| By Joel Meredith, Course Lecturer, Purdue University |
When you think back, who was that one teacher or professor whose impact remains with you today? Someone who recognized your talent when you couldn’t see it or whose encouragement helped you foster a sense of self-belief.
For many educators, paying it forward to a new generation of learners helped inspire us to pursue this profession.
Despite the strength of our wishes and sincerity of intent, our work is anchored in a world riddled with inequality, prejudice, and discrimination. And no matter how hard we try, we can’t shut them out completely.
Fortunately, as instructors, we have the power to set the tone for our classrooms. So it’s worth taking a step back to evaluate how our behavior might be impacting students. Do our words or actions reflect harmful beliefs? What steps can we take to be more effective as allies?
Perfection is not the goal. We always have more to learn—and humility, resilience, and adaptability are powerful character traits to model as leaders in our learning communities.
Here are five lessons I’ve learned from my years in the classroom:
1. Avoid tokenizing, projecting, and making assumptions.
No matter how long you’ve worked in education, we’ve all witnessed examples of what not to do in the classroom.
One example sticks with me from my undergrad years. A professor turned to the only Black student in the class and asked for his input on a text—I believe it was Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun.
“I’m sorry to single you out, but I have to know what you think about this passage.”
With one request, this professor devalued a student in her class. Despite her intentions, she singled out a student in front of his peers solely because of his identity. Some students might be eager to share their perspective and experience with their peers, but it should always be on their terms. Be cautious of tokenizing any marginalized group. This is a form of covert racism and only reinforces existing hierarchical power structures.
My second example speaks to assumptions and generalizations. Here, I want to hold myself accountable for a misstep I made while working in a corporate job, though I think it’s illustrative of an important point.
I was interviewing a woman for an article about her experience traveling home to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria to hand deliver medication to patients. As we started, I asked her about her usual 9–5 work at the center.
“Well, I’m actually a pharmacist,” she corrected me before going on to answer the question.
When I think about it today, I still cringe. Working in a health-care organization, where the pharmacists were mostly white and the call center workers were more diverse, I rationalized that this woman was a call center employee instead of taking the time to ask. Or better yet, doing the research ahead of time.
Our generalizations and assumptions can do far more than embarrass us, which this certainly did. They often project unhelpful expectations of the world that limit our ability to see and appreciate others’ narratives as individuals.
2. Remember that mental health is health.
In the United States, we’re slowly working toward greater openness around mental health issues. But we haven’t moved fast enough; progress has been inconsistent; and societal tumult has exacerbated an issue we long ignored.
A June 2022 survey from the Harris Poll showed that a staggering 60% of college students reported having received a diagnosis for a mental health condition.1 Other polls put it even higher. Universities have not been able to keep up with the demand for mental health professionals, and nonwhite and rural students are less likely to access therapy due to stigma and discomfort with a profession lacking in diversity.2
For me, this is personal. I lost a cousin to suicide when he was an undergrad. Maybe a more understanding professor wouldn’t have changed anything. Maybe it would have. As for myself, my mental health tanked as I went through major life changes—all while enrolled in three graduate classes and working full time. When a professor lectured me for not having fully read the syllabus after I got home from a trip to visit my dying grandmother, I could hardly contain myself.
I hear you saying, “But we’re not mental health professionals. What can we do?”
Here are two ideas that maintain clear delineation between therapist and professor while emphasizing the importance of mental health.
Make it clear where you stand. Many of us have syllabi with university-approved wording about mental health resources. It’s easy to skip through this and treat it as a formality, but consider stating—in whatever terms feel comfortable to you—why mental health is important. Adding your perspective and point of view shows students that you take mental health seriously and care about them.
Offer mental health days. Mental health days are becoming more common in many workplaces. Why not in the classroom? The benefits are clear.3 My position is that if you don’t need a doctor’s note for being home sick with the flu, I don’t need one for a day or two off for mental duress. I just ask my students to shoot me a quick note and give me a heads-up—not an explanation. And you know what? While it’s a small gesture, students have sent me thank-you notes telling me that I’m the only professor they have who seems to care about their well-being. This is not a nicety; this is the least I can do in response to a mental health emergency.
