Submitted by Olivia Barker, World Languages
I was a student for so long I thought I’d never forget what it was like to be one. Fading memory aside, I’ve also had to acknowledge that my experience isn’t the same as everyone else’s. Understanding my students and that they may have invisible struggles is an area of my work that I had not considered prior to teaching, but it has become one of my more important roles.
I recently taught Spanish 101 and had a student walk in the first day completely disengaged. I’m ashamed to say, my initial interpretation of her affect was apathy. After a few weeks of sporadic attendance, she approached me after class and said she was struggling with depression. She was trying to get back on her feet after an unsuccessful semester at a 4-year institution. I thanked her for sharing and reassured her that I was there to help. I ascertained that she had a treatment plan in place, so we looked at what she needed to do in the class to catch up. She still hadn’t purchased the course materials and explained that her mother had refused to buy them, not wanting to waste money on a class she would fail anyway. Reality struck me. She was set up for failure. She wasn’t apathetic; she was already defeated.
We set up a plan and I gave her temporary access to the materials so she could catch up. Her attendance improved dramatically and she was visibly more confident. She was engaged, participating actively in class, and her mother ultimately purchased the materials for her. She finished the course successfully and told me she would be transferring back to her 4-year institution. I know this student may likely continue to struggle with depression, but in being given the chance to overcome a perceived defeat, she now knows she’s capable of rising to the challenge and achieving success.
Since this experience, I have become certified in Mental Health First Aid and will continue in my efforts to identify and lift up struggling students. It’s easy to attribute poor academic performance to laziness or apathy, but if we are truly invested in our students’ success, we have to consider the whole gamut of possibilities. As we become more cognizant of the prevalence of mental health disorders affecting our students, we have to consider what may be invisible to us. It’s not our job to provide treatment, but a gesture of understanding, an offer of support–this can be a very powerful tool to help a struggling student succeed.
If you have a student success story that you would like to share with the Reflection on Student Success Community of Practice please contact Steven Titus, English, at the following email for more information: firstname.lastname@example.org.