During the global COVID-19 pandemic, Albion College has decided to remain residential, something which affects all students due to changes in the school environment. It also affects professors as they learn how to balance teaching effectively with these new changes. With this comes a heightened importance for professors to understand the needs of students’ mental health during unprecedented times.
Biology professor Abigail Cahill has turned to memes and jokes for relief during class time. She finds herself being more lenient in the classroom to help herself and students cope with the changed times.
“It’s hard, but everything is hard right now, and I still love my job,” said Cahill via email. “It’s hard to separate out the stresses of teaching in a pandemic from the stresses of the new schedule from the stresses of worrying about my health and that of my students, family and friends.”
Most professors aren’t experts in the mental health field, but they are doing their best to help themselves and students succeed.
“Students’ mental health is very important, but I am not a trained mental health professional, so I think that part of my role as a professor is to help students care for their own mental health and access resources that they need, including from professionals,” said Cahill. “Sometimes, that includes making sure they are able to access resources like counseling services or academic support through the Cutler Center, or just reminding students that everyone is struggling right now and that it’s ok to ask for help if you feel you need it.”
Cahill also stressed that it is important during these times to keep an open, flexible and honest line of communication between professors and students.
“I try to minimize stress in my classroom by making my expectations clear and communicating deadlines well in advance,” said Cahill. “I always try to do those things, but this semester it’s really important. By communicating that I am unsure of certain things or that I know particular concepts are complicated, I hope that students will feel less stress in asking for help or clarification.”
Economics and management professor Vicki Baker is the advisor for Delta Sigma Pi, the business fraternity and is also involved in leading the college through their new initiative of experiential learning.
Baker believes there are challenges with the changed environment due to the pandemic. One of those challenges comes from students simply being afraid of what will or will not happen in the future.
“I think there is always the fear of the unknown. We aren’t entirely sure what we are dealing with,” said Baker. “So in the classroom, at least weekly, I’ve made a concerted effort to just simply [talk about] how everyone is doing and ask them to be honest with me.”
When Baker asks students about their feelings, she makes sure that students are being heard and affirmed in their emotions.
“[There needs to be] validation of the feelings we are having. The good, the bad, the ugly, those are all valide real feelings, and I am feeling those things too,” said Baker. “I have those fears as well, but we are in this together and there is an appreciation for that.”
As a management professor, Baker believes in always incorporating a human element into the classroom that values students’ goals, aspirations and challenges in and outside of class.
“We need to show that we are normal, everyday, accessible, real people, and with that comes having feelings and emotions that might run the gamut but that there also needs to be steadiness with how we are as faculty in the classroom,” said Baker.
This semester has been abnormal, and Baker has her own ways of ensuring she and her students make it out of the module in one piece.
“At the beginning of the module, I said to the students, ‘We are going to have a montra, and the word of the year is grace,’” said Baker. “‘I am going to give it to you, and you are going to give it to me. We are all going to need grace at one point in the module.’”
Tyler Buchinger, a new professor in the biology department as of this Aug., reflected on his short time at Albion thus far, noting that this year is going to be a staple in his memories of teaching on campus.
“It certainly is an interesting time to be a new professor,” said Buchinger via email. “Teaching right now involves a lot of moving parts- the mix of in-person and remote meetings, student quarantines, etc.”
Buchinger is trying out different methods of interacting with students that he hopes will accommodate during these unprecedented times.
“I try to squeeze in some time outside whenever I can,” said Buchinger. “For my students, and myself, I strive to keep class fairly light, openly acknowledge the challenges we all face and be flexible.”
Ryan Selleck is also new to Albion as of this year. He is a first-year tenure track assistant professor in the psychology department. He teaches biology-centered psychology classes and is in the process of taking over the duties of Dr. Jeff Wilson, who is in a phased retirement.
“[Being a professor during the pandemic] is incredibly stressful and difficult. We’re working long hours including evenings and weekends to try to keep up,” said Selleck via email. “And that’s on top of the same concerns and challenges that students are facing with the pandemic, the coming election, social justice movements and the standard problems of our personal lives.”
Selleck said that he finds it frustrating to come into a new system, the module system, teaching unfamiliar classes with almost nothing to look back on for guidance.
“All of this is exacerbating for new faculty members. Not only do we have to teach classes in a module system that is unfamiliar, many of us are also teaching courses that we’ve never taught before,” said Selleck. “That means we probably don’t have course material from previous semesters to draw from, and the module system requires us to constantly be generating new course content.”
Despite the frustration, Selleck, like other professors, is trying to adapt and change his teaching style in order to fit the times.
“I’ve learned a lot about how to effectively scaffold the learning process and help guide student learning in ways I never considered before,” said Selleck. “It’s a bit painful at the moment, but we might be in the middle of a massive shift toward more modern and effective teaching methodologies being commonly adopted in our college classrooms.”
Caring for the mental health of students is another responsibility that Selleck and other professors are learning to adapt their teaching methods around. It is no easy task.
“Caring for the mental health of my students is really hard right now. I can see the slumped shoulders, droopy eyelids, and sluggish responses of students in my classroom,” said Selleck. “I know everyone is struggling.”
It’s hard not to see that students and professors are both trying their hardest. Professors are trying to meet students in the middle and students are trying to do the same.
“I have to walk this fine line between providing an engaging, interesting course that pushes students to grow and learn while also understanding that some students are already wavering under their current emotional and psychological load,” said Selleck. “At a certain point, I have to reward students just for trying, for not giving up, and I have to reassure them that continuing to push is going to be worth it and that they can pull this off.”