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February 3, 2011

Mental Health in the Classroom:

Teaching TAs how to handle classroom problems

Inexperienced instructors are in particular need of guidance, said Carol Washburn, an instructional designer at the Center for Instructional Development and Distance Education (CIDDE), which oversees new teaching assistant orientation.

Carol Washburn

Carol Washburn

Safety comes first — literally — in the orientation sessions that train about 270 new TAs each fall, Washburn said. The first order of business is to have participants type the campus police phone number into their cell phone contact list. Next, the TAs are taught to seek advice from the University Counseling Center if they have concerns about a student.

“TAs have been stalked,” she said, reiterating that those situations need to be reported to the police.

Given that the numbers of distressed students on college campuses are on the rise, Washburn said training on dealing with them is part of the orientation. New TAs learn to handle a range of difficult classroom situations during orientation and in other workshops that present case studies for discussion.

The emotional issues students may bring to the classroom can be especially difficult for inexperienced TAs, Washburn said. The emphasis is on utilizing the University Counseling Center — not only by advising a distressed student to go, but also as a resource to which a concerned TA can turn for advice.

Minimizing classroom stress

Stress can play a role, Washburn said. “You can minimize stress on students,” she said, urging instructors to build in structure and clear expectations when designing their courses. “A disorganized class can result in unhappy students. With a lot of structure and clear expectations your students do better, you’re happier as an instructor and you have less dissatisfaction.”

One common reason students might challenge a teacher is anger over a grade. Instructors sometimes are not adept at designing tests based on the teaching objectives and students may get upset if questions seemingly are pulled from nowhere. “If someone feels a test was not fair, often it wasn’t,” she said, again touting good instructional design as one preventive measure.

Avoiding conflict

Not all classroom disruptions can be avoided, but some foresight can minimize conflict. “You can prevent a lot of problems by having structure and clear expectations in your class,” Washburn said.

A student’s anger may be piqued if his or her behavior is challenged, so it is important to establish policies early on issues such as late arrival or web surfing during class. Such policies set a standard that an instructor can point to when a student behaves in an unacceptable manner.

Should a student do or say something that makes a TA uncomfortable, Washburn advised that the issue be addressed with the student and the situation documented with the TA’s supervising instructor or chair.

She cautions TAs to be aware of interpersonal dynamics that could contribute to an uncomfortable interaction. For instance, a large male student with a loud voice can be intimidating to a small-statured young TA without intending to be. “That can be perceived as threatening,” she said.


While students’ privacy must be respected, communication can defuse fear over peculiar behavior. “If a student is talking a lot to himself in class, there could be a lot of reasons for that,” Washburn said, noting that sometimes compassion rather than fear is called for.

She recounted an instance in which she was met with a barrage of expletives when she turned her back to write on the board on the first day of class. When it came time for students to introduce themselves, one of them addressed the situation. “I don’t want to scare anybody,” he said, clearing the air by explaining that he had Tourette syndrome and his utterances weren’t rooted in any ill will or grudge against others in the classroom.

“That was the best thing for that class,” she said, commending both his directness as well as classmates’ compassionate response to a situation that, left unaddressed, could have resulted needlessly in a stressful, frightening semester.

“In general I don’t think people are very well educated in terms of these types of disabilities or illnesses. I think we need more education in terms of what’s normal and what’s not normal,” she said.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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