Incorporating social support and love into the classroom

September 3, 2019

This post is republished from Into Practicea biweekly communication of Harvard’s Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning

Gretchen Brion-MeiselsGretchen Brion-Meisels, Lecturer on Education, focuses on ensuring that holistic support is apparent and felt deeply in her classroom. From listing mental health resources on all her syllabi to convening opening circles to build relationships at the start of class, Brion-Meisels incorporates ways of “checking in.” In her course Establishing Loving Spaces for Learning, students are asked to keep reflective journals and share them with a peer to engage in a conversation around their experiences. “Fundamentally, my biggest goal is to normalize the idea that everyone needs support. We’re all works-in-progress, learning and growing, but also with a lot to contribute to each other’s growth.”

The benefits: While this approach may not be easy for instructors in other disciplines to employ, Brion-Meisels believes that creating the expectation that everyone will need support at some time will foster a sense of belonging and empower students—particularly those experiencing imposter syndrome—to seek resources when they are in crisis. In addition, Brion-Meisels hopes that this approach will foster a sense of responsibility for collective well-being in her courses.

The challenges: One challenge that Brion-Meisels grapples with is the balance between providing space/support for students in moments of emotional hardship and providing structure/scaffolding to ensure that everyone is producing their best work. This is particularly important to her when students are interacting with young people in schools and community settings. “Consistency and stability are so important for young people,” she shares. “I try to make it very clear that I expect my Harvard students to hold themselves accountable to their students.”

Takeaways and best practices

  • Have very clear policies. Be clear with students that centering wellness is important, but they are also expected to develop certain professional competencies. Use your syllabus to outline pathways for students to request additional time on assignments, how they are expected to engage with the class (including attendance), and available resources at the School- and University-level for accommodations or support.
  • Don’t differentiate wellness needs. Although students have diverse backgrounds, experiences, and needs, Brion-Meisels suggests encouraging any who ask for help to seek it via the appropriate resources. Instructors should avoid making judgments or prioritizing one student’s needs over another and simply point students in the right direction.
  • Consider other factors when hiring a teaching fellow. Brion-Meisels suggests seeking a TF that balances out the faculty member’s strengths—cross-culturally, politically, or otherwise. When hiring TFs, instructors should remember that social, emotional, and cross-cultural skills can be just as important qualifications as a candidate’s prior knowledge of the course content.

Bottom line: Harvard can be a challenging and intimidating space for students. It is important for instructors to know about the resources available to students at the University so they can point them in the right direction when needed and create a space in which students feel comfortable seeking support from said resources.