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by Hilary Lynch

Besides teaching course subjects, professors also manage the relational climate in their classrooms. One session at the Lilly Conference in January 2018 emphasized how professors can better manage these relationships, especially when stress creeps into the classroom. Dr. Pamela Szycygiel, Assistant Professor of Social Work at UNC Pembroke, shared how relationships are main catalysts for change, and our academic environments “have a lot of relating going on.” People learn, grow, and change in the “context of interpersonal and person-to-environment exchanges.” We will work with students who have had negative and unrepaired relationships with authority figures. Some students need to “work on new relationships” and have new positive experiences with those in supervisory roles. As we teach academic subjects, we can also teach students how to repair working relationships when tensions and anxieties surface.

Szycygiel shared her own story about a student publicly interrupting the start of class to voice major frustration and anxiety about an upcoming exam. Szycygiel chose to “be curious” and find out more. The student claimed the other professors in the program didn’t give exams (which Szycygiel later learned was not the case). As their new professor, Szycygiel knew the students, like all people, were also unconsciously testing her to see her response. She remained calm and shared the reasons for exams, such as how these particular students would need to take a major exam to become social workers. The exam would help them meet their profession’s requirements. She also encouraged students by saying she believed they could succeed with proper preparation.

Szycygiel focused on repairing the relationship with the vocal student as well other anxious students. Due to the student speaking up, other students shared that they too felt anxious about the exam, which was more than 20% of the course grade. The professor learned this group had two professors recently leave, and they were still adjusting to Szycygiel’s classes. Some conversations are better for an office hour, but when students speak up at less than ideal moments, Szycygiel recommends professors stay calm and get curious. She later learned in a private conversation that test anxiety was behind the student’s abrupt remarks. Szycygiel recommends looking at each student as a whole person and remembering that fear drives some of the behaviors we see. By the end of the term, the student claimed Szycygiel was a favorite professor, their working relationship more than repaired.

While we should empathize and see the classroom through students’ eyes, Szycygiel also shared that healthy boundaries in relationships are best for the students’ development. Holding to deadlines and academic standards helps students meet real-world expectations and face reasonable challenges. Community college students often work and take 3-5 college classes, so they are understandably pressed for time. We can help stressed students meet expectations while keeping our rapport as constructive and positive as possible. College is a time to learn about managing anxiety and repairing relationships, skills that will help students for years to come.