Wednesday, January 19, 2011

These Aren't the Trusted Adults You're Looking For

Well, I've recovered from the AHA. Good for me, because now I have new problems.

Look, I was raised in a time and place where "tell a trusted adult" was pretty much the response to anything that could possibly go wrong. Bullying? Tell a trusted adult. Creepy person approached you? Scream, then tell a trusted adult. You ate a battery? Tell a trusted adult, which may include a Poison Control worker. My school went to extremes with this, even parading in a bunch of friendly-looking police officers and firefighters to show examples of trusted adults. In my young mind, there were two kinds of adults: Strangers (Danger!) and Trusted.

Of course, it is never that simple. I used to work at a place where I was a mandated reporter, required to report certain things that people mentioned. Now I'm in the opposite place, trying to avoid being the recipient of misplaced personal information from students.

So, are we instructors trusted adults, or not?

There's a lot of evidence supporting the position of "we are". If kids were brought up to believe that teachers are the ultimate trusted adult, that assumption may extend to college lecturers, TAs, and professors. At large institutions, the TA might be the only instructor to know each student's name, or the only instructor students get any real face time with, which ratchets up the points on the Trusted Adult scale. I myself have said, and have heard others say, "Come see me as soon as you're having trouble with the material", which for me translates to "avoid giant problem" but often ends up as "let me tell you about a giant problem".

But there's evidence on the other side as well, including but not limited to actual mandates from various college offices instructing professors to avoid being drawn into the personal dilemmas of their students. Don't ask questions, don't make suggestions -- in many places a professor or TA can't advise a student to seek medical help or counseling. Nobody wants to enter lawsuit territory, so maybe "we aren't".

I struggle with this. I don't have answers. I wish I did, since next week the students will pour back into my classroom and onto campus and I know somewhere, somebody will be immediately dealing with these issues, and we'll all be hoping it isn't us. They will probably struggle silently, doubly afraid to get involved and admit any involvement at all to others. They probably won't have a trusted adult, either.


  1. Huh. I have to admit I never thought about that. In high school, of course, a teacher faced with a student's personal problem simply reports it to the guidance counselor, but since your students are now legally adults, despite the university having a weirdly intimate relationship with their often tuition-paying parents, that does sort of put you in lawsuit territory whatever you do, doesn't it?

    What one person I know who teaches college does (identity omitted from the internet), is when she is aware (implicitly or explicitly) that a student is struggling with a personal issue, she somewhere between advises and demands they go talk to the student counselor/head of res life/person whose butt is covered by the university to deal with such issues. (Advising or demanding depending on the student, the nature of the problem, and how much said problem is affecting the student's classwork.) Your ass is covered this way, and hopefully there is *someone* on your campus not only whose job it is to deal with these things, but who is somewhat competent at it?

    - Laura

  2. Laura, I think this is the wisest approach. However, a problem that emerges is the professors' and TAs' lack of knowledge of who the appropriate person to talk to is. Because the instructors aren't familiar with the internal workings of campus life (let alone what resources exist for off-campus students), I think they are often stymied. What the universities ought to do is directly inform instructors of where students can go for help, so we don't end up sending students on a wild goose chase for help that ends with a lawsuit.

  3. Er, yes, one would expect a university to do that, wouldn't one... ~.~ <-- scrunchy eyes of confusion

    ::privately thinks your university should be operating at least at the level of the local community college, which does that very thing.::