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Career Advice

How professors can help university students during the COVID-19 pandemic

By fostering positive relationships, professors can help improve the mental health of their students.

BY ANANYA BANERJEE | APR 29 2020

With Canada locked down due to the coronavirus pandemic, it’s not uncommon for our students to lose educational ground during this time. Things have changed drastically, with a loss of community, residence, summer practicums or co-op placements, jobs, and convocations.

Academic institutions are working hard to offer COVID-19 coping resources and services to their students that range from emergency funds to offering mental health online courses. However, it’s time for those who already play a vital role in the lives of our students – those of us who are professors – to be even more empathetic and compassionate. We are in a unique position to spot regular absences or declining performance, to identify key signs that a student is struggling. And we often have an immense role in a student’s feelings of self-worth, value and growth. Students will approach us more than ever during this unprecedented time to request academic accommodation. We need to communicate clearly to students that we are here for them and support student resiliency. Based on my years of experience working with hundreds of students from diverse backgrounds in difficult situations I offer the following tips for faculty to engage with their students as they adapt to the realities of COVID-19.

Provide virtual office hours

Even if in-person appointments are not available right now, many professors are able to provide assistance over the phone or videoconferencing. Students are likely to have a low threshold for reaching out and exploring what resources their school can offer remotely. Having weekly virtual office hours can enable students to ask for help or advice related to academic matters.

Validate experiences and feelings

Professors should validate students’ feelings and strive to keep the lines of communication open about what’s challenging and difficult about the pandemic. It is important to listen carefully and be non-judgemental. Avoid jumping to conclusions. Reassure them you understand their struggles, and they have been heard. Simply saying “I know it is a difficult time for you and I recognize your personal circumstances” can go a long way for students.

Expect to touch on sensitive topics

Be ready and comfortable to have a conversation that is not related to school and might touch on sensitive topics. Be willing to talk through problems with students as best as you can without being a therapist. For some situations, you will be able to just listen, or feel more comfortable referring students to professional services. Either way, it is good for students to know that turning to you is an option.

Recognize the difficulty to meet deadlines

There are several reasons why students may find it difficult to meet end of term deadlines for your course(s). Students may have children at home or had to return home earlier than planned. The closing of some libraries has made it more difficult to accesses resources. Some students may even be ill or caring for those who are ill with the coronavirus. In certain circumstances there will be justification for a longer extension request from students. It is important to discuss and determine an appropriate approach that will allow for suitable course completion with the student.

Refer to campus student life resources

This is a good time to become familiar with the variety of student services and several mental health resources for students on campus. Your observations and action can help connect students to the services to help them cope effectively during this pandemic. This includes accessibility services, learning strategists, health and wellness and mentorship peer programs. All these services are temporarily being moved to online delivery modes. It is important to not just tell them to access these services but to explain the value of them.

Engage in mental health aid and anti-oppression training

Seek out mental health first aid training to help you better recognize the symptoms of mental health problems and increase students’ confidence in guiding them towards appropriate resources for care. Strive to work with your students using an anti-oppression lens. Training in anti-oppression practice is available at most academic institutions. This is important in order to avoid further marginalization of diverse cultural student communities along the human dimensions of race, ethnicity, indigeneity, sexual orientation, gender, socio-economic status, age, ability, and religious beliefs.

Leverage professional networks

Look for ways to support students financially this summer – particularly those who have lost paid practicum placements or jobs. If you or your fellow faculty members have research grants or contracts, consider employing qualified students as research assistants. As a research assistant, students will aid in conducting ground-breaking research and gain meaningful experience.

Professors having positive relationships with their students during this pandemic helps improve the mental health of students. It’s important to note we are also role models for them by maintaining our own wellness as we share the same challenges. Apply your professional judgment. If you are unsure whether an action is appropriate and you have a concern, speak to your department head.

Ananya Tina Banerjee is assistant professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto, and holds the position of interim director for the masters of public health -health promotion program.

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  1. Amina / April 29, 2020 at 19:04

    Really captures the needs of students, professors simply writing an email or posting an announcement on the course website saying they acknowledge this is a challenging time goes such a long way – and especially makes it easier to reach out. Glad this is a resource out there!

  2. Avantika Mathur / April 30, 2020 at 02:48

    I hope educators reading this article can appreciate the role that they do and can play in their students’ lives. These strategies are helpful for anyone trying to provide support and encouragement to others during these challenging times. Thank you!

  3. Anonymous / May 3, 2020 at 14:49

    If every professors took the time to recognize how much of a difference they can make with lending an extra ear or added minute in conversation with students, they would feel a transformational learning experience. A little does go a long way in strengthening the education environment and students will feel the difference in care and compassion for years to come. This author also highlights mental health first aid training and being aware of campus services, and anti-oppression training – a major takeaways for all educators! Thank you!

  4. Helen / May 8, 2020 at 09:10

    Wouldn’t it be nice if university administration and the media which perpetuates the notion of mental frailty among our students also considered the professors they’re assuming have the competence to promote mental health among their students? Given the Canadian post-secondary model relies on contract instructors to the point of actually violating their collective agreements, you’re basically calling professors relying on precarious employment themselves, with an inability to use to the fullest extent their expertise honed over about a decade of post-secondary education, to take on responsibility for ensuring grown adults are aware of the resources available to them (which happen to be advertised throughout the school year already). Could we exercise compassion and demonstrate an awareness of how our universities’ exploitation of contract employees conflicts with the social determinants of health which so many of these institutions are constantly yammering on about? If it’s reasonable to expect the rest of society to respond to threats to social determinants of health, perhaps the institutions specialising in this research could take the lead and cease to create working conditions which undermine health for its teaching staff. Maybe then, the contract professors might have something left to give their students after working 7 days/week, responding to emails from students who can’t be bothered to attend class or office hours so have questions which were answered several times already, while seeking out their next employment opportunity.