In the absence of a trained counselor, a teacher can don the role of a lay counselor and help students
Think about your days in school or college and identify your favorite teacher. What made them so special? There are those who you remember for their riveting lessons but there are also those you think of fondly for their supportive behavior, and the empathetic ear that they lent to students. The best teachers, are often a combination of the two.
As students spend half their growing years in school and college, teachers have a significant role to play in shaping the personality of the students. While school counselors are trained to address a range of issues such as broken relationships, strained relationships with parents, self-esteem and body-image issues, addiction and thoughts of suicide or potential career paths, a teacher who is in constant touch with the students can also initiate conversations and encourage students to open up. This makes the role of a counselor imperative in an academic set up, and teachers can become the primary source of on-campus support for the students.
Though the Central Board for Secondary Education (CBSE) India recommends that schools employ a full time on-campus counselor, more often than not, this is not implemented. Sometimes this is a result of disinterest by the management, and often due to the unavailability of trained counselors. The other challenge is to nudge students to meet school counselors when they find themselves in troubled situations. Teachers play an important role in bridging this gap. A teacher who can be trusted and shows empathy, can offer support and then guide students to the school counselor when necessary. However, not all teachers have what it takes to become one.
Who can don the role?
It is not easy for students to share their issues with a teacher. It is important for teachers to be open-minded and willing to help. Building trust in the minds of students is essential if a teacher wants to be a confidant.
Some qualities that encourage students to talk to a teacher are:
Objectivity in approach: A teacher should view the student in an objective manner and without any personal bias, based on academic records or personality.
Old-timers: A key person who has been with the institution for a long time, understands the place and the students, is also an ideal candidate for the role of a counselor. A teacher who is also perceived to be approachable by the students could be identified and trained in counselling.
Active listening skills: The teacher should show genuine interest in what the student is telling them. They should practice self-control, show patience and supportive body language by nodding their head and responding to the student's cues.
High level of integrity: For students to share their most troubling issues, the teacher should be trustworthy to not share it with anyone else or worse, gossip about it. For example, no student would want to talk about their disturbed family background, without making sure that the the person they are talking to is trustworthy.
Empathetic and exploratory: A teacher should be empathetic as it helps to understand the issue from the student's perspective. At the same time, they should have the skills to maneuver the conversation to make the student share more so as to find a solution.
What should a teacher do when a student approaches them:
Build rapport: This is the first step a teacher-counselor should take. Make the student feel comfortable in your presence, until they are at ease and start to talk. Remember that the student is trying to gauge if you are trustworthy. It is important to use a good combination of verbal and non-verbal communication at this stage.
Allow students to express themselves: When the student starts talking about the challenges faced, allow them to vent. Listen to everything that the student has to say and do not interrupt the flow of thought. Also, as a teacher, you can paraphrase the student's thoughts to ensure that you have understood the problem correctly. This will provide clarity to their thought. “This is how I've understood your problem and I believe you can approach it through so-and-so method. What do you think?” This could be one of the ways. Assist the student to think about ways to overcome or address the problem instead of providing ready solutions.
Be non-judgmental: A teacher should be empathetic and compassionate towards the student. For instance, if a student comes out saying they have had 60 cigarettes per day, the teacher should not say “Oh that’s so bad !” One needs to practice self-restraint.
Consistent in emotions: As a teacher, the person should be consistent in their thoughts and emotions. They should try to not let their moods and emotions rub off on the student who comes to them for help. They should maintain their composure.
Maintain complete confidentiality: Make the student understand that the information they share will remain confidential and not be leaked to anyone. (If the issues shared by the student are harmful to themselves or others, then it should be brought to the notice of the school management.)
In addition, the school management can also spot teachers who can be trained to provide counseling to students.
This content has been curated with inputs from Dr Uma Warrier, chief counselor at Jain University, Bangalore.