What I’m learning from the fragile students I teach

What I'm Learning From The Fragile Students I Teach
Photo by Redd Angelo on Unsplash

This piece isn’t intended to be depressing, but it is about depression.

As someone who teaches sixteen to eighteen year-olds in a very large college, I’ve learned to accept that during the inevitable spell of hormonal hell they experience, young adults are trying to develop their social skills in an environment of stress and pressure at a time when they are most at risk of emotionally crashing.

Most of my students have only just left the safety of their familiar schools, or were home schooled, and finding themselves in a college perhaps four or five times the size of their last learning environment, without their friends, can be the shock which tips their fragile minds into a state of extreme anxiety.  But many bring with them mental health issues they have been dealing with for a long time.  Are there more sufferers now, in this information age, or is this generation simply more open about their difficulties and limitations than previous ones who had less to deal with in terms of competition, choice and indeed information?

Sensing you are making a student ill because of the pressure you have to put them under to succeed is an uncomfortable feeling.  James (not his real name) was crying in my office last year in the run up to the final exams; he’d crumpled the year before and so was retaking the course.  He was seventeen at the time and I knew he was going to beat himself up for not attending his final exams again if I didn’t encourage him and, as he was an able student, the eventual success would boost his confidence.  Unlike those who are looking for someone to blame for their shortcomings (usually a ‘crap teacher’ who likely hadn’t had much opportunity to teach a frequently late, lazy or absent student who would then fall hopelessly behind), James had been suffering from depression for a few years.

We are educators, not mental health experts.

Yes some do work the system, or try to, knowing that if they declare a problem with anxiety, the disciplinary procedure for continued absences from classes or lack of submission of work will not apply to them, but it doesn’t do to let them know you suspect they are faking as we are educators, not mental health experts and the whole story may not be apparent to us in our role as teachers.

Last month, when a student appeared to be blacking out in college one afternoon, the decision to call for paramedics was taken despite our strong doubts about whether her symptoms were genuine. Used to attention-seeking illness faking and how to spot it, the paramedics sussed her straight away and, after feeling inwardly furious at her for taking up the time of an emergency service, not to mention the college staff, we began to realise we were dealing with yet another mental health issue when the student had a panic attack two days later.

When an extremely shy and stressed student opted to become mute, I asked for help with how I should teach him if I couldn’t expect him to answer any questions (the basis of assessment of learning).  Exasperated by having to find more practical solutions to mental health problems in the classroom, my team leader whined: ‘Oh there’s no point; he can’t hear you!’  Simon, let me explain ‘mute’; you are confusing it with deaf.  But hey – your pain is my pain.

My colleagues and I are acutely concerned about the number of students for whom we have a duty of care who have problems functioning in our information-age world – they who have been growing up around fast changing technology, instant communication and one-click consumerism. You’d think they would cope better than us.  The rate of mental illness is obviously (to us) climbing and possibly because of the cyber-space age we live in.  My generation never worried about cyber-bullying, online safety, grooming, radicalisation and all the other terrors enabled by technology these kids are at risk from.  We were too busy balancing as many vinyl records as we could on the arm of the record player while we waited for our blurry snaps to be returned in the post.

Alongside years of studying our subject to be able to teach it, more years training in delivering said subject and getting the wild ones to behave as well as learning how to include all types of able and differently-abled learners, we now need opportunities to swot up on mental health and wellbeing as part of our continuous professional development (CPD) if we are to be effective in education.  At present, my strategy is always to send the suffering scholar to someone who knows how to deal with them, but this is becoming harder to do as more students with these needs enrol.

Before a recent CPD day we were told to select which workshops we wanted to attend and expected, as before, to be able to join in a number of fun sessions run by other lecturers demonstrating what they regularly teach in the sprawling college.  These no-teaching days are always good for bringing staff from different departments together and advancing the having-a-good-time-at-work ethos (happy, healthy workforce blah, blah.) I fancied balloon modelling and drum lessons this time.  To our surprise, transgender awareness was compulsory,  and  scheduled to take up so much of the day, there was little time left for the usual spell in the art block for example to splash around with messy materials or to make some noise in the music studios or practise how to photoshop the principal’s publicity shot into a recognisable primate in the Mac rooms.  However, we all gamely processed towards the huge conference suite few of us could remember visiting before.

“Where’s Transgender Awareness?” asked someone.

“Between your legs,” replied another and,

“Why are we having a cross-dressing conference?”

We processed out again some time later shocked by the statistics, moved by what we had heard, thanking the transgender students who were brave enough to address us all on behalf of those who couldn’t, agreeing to meet their needs at the college and apologising for our ignorance.

45% of transgender kids commit suicide

I learned the statistics show 45% of transgender kids commit suicide – yes that’s almost half of them.  Homosexuality doesn’t seem to be a significant isolating or bullying issue any longer among our students and I really hope compassion and acceptance for transgender teenagers by their peers follows soon because this generation changes things.

Whether you think ‘gender bending’ is a modern phenomenon or something which was always there, but not spoken of, I was surprised to realise there are significantly more students affected than I already knew of simply because many will not present themselves at college as the gender they prefer for fear of being ridiculed, or worse. Unsurprisingly, the transgender individual who does not suffer, or has not suffered poor mental health, is rare.

I’ve since read the following by Pearson McKinney:

“It wasn’t until Europeans took over North America that natives adopted the ideas of gender roles.”

He goes on to say:

“In Native American cultures, people were valued for their contributions to the tribe, rather than for masculinity or femininity.”

McKinney explains how those known as ‘Two Spirits’ i.e. transgender Native Americans, were considered to have the ‘gift’ of being able to see things from both sides.  It’s obvious when you think about it.  We however treat them as freaks.

I’ve long thought ancient peoples knew more than we know now, and the cost of living in a civilised society is losing touch with our emotional essence and introducing stress in our lives.  For the fragile or vulnerable among us, the cost can be expensive if it is paid in mental health.  Ideally, to flourish, we must be healthy, in fine fettle, robust in mind and body; our bodies and our minds need nourishment and care.  Did we ever actively take as much care of our minds as we do our bodies?

For my part, encouragement and positive affirmations are pretty much all I have to offer my anxious students for now, but there is reward in that for me too. Being able to say ‘Congratulations’ to James when his results were confirmed last summer and seeing the satisfied smile on his handsome face is a moment I treasure.


Ref: Pearson McKinney (April 2nd 2017), Before European Christians forced Gender Roles, Native Americans Acknowledged Five Genders, [www.bipartisanreport.com]