Teaching Students with Psychiatric Disabilities

Teaching Students with Psychiatric Disabilities (PILOT Reflections)

When I was a grad student teaching a freshman writing class, a student wearing a leather jacket and miniskirt put her fishnet-stocking-clad leg up on the table and blew spit bubbles through her front teeth, popping them with her finger while talking to me about her assignment.

Maybe that was some sort of sorority initiation, but I still have nightmares about it. Another time, again while I was a grad student, on the final day of a class that I found very enjoyable, just when a small group of about four or five students were lining up to say good-bye to me, a student who had missed six of the last seven classes started screaming in my face because I wouldn’t accept a paper that was four weeks late.

Student (holding hand knee-high): “I have a son!”

Jerz (cautiously): “Congratulations?”

Student: “It doesn’t matter whether I have a son or not!”

Due to advances in medicine and a shift in attitudes towards institutionalization, more people with psychiatric disorders are attending college. I have had students walk out of the room when it was their turn to give an oral presentation and attack me verbally during class for my alleged slowness in solving the individual student’s advising problem (something that had no relation to what the other 24 people in the room needed to hear).

Sometimes a student will gripe, or slam a fist on the desk, or stop out of the room. While it’s never pleasant to be on the receiving end of such misbehavior, most students in the class can recognize when their peers step out of line. All I have to do is remind myself that this is crunch week, and I’m much less likely to take such crabbiness personally.

I don’t mean to suggest that all students are psychotic and all instructors are helpless victims. Instructors do sometimes use their position of power in unethical or at least morally questionable ways. But in this post I’m reflecting on my own experience with students who seem mentally unbalanced.

I twice taught a student with a severe speech disfluency (the latest, or perhaps simply more accurate, term for what I would have otherwise called a “speech impediment), once in a lit class and once in an advanced tech writing class. The student was mostly fine speaking one-on-one, and often spoke up in class. I once asked her (in private) if she found herself stuck in a stutter, and I thought I knew what word she was trying to say, should I say it for her? She said no, just let her work her way through it. In the lit class, she was supposed to give a five-minute oral presentation. She asked whether she could use a computer to present something instead. I said yes. I imagined she would have handouts with activities for small groups, tied together with a slide show presenting the major themes, and then at the end of her oral presentation sum up what happened. Instead, she clicked through a small number of slides, then sat down.

It was really my fault. I completely misunderstood the nature of her speech disfluency.

Although she wasn’t actually talking during her presentation, she was still nervous, and thus she couldn’t manage a computer-based classroom activity, which is even more psychologically demanding than reading from a script. The next time she had to give an oral presentation, we spent more time planning an acceptable alternative.

When a student asks me to make an accommodation, I don’t mind being a little flexible. I see nothing wrong with permitting an alternative format or giving extra assistance, as long as the student gives me reasonable lead time. But when it comes to excusing students from the consequences of late papers and bombed assignments, I have to be on guard. I don’t want to reward a bright smooth-talker who has coasted on a talent for charming him or herself out of hard work. At the same time, I don’t want to put up a barrier to block a student who finds it difficult to ask for help.

If the student claims to be in a crisis, I always respond as if I believe the student 100%, even if I secretly have doubts. I let the student know that whatever caused them to miss the deadline on that paper that was worth 20% of their final grade has got to be serious. Their first priority is to take care of that problem. Since I’m eager to accommodate students with legitimate excuses, the grade they get in my class should be the least of their worries.

A student who is really in a crisis will usually be relieved when I tell them that, once the current crisis is over, they can contact the dean or a university counselor, who can contact me so that the three of us can figure out what steps to take.

If the student continues to press me for specifics (“Can I reschedule the oral presentation I missed two weeks ago?”), then I’m generally less convinced the student is really in a crisis. A student who knows he or she has no good reason for requesting help will probably give up at this point. But a student with very low self-esteem, who blames him or herself unnecessarily, might also give up.

I do remind students that the university wants to keep taking their tuition money, so it’s in our best interest to offer all sorts of services to keep students in school. If staying healthy means dropping a class or taking an incomplete, then so be it. If the student says he or she would rather not get anyone from the university involved, I point out that their problem (whatever it is) has already affected their grade in my class, and they’re asking me to be involved by adjusting their workload somehow. When a problem starts affecting your education, that’s a pretty good indicator that you’re not handling it on your own.

When the student expresses reluctance to get the university involved, I point out that by missing work and coming to me to ask for an exception, they have already asked the university to become involved.

Since I’m not a trained therapist or counselor, and can’t diagnose or treat their problems, I want assurance that the student is talking to somebody with the necessary knowledge.

It occurs to me that I don’t want the dean to perceive me as passing the buck to her in order to avoid making a judgment call. Perhaps I should leave the dean out of it until I really need her input. I should ask the student to consult with an academic services counselor before approaching the dean.