people don’t need to take them to a psychologist.’
Van der Zee and Duerinckx also think this is important: ‘If you talk about day-to-day issues more often, the threshold to ask how someone is doing is a lot lower.’
Op de Beek also tries to be accessible to her students by joining them on study trips or participating in the Singelloop together. That way, you interact with each other in a different setting. Not all teachers choose this approach. But then it’s harder to address issues with students.’
She acknowledges that not everyone has that option. ‘Within the Dutch programme, we all know each other and I can keep an eye on how everyone is doing. But I can imagine that’s not manageable for lecturers who teach full lecture halls.’
Pedagogue Van der Zee thinks it is especially important for lecturers to keep some distance. ‘I sometimes hear about students who subconsciously start to think of their lecturer as a sort of therapist. That’s difficult for lecturers: they also have to keep an eye on their own boundaries. They are primarily instrumental in the first conversation and in identifying problems. After that, you have to refer someone to get appropriate help, because if you start having those kinds of conversations as a lecturer, it can cause you a lot of distress.’
‘It doesn’t always fit into a lecturer’s schedule’, says Duerinckx. ‘Moreover, you have to be able to stand firm. If you’re not, you have to take the problem to someone who can help the student.’
‘Sometimes, the stories they tell me are very intense’, agrees Op de Beek. ‘It’s nice to be there for students, but it’s also difficult to hear how badly someone is doing. I tell them: “I appreciate that we can talk about this and I think it’s very good that you’re so open, but I’m not a counsellor. I can’t help you with this. You should seek professional help.”’
At the same time, this also raises a difficult dilemma: ‘A few years ago, you could refer a student and they would receive help immediately. Now, I know they’ll end up on a months-long waiting list.’
Oosterkamp always tries to start a conversation with his students. ‘I know depression is a very dangerous condition and I’m not afraid of it. After all, as a society, we’re connected to each other via all sorts of links and we have to take care of each other. I do, however, make sure those professionals are involved and I don’t step into the role of therapist myself.’
FELLOW HUMAN BEING
He once had one of his students come up to him to say that another student would be saying farewell. ‘I’m talking about suicide. Fellow students took her to the general practitioner at the time and brought her home afterwards. I’ve been in touch with this student - who is now no longer a student - for 10 years now. More than once, I thought I was getting too close. But it wasn’t a student I assessed or taught, so I did choose to initiate that contact.’
‘We’re not responsible for these adult people, but we are responsible for the safe educational environment’, says Op de Beek. ‘And it’s also part of being a teacher. As humans, we want other people to be okay. I make time for that. But I don’t see it as extra workload.’
‘I don’t bill my hours’, Oosterkamp adds. ‘It’s not our job to take care of students, but when I’m on campus, I’m not just a lecturer. I’m also a fellow human being.’
When it comes to student well-being, both the university and students should take a closer look at themselves, both lecturers think. ‘What story do we want to tell as a university?’, Op de Beek wonders out loud. ‘Maybe, for once, we should give the floor to an alumnus who couldn’t find a job and moved on to do something else. That would be a more honest story. Those success stories of people who landed an amazing job after completing their studies can place even more pressure on students.’
But even when students are not doing well because the academic schedule is too demanding or the course load too high, Op de Beek says the university is too quick to blame the problem on the students themselves.
‘I don’t think that's fair. The answer is not always as simple as a mindfulness or stress management course. Because we think from the perspective of the individual so much, we tend to forget that alternative measures can have much more impact on students.’
At the same time, students also have to learn to be resilient. Oosterkamp: ‘They also have to accept that they will inevitably encounter certain obstacles, which are part of life.’ Op de Beek: ‘There will always be adversity and uncertainty. The university is also an organisation that prepares people for working life. To make sure that if something happens, a person is able to take charge and be part of the solution.’