Blog for Podcast No. 24
by  Dr. Daniel de Roulet

When a situation in higher education results in an expression of heightened emotions, it can throw professors and students off-guard as they venture into unknown and dangerous territory. As professors, how do we address these moments professionally and meaningfully?

We think it is important to discuss this topic because it is challenging and seldom discussed; it’s not an easy topic to talk about or manage. We have lived through (as observers and participants) many emotionally charged situations with students. Unfortunately, we’ve seen these situations handled in ways, which were not ideal.

When we think about the number of days we spend with our students during the academic year, it should not surprise us to live through life crises with them.  Stress, family concerns, and financial troubles can push students to a place where they feel that they don’t have the resources to deal with the issues at hand. Occasionally, though, even more serious events push their way into a student’s world, and the effects are unpredictable.

Emotionally charged interactions with students are seldom welcomed due to the underlying implications and the “high-drama-effect” it can have on the student, professor, and surrounding community.  These can run the gamut from a student’s loss of a parent, to a conflict between a student and another student or between a student and a professor. It is more common that teaching professors will encounter situations that involve disputes over grading, absences, assignments, and inappropriate behavior.

A great deal of time can pass during an academic term – and everyone’s memory is not perfect.

We have some tips about handling these emotionally-charged encounters:

  1. Accept the fact that you will eventually be involved in one of these situations, either directly or indirectly. Human interactions can be among the   most complex situations that we have to deal with.
  2. Don’t ignore the situation. Address it quickly, calmly, and professionally. If you don’t have prior experience with this, speak with someone at your institution who does. They may be a dean, provost, counselor, or faculty development office.
  3. Stay focused on discovering how this situation may become a priceless teaching opportunity.  It is common for these situations to be remembered by both student and professor many years down the road.  Therefore – you want to visualize how you and they will look back of this situation, and then plan your approach to achieve that end-result.

With each situation that you handle professionally, you will gain “Emotional Experience”—in other words, handling these situations does get a little easier as you experience them.  But we want to learn from each other.  We encourage you to contact us to share stories about unexpected emotionally-charged encounters and their resolutions.

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