By Mercedes Valadez (Ph.D.). Mercedes is a tenure track faculty member in the Division of Criminal Justice at California State University, Sacramento. Her research focuses on race, ethnicity, inequality and the criminal justice system. She is the mother of a toddler (born 2019). Mercedes is a member of the California Faculty Association Parental Rights Committee which focuses on highlighting issues and inequalities that pregnant faculty and mothers face. The Committee focuses on making policy recommendations to address necessary changes to support mothers in academia.
Balancing teaching, research, committees, community work and parenthood was a challenge before the pandemic. Post-pandemic it has been excruciating at times. Yes, working and parenting during a pandemic has been an emotional rollercoaster. But, beyond worrying about our own health and that of our family, at times, we were expected to serve as a source of emotional support for our students. This isn’t something that we are necessarily trained to do. But, being away from family will sometimes encourage students to be overly dependent on their instructors.
On our last face to face meeting, I took a poll and asked students whether they would prefer to take a synchronous or asynchronous online version of our course. Every single student chose asynchronous. After a couple weeks into the transition, I organized a zoom meeting with students. The purpose of the meeting was to address any questions or concerns related to the switch to an online platform. The topics that students wanted to discuss were not related to the assignments or remaining exam. Students didn’t want to discuss assignments or grades, they just wanted to talk to someone. They shared how lonely, depressed, and worried they were. They talked about not having anything to look forward during this time.
Before ending our zoom meeting, I discussed the support and resources they had available to them through the university despite the closure. But, I also asked everyone to share one tip that has been helping them through the pandemic. Some students shared that playing with their pets helped, others said baking. But, the one tip that stood out was a student who shared that she wrote something on her calendar that she planned to do the next day so that she would have something to look forward to the following day. When they asked me what helped me get through the pandemic, I asked them to wait a minute. I walked over to the living room where my husband was trying to entertain our 13 month old and brought her over to say hello to my class. I told them that even though it has been really difficult working from home, I’ve enjoyed spending so much quality time with my daughter.
Many of us are not trained in mental health or counseling, yet we were expected to serve in an emotional supportive role to our students. Balancing the needs and worries of another 176 individuals is not something that I was trained to do. Nor is it humanly possible to address all of those individual needs and worries as they related to the pandemic. While not all students depend on their faculty for emotional support, some did during the Spring 2020 semester. This past semester I heard more from students about their food insecurities, depression, family troubles, financial worries, and a host other issues compared to all other years combined. I had to quickly become well versed in all of the resources available to students both on and off campus
Like most faculty, I care about students and want them to succeed both in and out of my classroom. Several colleagues and I discussed that we found ourselves in a pseudo parenting role. By that, I mean that it felt like we had to do a lot of virtual hand holding. I would send out weekly announcements and reminders about due date for assignments. I would also send out a “checking in” message to let them know that I wanted check in with them and see how they were doing with the course. At the end of the semester, I received a few messages from students expressing their gratitude that someone checked in on them. For example,
“Thank you for an awesome class. I so much appreciated all the study tools you provided throughout the semester and your availability and reaching out to make sure I was doing ok” (Student A).
“I really enjoyed taking your class this semester and I really appreciated all the accommodations you made when everything transitioned online. I wasn’t expecting any changes to be made to this class since it was already online and it was more accommodating than most of my in person classes that actually had to shift to online teaching. The changes you made helped me a lot through the semester. I just wanted to say thank you and I hope you have a great summer” (Student B).
“Thank you professor for an amazing semester. I enjoyed your class and learned a lot. I wanted to thank you for being so supportive, flexible, and kind through this crazy semester. Have a wonderful summer and I hope to have another class with you again soon.” (Student C).
No one warns you that students may look to you as a source of comfort or help when you are going through your Ph.D. It isn’t something that is openly discussed. The pandemic created a new challenge for faculty. That is, the additional expectation by students that faculty would take on a pseudo-parenting role. I use a mentor or manager style. But, I understand that this past semester was unique and students needed much more guidance and support. It is worth highlighting that as faculty we need more training and support to deal with student related crises.
However, we need to remember that our time and energy is not limitless. Our parenting responsibilities are with our children. We should be careful not to exhaust ourselves by taking on pseudo-parental roles and responsibilities that are not ours to take on.