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“What do you do when someone starts crying?”

“What do you do when someone starts crying?”

Photographer:Fotograaf: Archive Sphinx Debate Centre

EDLAB’s teach-meet on student well-being

“I know that most of the teaching and mentor staff finds it difficult when a student confronts them with an extremely emotional story. What do you do when someone starts crying? Should you give him a hug, offer a tissue?” It’s the question that Pia Harbers, student advisor at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, drops in her ten-minute talk during EDLAB’s teach-meet last Tuesday afternoon. Staff from all UM faculties and service centres discuss the issue of student well-being and how it affects them.

“A lot of teachers can’t cope with those personal stories. Do you want to know them? Next week you have to grade his exam. And what makes it so difficult to be confronted with someone who is emotional?” Pia Harbers gives the answer herself: self-protection. “You may be scared that you get overwhelmed by emotions yourself, what happens when I start crying as well? Or do you think: ‘What does this person want from me?’ Do I have to make an exception to the protocol?”
As one of the four speakers this afternoon, Harbers shares her personal views. “I started working at the faculty in 2002 and saw on a yearly basis 20 percent of all students with, most of the time, questions about academic struggles, how to deal with the amount of literature for example. Maybe twice a year, someone would come in with a fear of failure. Now, my colleague and I see 50 percent of the active students and between 25 and 30 percent of them report mental health issues. Of course, not all are very severe, but many of those are. So teaching and mentor staff are confronted with a lot more emotional problems. And they are not experts in it. The fact that you’re scared as a teacher, thinking you won’t do the right thing, afraid to make a situation worse: it’s okay, Harbers says. “Recognize your fears and accept them. But show the students compassion. Listen to their stories. And don’t try to solve issues or take over responsibility.”
The audience debates the tension between, on the one hand, being a teacher (teaching content, making sure someone gets his grades) and, on the other hand, being an advisor. It ends up with a broader question: is there too much pressure on passing a course? Shouldn’t there be much more focus on well-being, especially by teachers who know them best?  As someone says: “Doesn’t the university want to deliver professionals who feel empowered? Shouldn’t Bildung also be part of its core business?”
“I’m not a psychologist, and there are a lot in the room, so I’m a bit nervous”, Oscar van den Wijngaard laughs. He is a project manager at the EDLAB and worked formerly as an academic advisor at University College Maastricht. “One aspect that I’m missing in the prevention issue is to provide students with control. Where do you feel that the source of control in your life comes from? Is it primarily internal, is it you who’s in the lead? Or is it more external? Do you feel ‘life is happening to you’? If that goes on for a long time, you run the risk of ending up with a burnout. Students have to provide meaning to what they’re doing.”
Van den Wijngaard sees students focusing on their career perspective, but that’s rather vague most of the time. The added value of academic advise by teachers, he emphasizes, is that they help to link intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. “The first one is harder to capture,” he admits. “What is the reason that a student is doing this programme?”

UM supports well-being
When it comes to what UM offers to students in terms of well-being, it’s quite a lot: peer and staff support, a yearly well-being week and a broader movement, a walk-in every Thursday morning for students for a quick psychological referral, individual appointments with UM psychologists, group training sessions and workshops about stress management and fear of failure among others. In September, there will probably be a communication plan, says UM psychologist Liesbeth Mouha in her speech, “so all students, but also teachers, know where to go”. At the same time, the Student Guidance team keeps on working to reduce the waiting time for individual appointments with UM psychologists, she says.
The aforementioned well-being movement, set up with a Comenius grant of 50 thousand euros by among others Petra Hurks, associate professor at the faculty of Psychology and Neurosciences, is a way to promote positive health by offering information and training to students during the year. One week a year, at the start of the second period, many faculties take up together and offer many extracurricular activities such as yoga lessons, lectures about resilience, food and sleep, the best way to study, et cetera. The main goal is creating awareness.

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