"But we’re lecturers, not therapists!”
In my area of work, I encounter this objection on a fairly regular basis and my response is always the same. Trying to turn lecturers into therapists is not my goal; this would be neither effective as teaching nor therapy. I have now come to expect, accept and understand the reasons behind this misplaced fear. I even enjoy encountering this response, as it opens up a space in which to discuss ‘how things are done around here’ and to revisit our objectives as educators.
My work with various universities has shown me that ‘how things are done around here’ invariably takes the form of departments for and about things – ‘student services’, ‘student counselling’, ‘study skills’ – most of which come under the umbrella of professional services and are seen as separate from teaching. It is of course essential to have departments that offer specialist services and there is outstanding work around mental health and wellbeing being done by professional services and organisations (such as AMOSSHE) across the UK. However, anyone who has ever worked in a large institution knows that we can often fall prey to ‘siloism’ and the first goal of any cross-institution project or strategy is always to get individual departments talking to and working with each other.
However, with student mental health and wellbeing, it’s not only siloism that worries me; it’s the idea that sending students on somewhere is enough or indeed all that educators can do. I was reflecting upon this recently in a workshop where an extremely helpful and well- meaning professional services staff member told lecturers that if their students had any wellbeing related issues then they could just send them on to student services. Whilst student services provide excellent support and I always tell my students to make use of their expertise, the idea of sending students on somewhere sat somewhat uncomfortably with me. Sending students on in this manner can take remove the focus from what we as educators can do to support and enhance student (and our own) wellbeing through our pedagogies and course design. And this of course, often leads to the question: ‘but we’re lecturers, are you wanting to turn us into therapists?’
I’m not trying to turn anybody into anything; but I do want us to think about learning and teaching as both a cognitive and affective process. Ryan and Deci’s (2017) basic psychological needs theory tells us that in order to feel well (and by extension, do well) in the environments we inhabit, we need three basic elements to be satisfied: autonomy, competence and relatedness. In The Wellbeing Perspective workshops, I often illustrate the power of this theory by asking lecturers to think of work environments that they felt really well in/didn’t like and asking them to identify the things that supported (or didn’t) their sense of autonomy, competence and relatedness. Everyone has a story of great/bad workplace they can use to map these basic needs onto. We then turn our attention to the working environments that we create for students and ourselves and how we can shape these environments to enhance both learning and teaching and wellbeing.
As The Wellbeing Perspective conceptualises wellbeing as a design principle for learning and teaching rather than an adjunct, the workshops always contain a practical, hands-on focus of what we as educators can do to simultaneously enhance both learning and wellbeing. This nexus between wellbeing supportive practices and effective learning and teaching strategies holds untapped potential for any HEI committed to improving mental health and wellbeing on campus.
The Wellbeing Perspective is part of a growing movement of educators (Baik et al., 2016; Tang and Ferguson, 2014) who advocate for the importance of reflecting on what we can do to support student wellbeing through the way that we teach, interact, conceptualise learning, understand our students and design our courses. It is never about turning lecturers into therapists or avoiding challenge/difficulty in the curriculum; instead it is about going back to fundamentals. Firstly, “as human nature is the primary resource with which educators inevitably work . . . human nature [must] be a primary guiding philosophy for our educational responsibilities” (Krieger, 2008, p.248). Therefore, building learning environments that meet the basic psychological needs of our students is the foundation stone of our practice as educators. Secondly, learning is a process that will always involve a degree of difficulty at some point, and it is our role as educators to design courses where challenge is introduced gradually in a supportive environment that normalises ‘failure’ or ‘not understanding’ as an integral part of learning and creating and the creative process.
For more on how to support and enhance wellbeing in and through learning and teaching, or if you have any questions/thoughts then I’d love to hear from you. Get in touch through firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @wellbeinginHE
Baik, C, Larcombe, W., Brooker, A., Wyn, J., Allen, L., Field, R., Brett, M., James, R., (2016a) Enhancing Student Wellbeing: Resources for University Educators
Krieger, L. (2008) ‘Human Nature as a New Guiding Philosophy for Legal Education and the Profession’, Washburn Law Review (47) pp. 266-67
Ryan, R.M. and Deci, E.L. (2017) Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. Guilford Publications: New York.
Tang, S. and Ferguson, A., (2014) ‘The possibility of wellbeing: Preliminary results from surveys of Australian professional legal education students’. QUT L. Rev., 14, p.27.
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