How faculty can ease students’ stress—and their own anxieties

Faculty experts in stress, anxiety and inclusion offer guidance for self-mental health care and supporting students
By: | December 3, 2020
(GettyImages/Tzido)

The worsening COVID pandemic has brought college faculty the twin stresses of overhauling teaching techniques while helping students cope with trauma and anxiety.

Faculty experts in stress, anxiety and inclusion offer guidance for self-mental health care and supporting students during a “Teaching in Transition” virtual retreat Thursday hosted by online content provider Course Hero.

“With burnout, people feel overwhelmed by the demands on them, and their initial strategy is to try to do more, they say ‘Let me work harder to get through it,” Mary McNaughton-Cassill, a professor of psychology at The University of Texas at San Antonio, said a retreat panel on stress.

“The things we expected to do—research, teaching, service, family and the holidays— are different in a lockdown and we nee consciously re-evaluate those things,” McNaughton-Cassill said.


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She encourages faculty members to reflect on what’s missing in their lives and fill that gap with a hobby. For instance, someone who feels they are spending too much time on Zoom and other online meetings should take up mindfulness or yoga, she said.

Faculty should also set boundaries between work and their personal lives. Benjamin Wiggins, manager of instruction of biology at the University of Washington, said his team has made it a rule to not send emails between noon on Friday and Monday morning.

Wiggins also encourages faculty members to eliminate any assignments or activities that don’t have a clear purpose. Faculty members can put extra energy into more purposeful activities and students will appreciate fewer categories of assignments.

“We’ve done 10 years of development in education in six months,” Wiggins said. “Anything you grade every two weeks and you don’t have a great reason, just cut it. Be absolutely brutal with how you pull things out.”

Anxiety, equity and inclusion

Faculty can make their online courses more inclusive by gathering feedback from students on what would make learning spaces more accessible, said Kaela Farrise, a therapist and lab manager for Stanford University School of Medicine’s Early Life Stress and Resilience Program.


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Student feedback and reflection can be gathered informally, through chats in Zoom or other modes of communication, Farrise said.

Faculty should also acknowledge that they are concerned about world events to make remote students feel less isolated, she said.

“It’s also setting clear boundaries for what is tolerated in a class or academic space,” Farrise said. “No space is entirely safe all the time but you can set an intention on what is going to be tolerated, and note when people have been made uncomfortable.”

Faculty members should also adjust their assumptions about when students are and aren’t engaged. A blank screen could simply mean a student may not feel comfortable showing their surroundings.

McNaughton-Cassill, of The University of Texas at San Antonio, said she had a student who joined online sessions from a pantry because it was the only room with a door in her multi-generational home.

“Students are working the jobs that are keeping us going during COVID,” McNaughton-Cassill said. “Some of them are watching the recording in the middle of the night when they come home from work, and that’s OK during a pandemic.”

Faculty stress survey

Three out of four faculty members reported significant stress while transitioning to new modes of teaching, according to a recent Course Hero survey of 570 full- and part-time faculty at two- and four-year colleges.


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More than half of those survey also reported a significant increase in emotional drain and work-related stress or frustration—both warning signs of burnout.

Faculty members have been more focused on making a successful shift to online learning and maintaining high-quality instruction than own their own mental health needs, says Tara Graham, Course Hero’s vice president of educator community.

“When a student comes into office hours, faculty members don’t know if they are going to talk bout subject matter or if they’re going to have to put on their grief counseling or therapist’s hat,” Graham says. “Many educators have said that a lot of the focus has been on the student experience, and rightly so, though many faculty have not been asked how they are doing.”