frayed_ropeThe stresses that our students experience are often not obvious, but they do affect learning. By being aware of the kinds of stresses that students are facing, we can make adjustments to our teaching that can have a positive impact for our students.These were some of the themes explored during  the InterACT workshop, Outside In: When Stress and Worry Disrupt the Classroom, on November 13.

How it works

The InterACT Theatre Project for Social Change, developed by Ohio State Assistant Professor Robin Post, “is a novel and engaging way to help University community members talk about difficult or complex issues they face every day in a safe and controlled environment.” The InterACT workshops are interactive theatrical devices in which Ohio State student actors enact the kinds of scenarios likely to occur on our campus and in our classrooms. InterACT performers are enrolled in the Theater 2921S course, taught by GTA Elizabeth Wellman, and develop their characters and scripts through topical research and interviews. For the November event, the actors met with fellow Ohio State students, and then fictionalized the real stories, experiences, and stresses of those students.

The workshop opened with a skit by these student-actors who portrayed members of a class. Throughout the scene, the action would break so that each character could soliloquize about the often invisible stresses that they are experiencing at that moment. Though all students portrayed ways that their coursework was suffering, or showed that they were not as present in the classroom as they (or the teacher, “Mrs. North”) would like, the stresses of being a student were so much broader than the challenges posed by specific learning tasks.

Students’ experiences

“Ria,” for example, whose parents expect her to become a doctor, said that the most stressful thing about being a student is, “knowing that my family is counting on me and I cannot mess up.”

“Riley,” a 25-year-old veteran of the Iraq War, said that he felt alienated from the civilians on campus and doubted that they could understand his experiences.

“Oliver” intimated that he is gay but that almost none of his friends know, and for him the hardest thing about being a student is, “finally figuring out who you are but being afraid that people won’t like who that is.”

stressball“Sophie” is unable to complete coursework because she appears to be suffering from untreated or unrecognized severe depression.

“Michael” may have to miss a major exam because he has an important job interview at the same time, and felt that he had to choose between school and the job that school is preparing him for.

“Zoey” said that for her, what is most stressful is “being a minority student on a predominantly white campus.”

Following the workshop, one attendee observed, “The veteran student stood out to me, as I have had my share of them in the classroom and have friends/family who have been in that situation as well. I never really thought about the challenges they may have going back to school while readjusting to civilian life.”

Teachers can make a difference

Following the performance, the actors remain in character. Wellman facilitated a dialogue among the “students” and workshop participants to consider ways of moving forward, beginning with the various stresses and what teachers can do to create a supportive and inclusive classroom space. “Annalise,” for example, reflected upon the prevalence of sexual assault on campus, and wanted teachers to be more “activist.” She requested that they state their concern about such issues and the consequences for affected students so that students don’t feel so alone. She also recommended “trigger warnings” for certain topics. “Zoey” asked that students and teachers recognize the ways that visible identities play out in the wider culture, on campus, and in the classroom. Workshop participants suggested that students can be honored when they offer their individual perspectives in class, but that students should not be seen as reductively speaking from an identity position. This is a way of acknowledging visible and invisible diversity.

Recognition of the kinds of issues students are dealing with can be powerfully supportive. As one teacher offered, “I think even just being aware of/acknowledging that students have challenges both related to and outside of school can be helpful. It’s a hard thing to balance, though, because I never want my students to feel obligated to share personal information with me.” Simply knowing that a teacher is interested and willing to listen can go a long way toward making a student feel less alone.

Being interested in and available to talk to your students about their stresses means that they may come to you with issues that you do not feel prepared to discuss. Do not hesitate to seek guidance, or, if appropriate, recommend that students seek out specialized services. See the list below for campus resources.

For more perspectives on students’ (and teachers’) stresses, see these UCAT blog posts:

http://ucat.osu.edu/blog/reflection-student-wellness-part-1-4

http://ucat.osu.edu/blog/reflections-student-financial-realities-part-1

Also keep up via Facebook and Twitter with further responses to our questions about student stresses with #OSUVoices and #wellness.

Resources

Counseling and Consultation Service: http://www.ccs.ohio-state.edu/

Student Advocacy Center: http://advocacy.osu.edu/

Suicide Prevention Program: http://suicideprevention.osu.edu/

At-Risk Simulation Training: http://ucat.osu.edu/participate/at-risk

Office of Student Life Student Wellness Center: http://swc.osu.edu/ The Center offers the following confidential services: coaching on general wellness, financial wellness, and nutrition; hiv/sti testing and support; support for victims of sexual violence; substance addiction recovery and support.

-post by Michael Murphy, UCAT Graduate Consultant

Photo Credits: Berts @idar via Compfight ccbottled_void via Compfight cc