“Being an Empath in Today’s Class Climate of Increased Mental Health Issues”
In 2004, I walked into a Philadelphia college classroom for the first time, not as a student, but as an Instructor. I was excited, yet apprehensive. Would they respect me? I was only 24. Hell – I barely looked different from them! I introduced myself, geeked out over all things graphic design, and lectured about package design.
That night, my passion defined itself. As class came to a close, I gathered my things, told everyone I would see them on Wednesday, and I walked to my Jeep. My head and heart were buzzing. I was on a high; I knew what I truly wanted to do for the rest of my life.
Fast forward through the rest of my twenties and post-graduate school, I found myself ascending the ranks. I started full-time as an Instructor, then Assistant Professor, and now 10+ years later, Associate Professor of Graphic Design.
It’s 2018, and that classroom I walked into in 2004 not only seems like another life but a different world. It is not that my love for teaching has diminished, but rather the climate of teaching feels different. The abundance of students with varying degrees of mental health issues is staggering to me. It is hard to shut off my brain at night from the emotional turmoil so many of my students are bringing into the classroom. I used to joke that I did some of my best conceptual design development in my dreams – I would go to bed with “artist block” and wake up having dreamt about a project, hop on the computer, and know exactly which direction to go in.
Now, I find myself dreaming of potential horrors within the classroom: confrontations, emotional responses, shootings, and students self-harming or taking their own lives. These nightmares are not coming from the mind of an overly sensitive, paranoid individual. They are being prompted by the increasing number of real-life tragedies here in real-time. With each new year, enters a new class, bearing a larger emotional burden from the class that preceded it.
Why? What exactly is going on with these kids?
Something is happening in our society and for the first time ever, I am questioning whether I am in danger of emotionally burning out.
Full disclosure – I am a mother too. I’ve worked to instill healthy coping mechanisms in my young son, so he makes wise decisions. You really don’t want to see your child fail, but maybe we need to reassess the benefits of “failure” – or in most cases, “perceived failure.” There’s a new version of childhood where all kids get trophies, no one wins or loses, and parents swoop in to save kids from minor struggles like a forgotten saxophone on band practice day. As professors, we are seeing the negative effects of this years later in the college classroom.
Students that receive the B instead of the A for the first time, or break-up with their boyfriend or girlfriend for the first time, all while adjusting to their new college life, this breaks them.
As their professor, it’s heartbreaking to witness.
On the flip side, we also get students who are not accountable for their own actions and level of performance. This level of entitlement has also steadily increased over the years. As teachers, we find ourselves on edge after entering grades. Will we be confronted? If they are already in a fragile state of mind, as many are, will they self-harm? Will it drive them deeper into depression? Long gone are the days of entering grades and just moving on to the next semester. So how do we go about adapting to this “new culture?” Is there a way of “fixing” it?
It used to be that receiving a Masters or Ph.D. in your specialization was enough. Today, teachers are faced with active shooter lock-down drills (including one I had today!), students with increased mental health diagnoses (including severe learning disabilities and trauma), not to mention the underlying anxiety of potential random school violence.
We are trying to adapt to all of this.
We continually struggle to find time and energy to prep for what we signed up for, and what we love to do, which is to teach. Once again, we are pulled in various directions to further research, publish, attend conferences and other forms of faculty scholarship, all while holding seats on various university committees, and playing an active role in continued curriculum development and measured outcomes within our departments. All of this takes an immense toll on us. It leaves many of us, myself included, asking ourselves:
Is this what I signed up for? This isn’t how teaching used to be, even 10 years ago. Do I want to, or am I capable of keeping this up without burning out? Are lock-down drills and this new teaching climate something I want to adapt to? And, should I have to?
I can’t be the only professor out there wondering if there is something I can do that would mean more. It’s funny because, for many, they feel teaching is one of the most meaningful careers. Not to discredit the meaningfulness of teaching, because I’ve had many positive stories over the last 10+ years where students have reached out to me after graduation saying what a difference I made throughout their academic career.
They said I was an inspiration for them.
However, for me, the quest for meaningfulness stems from being a “fixer” and a “doer.” I am not okay with feeling stuck in this downward spiral of doom & gloom statistics of increased mental health issues. This 38-year-old with 11 years of full-time teaching, 2 years of part-time teaching, and 15 years of graphic design industry experience is contemplating starting over.
Do I go back to school to attain a degree in Mental Health & Psychology so I can really help people? Do I embrace the activist in me and find ways of advocating and fighting for more support, funding and preventive tactics within academia and in society? Where does one start?
I’ve identified with being a professor for so long, and it is such a huge part of me and who I am. There aren’t many things I am confident about, but I am a good teacher. Maybe a great one.
I just want to be able to teach.