Instructors will be eager for paperwork. I would simply caution that wait times for college mental health services are often weeks long, if not more. Any student requiring extended time off should be prepared to provide documentation of some sort; however, we should also be willing to extend understanding when and where a day off might make a difference.
3. Ask for pronouns and a preferred name.
A friend of mine and I met in a grad-level course several years ago. Our professor was what you might call old school. He was well-meaning but had a limited attention span for personal details—including student names.
In the register, my friend’s first name showed as Muhammad. If you knew him from any other context, you would know that wasn’t the name he went by. Without stopping to verify his preferred name, the professor persisted in referring to him as Muhammad throughout the semester.
We can save ourselves potential embarrassment and model respect and courtesy by asking for preferred names as classes start, at the beginning of the semester. While you’re at it, ask students for preferred pronouns. Demonstrating this respect for trans, gender nonconforming, and nonbinary students sends an important message demonstrating respect and establishing inclusivity as the norm. Many queer students may still be seeking ways to authentically express and embody their identities and will appreciate your support.
I ask students to write both preferred name and pronouns on a notecard at the beginning of each term.4 This is a small act, but shows students they are seen and that you—as an influence in their lives—are committed to getting it right.
4. Consider: Whose voices aren’t being heard?
One of my favorite things about being an educator is developing a good rapport in my classes. I love having a lively group of students, even if that means we get off-topic from time to time. However, I’ve learned I need to avoid the trap of reinforcing unhealthy social hierarchies.
For example, studies show that men take up far more space in classroom conversations than women.5 As a first-year instructor, I had a student who made generally benign jokes and was always ready to volunteer in activities. I was only too happy to have someone who helped reduce my nerves and who I could count on to keep the conversation lively.
It was only in looking back that I realized this was not a good dynamic. But he wasn’t the problem; I was. I deferred to him to help model activities and answer questions when I had a class of 20 other students I should’ve been turning to. Every student should have a voice and a chance to participate. It’s up to us as educators to thoughtfully create space and incorporate everyone into the conversation.
I saved the shortest for last, though it’s not always the easiest to do.
We chose this profession because we care. So it’s only natural for us to want to help solve our students’ problems. But in rushing to offer advice, we may be missing out on one of the most important gifts we have to offer: a listening ear.
Never underestimate the impact of an adult—particularly one in a position of authority—stopping to listen to a young person. Listening might not fix everything, but it goes a long way in showing your students that you see them for who they are and take their concerns seriously.
In the classroom, we can model courtesy, kindness, and an open-minded and respectful curiosity about those whose backgrounds and lives are different from our own. If our students see us as instructors learning alongside them, striving for progress rather than perfection, it will help inspire them to take their own small steps—which could ultimately be the steps that matter most.
Meet the Author
Joel Romero-Meredith is an English PhD student and French lecturer at Purdue University with more than a decade of professional writing and marketing experience. In his free time, you’ll find Joel traveling, spending time with his husband, and extending his Welsh and Spanish lessons streak on Duolingo.
1. Leonhardt, Megan, “Crisis on Campus: 60% of College Kids Are Living with Mental Health Disorders, and Schools Are Woefully Unprepared,” Fortune, July 12, 2022.
2. Flannery, Mary Ellen, “The Mental Health Crisis on College Campuses,” NEA Today, March 29, 2023.
3. Theisen, Angela, “Recharge with a Planned Mental Health Day,” Mayo Clinic Health System, October 4, 2022.
4. Wamsley, Laurel, “A Guide to Gender Identity Terms,” NPR, June 2, 2021.
5. Jennifer J. Lee and Janice M. Mccabe, “Who Speaks and Who Listens: Revisiting the Chilly Climate in College Classrooms,” Gender & Society 35 no. 1, December 9, 2020.