Mental Illness and Accomodation in The Classroom

Spring term was a bit bumpy for me as I took on teaching online public speaking for the first time and took over an argumentation course for a colleague who had to be out for a time for surgery. Both experiences were educational for me. I hope the students learned things too. Most of them did.

I had more failures than ever this term, and I’m not sure why. I think it might be due to students adapting to a slate of teaching practices that are forwarded by people who either don’t care that much about the classroom, see the classroom as a precursor to corporate employment, or think they are doing the right thing by cutting low-performing students a break. The pattern I noticed was low to no class attendance, performance of minimal requirements based on what they imagined I wanted them to do, and upon failure or just not turning in anything at all, claiming anxiety/mental illness as the problem (e.g. “I’ve had a really hard semester, feeling depressed and anxious, I’m struggling,” etc.)

I think that mental illness, anxiety, and fear of failure, et. al. are serious concerns, but more serious is our social phobia/inability to speak about these issues as if they were real. In my syllabus I make a point about illness - I get sick easily so the last thing I want is someone with the flu or some horrible illness coming to class infecting everyone. I say if you are sick stay home. There are plenty of ways to catch up with the course later on. I write about it on the courseware, I record it on audio files, so there’s no reason to be there unless you want to participate directly. My goal now is to try to figure out how to word the syllabus to account for this trend and to handle it in a way that makes sense.

The trouble is I don’t want to make students feel they have to disclose a very stigmatizing and personal issue to me to get assistance. I need to think about wording it in a way that shows I’m happy to alter the conditions of assignments/work/due dates to accomodate for such issues. But I don’t want to make a bad thing worse.

The goal with such wording should be emphasis that although the illness is important and requires due attention, the work is not trivial in the light of anything. The assignments, readings, writing still must be done. I think that treating mental illness, anxiety, depression, whatever it is as a reason to do sub-par work or to not do work at all is very insulting to those who suffer from it.

Like any illness, we can adapt the curriculum to handle it. The question is how to word it to not make matters worse. And how to word it to indicate to students that they won’t be made fun of, insulted, called lazy, stupid, entitled, or any of the things I hear faculty describe students as with frightening regularity on my campus.

I’m happy to work with students to meet their needs as I feel the work of the class is important enough to justify such accommodation. The students benefit from the course; it really matters. The things they read and are asked to do matter. These practices are vital and should be treated as vital. They should not be treated as something either too hard, or too insignificant to matter in the light of a student admission that they are suffering from anxiety. We need students to feel comfortable coming forward and asking for help. If we don’t communicate this as necessary and appropriate, and find a way to do it well, we are communicating that our courses are not important at all.