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]



Men and Women at Work

Being part of the team

Men and Women at Work - closetdramablog on WordPress
Men and Women at Work

At the risk of offending equality campaigners, I’m aware that I’ve gravitated backwards regarding my working relationships with the opposite sex.  I’m surprisingly alright with it now that I’m closer to retirement age than I was when the natural male-female interaction became skewed for fear of  sexual inappropriateness or harassment accusations.

When I was much, much younger and prettier, I was sexually assaulted at the office where I worked.  It was a very physical attack which hurt and bruised me, but I meekly decided not to make a formal complaint for a number of reasons. Firstly, my attacker was senior to me with a wife and two small children.  Secondly, I was relatively new to the company and keen to progress in my career without inviting any unnecessary obstacles.  Thirdly, there was a culture at the time which cannot be compared with today.  In other words: things like that happened and I regretfully accepted it had happened to me. I never forgot it though.  No-one who has ever been sexually assaulted forgets how it made them feel.

Of course that kind of thing can’t be allowed to happen – I’m opposed to that sort of thing!

In my second career as a teacher, my time has, up until recently, been spent with mostly female colleagues which is not unusual in education. But since the beginning of this academic year, I have found myself based in a male-dominated department of the large college I work in, alongside staff with whom I’d previously had little contact.  It’s been an unexpectedly pleasant change.

I realised they had all been working together for a long time and having two new female English teachers in their space was perhaps something they wouldn’t have chosen.  So mostly adopting a keep-your-head-down and get-on-with-it approach, I didn’t seek or expect much attention, so little attention, in fact, that on one occasion, I unwittingly managed to surprise all my male colleagues by emerging from a cupboard in the staffroom and shocking one of them into gasping: “How long have you been living in there?”

The two of us came as a pair, almost an invasion as far as our male colleagues were concerned, and we had been happily working together in another department for a while. A nickname has since been bestowed on my female team-mate (Hockeysticks, on account of her posh accent) and I suppose on me too as I’m sometimes referred to as The Other One and more recently, Typhoid Mary, on account of my insistence on continuing to work during a spell of illness, risking their health.

Within a few days of us settling in to our new environment, I felt it necessary to assure the guys that Hockeysticks and myself were classy enough to say F-, and the team leader laughed: “Now you’re part of the team.”  Apologising every time they realised some swears had been uttered was becoming a strain for them, but they were concerned about offending either of us.

No-one bothers to modify their language or conversation any longer which is why I was recently surprised to hear myself loudly deploring: “What has your foreskin got to do with me?”  A sentence I never thought I would need on a regular workday and one which had more impact than the often repeated: ‘Too much information!’ when relaxed conversation becomes intimate.

Humour is one coping strategy which clearly works for these guys. They would no doubt consider their humour sophisticated – all of them being academic, accomplished, passionate and professional, but they are not above taking a moment to be, or look silly and they know how far they can go.  Before a recent demotivating data update meeting (yawn), we were invited  by one of the team to don vivid, vastly oversized sombreros and it didn’t occur to us to decline.  It was a small attempt to ease some of the tension which builds up over the first term.  When eventually asked by the Director of Learning what was “with the hats,” everyone replied from beneath their brims, one after the other: “What hats?”

I knew I was beginning to be accepted as one of them when I was asked: “Can I come and stay with you until all this blows over?” during the beginning of term chaos and what sort of woman would seriously object to being addressed by a bearded workmate with the words: “You’re a woman; do you want some chocolate?”  I did fancy some chocolate and it was clearly meant as a joke, not an invitation to assert my feminist self.  Just ‘banter’ as the students would say.

That said, I have never been comfortable with touching my co-workers and actively discourage it in my classes.  Now however, it is not unusual to be given a hug from someone on the team when the moment calls for one.  The office/staffroom we are in is a pressure release unit where teasing, joking, listening and cake or biscuits are available for mini-meltdowns, struggling on through sickness and stress as well as the upsetting moments.  It’s normal to touch in circumstances such as these and now, when arms are opened to me, I won’t back away – not for fear of offending, but because it’s natural human behaviour, often extended because the one offering a hug needs to do it as much as the person who will be hugged benefits.  It is often said that we spend more waking time with our workmates than with our families which can starve us of warmth if our working relationships are cool.

The aspect of our identity which becomes the most important at any one time is the one that marks us out as different.

In our team there is clearly mutual respect. We don’t need legislation to remind us of our obligations to our workmates. We are individuals who are safe with each other and learning how to treat one another, not because we are all the same, but because we are not. The aspect of our identity which becomes the most important at any one time is the one that marks us out as different in that particular instance whether it is age, origin, skill, status or anything our identity is composed of.  None of my comrades would hesitate to lampoon another for any of these reasons, so why should making fun of someone because they are female (or male) be any different?

Recently in conversation with the team, I mentioned I realise I have an issue with objectifying women.  The response was: “Stop doing it then.”  I don’t know why I needed to mention it really.