Established 1874.

The Oberlin Review

Established 1874.

The Oberlin Review

Established 1874.

The Oberlin Review

Faculty Mental Health Initiative Trains Teachers to Better Support Students

This year, Oberlin faculty can attend monthly workshops on supporting students’ mental health as part of the Faculty Mental Health Initiative. The initiative, which began last fall and will continue to the end of the 2023–24 school year, is organized by Professor of Music Theory Jan Miyake, OC ’96, and Associate Professor of Biology Angela Roles. It is supported by the Lemle Center and the Office of the President. Each of the workshops focuses on a different topic and are designed to educate instructors on how to make their syllabi and lesson plans more accommodating to students’ mental health. 

Miyake and Roles said that mental health has been a major priority in higher education since the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“In that fall of ’22, people had had a lot of concern about feeling like there were tons of students who were asking for incompletes more than usual,” Roles said. “People had wanted to feel like the pandemic was over, but clearly there were still difficulties that were arising that were different than what had been happening before the pandemic.”

Miyake and Roles both served on the Faculty General Council last year. In spring 2023, they ran workshops at two Council meetings attended by a large number of faculty members. Miyake said she and Roles were later approached by President Carmen Twillie Ambar, who asked them to plan further events for the 2023–24 school year. The pair returned with the goal “to build a larger community of pedagogues who are committed to positively impacting mental health in our classrooms.” The Office of the President provided funding for lunch at events and compensated both professors for their work. 

Roles said that workshops usually consist of an introductory section where they educate faculty on a particular topic related to student mental health. Attending faculty then participate in activities, ask questions, and have conversations in small groups. Workshops end with faculty sharing their thoughts with the whole group. 

Topics covered in past workshops include writing syllabi, leading in-class discussions, and having flexibility in grading assignments. The initiative also held a workshop for new faculty at the beginning of the school year and a panel with students each semester where faculty could ask students questions about their concerns regarding mental health in the classroom. 

Neither Roles nor Miyake have a background in psychology or counseling, but say both have done substantial reading on the subject. Particularly, Miyake and Roles read the 2023 book Improving Learning and Mental Health in the College Classroom by Bonnie S. Moon, Robert Eaton, and Steven V. Hunsaker, which President Ambar has offered to buy for any faculty members who want to read it. 

“This is something that is not just happening at Oberlin,” Roles said. “This is a nationwide, maybe global thing. So, having some awareness of that and making sure we are keeping up with the literature and what’s happening in terms of people’s thinking about education is necessary.”

Miyake and Roles have also talked with and received data from Oberlin Counseling and Psychological Services. Roles, however, stressed that what the Counseling Center does is very different from how teachers can support mental health. 

Both Miyake and Roles said that faculty can support students by having some flexibility with deadlines and grading policies, while still retaining some structure. 

“I call it the Goldilocks spot — not too hot, not too cold, just right — of building flexibility into things like due dates, late work, and redos that still leaves students with hope, but doesn’t allow them to bury themselves under a mound of work,” Miyake said.

Miyake mentioned the role of universal design in planning classes. Universal design is an approach to pedagogy that offers increased accessibility and flexibility to all students in assignments and lesson plans. Roles said that teachers with good communication led to decreased anxiety among students. 

Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies and Associate Dean for Academic Standing Laura Herron has attended some of the workshops and said the initiative is helpful because many instructors — many of whom went to graduate school decades ago — were not trained on accommodating students’ mental health.

“This is not something that professors were trained for in our graduate schools,” Herron said. “It’s an area where, a lot of times, we don’t feel qualified. At the same time, we’re teachers. We choose to be teachers, [because] we want to help our students succeed. And it’s frustrating when we see them struggle.”

Miyake said that they had recorded 65 unique faculty members attending the workshops in total. Faculty who spoke to the Review about attending workshops said that they found what they learned valuable and have made changes to their curriculum and teaching style to reflect the techniques discussed in the workshops. 

“Participating in the Faculty Mental Health Initiative has been a highlight of my year,” Assistant Professor of Theater Kari Barclay wrote in an email to the Review. “It has offered concrete tools for how to build assignments, discussion, and syllabi with students’ mental health in mind, and I’ve already been able to implement some new practices in my courses.”

Director of the Division of Musicology Charles McGuire, OC ’92, said he had implemented the lessons learned in workshops when writing his syllabus for this semester.

“I see it as a way of bringing in a kind of sense of humanity into the classroom that hasn’t necessarily been absent, but it’s a way of emphasizing it,” he said. “And I’ve learned an awful lot about expectations of students as well as my own expectations [and] where they clash, especially, say for instance, in terms of syllabus design.”

Faculty members who attended the events said that hearing from their peers was an important part of the process. 

“[Faculty] appreciate these opportunities and especially we all gain a lot by talking to each other because we’re all teaching kind of the same community of students and so we encounter the same problems,” Roles said. “But then someone might have an idea that you hadn’t thought of.” 

The Faculty Mental Health Initiative will continue until the end of the school year. Miyake and Roles said they hoped its mission would be continued in other future programs. Miyake said that she would like to see the workshops in particular incorporated into the Teaching Center. 

The next monthly workshop, which will be on the pitfalls associated with active learning, will be held this coming Wednesday, March 6.

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