Thinking about pastoral tutoring on #UniMentalHealthDay

For many academics, the concept of pastoral tutoring is an unfamiliar one, perhaps because they come from countries where pastoral care of students is not heavily emphasised, or maybe because there is no separate term used to distinguish pastoral care from other types of support that are offered. Even those who have heard or used the term themselves may struggle to define it; often, it is framed by focusing on what it is not: advice and assistance related to purely academic matters such as which statistical technique to use for analysis, or what class to choose to best prepare for a particular career.

The term comes from the Bible and its references to Christ as a shepherd for his flock; a popular handbook for church leaders thinks about pastoral care as follows:

…Shepherding involves protection, tending to needs, strengthening the weak, encouragement, feeding the flock, making provision, shielding, refreshing, restoring, leading by example to move people on in their pursuit of holiness, comforting, guiding…

In higher education, this can be interpreted as applying to any number of issues associated with physical, emotional, and mental health and wellbeing. For example, students may be struggling with finances or housing; they may have a tense relationship with classmates, a lecturer, or a supervisor; they may wish to access a university service but feel confused about how to do so; or they may have a chronic illness that is beginning to impinge on their ability to do work. These are just a few examples, but show what a huge range of difficulties may be classified as being pastoral in nature. Some of these may not yet directly affect a student’s ability to progress with their studies, but there may still be indirect impacts–and, left unaddressed, these problems could intensify and eventually have more overt implications for scholarly activities.

Pastoral tutors, then, are a vital resource for students facing pastoral issues–many of which can be embarrassing, demoralising, and/or frightening to the student. It is difficult for anyone to admit that they are struggling, so the academics who act as pastoral tutors need to be able to respond to students’ unburdenings with compassion and encouragement–and not just because there is a legal duty of care to do so. Rather, higher education institutions are increasingly recognising that teaching and learning do not exist in a vacuum, but are significantly impacted by wellbeing in other areas of life; the creation of an open, nurturing, and supportive environment has become a key part of the modern university experience, and pastoral tutoring roles have been established specifically to ensure that students can access the support they need to help them continue with their studies.

Most lecturers feel nervous about pastoral discussions, however, due to the sensitive nature of the issues that may emerge. Although some academics explicitly state a fear that they could be dragged to court for providing bad or inadequate advice, the majority simply worry that they don’t know enough to be helpful, or that they lack the interpersonal skills required to navigate tricky conversations elegantly. Training sessions are key for tackling this uncertainty and giving pastoral tutors (or, indeed, all lecturers) the opportunity to learn about the expectations of their institutions, as well as the services and systems that are in place to support their tutees.

Although the exact name and nature of the pastoral tutor role may change from one university to another, there are two key tasks that are almost universally associated with the job: listening to students when they need to talk about a problem, and signposting students towards the next step(s). As is the case when friends and family members experience a rough patch, often students simply need to vent, to feel listened to and cared about and encouraged. Once the pastoral tutor has acted as a sounding board, their job may be done. In the event that further action must be taken, however, pastoral tutors can outline the options and provide information on how to get in touch with specialists–or, in particularly difficult cases, actually help the student initiate that process.

It can be difficult to leave it there–and institutions may have slightly different expectations and rules regarding precisely when a pastoral tutor’s job is completely done–but, generally speaking, the tutor would not actually advise on the best course of action or be heavily involved in follow-up procedures, but instead allow students to choose from a range of options and then proceed accordingly. For example, if a student suspects he/she may have an undiagnosed disability, the tutor could refer the student to the institutional accessibility service for an official assessment and consultation on individual learning plans; if a student is unwell and needs to miss a substantial number of classes, the tutor could provide the student with mitigation or withdrawal forms that the student could then fill out and submit; if a student reports suicidal thoughts, the tutor could place the student in touch with the institution’s wellbeing team, help the student call his/her GP, or even call emergency services.

This last example–probably every pastoral tutor’s worst nightmare–emphasises how important it is for tutors to be accessible to students, be observant of their tutees’ condition and demeanour, engage in open and supportive conversations, and be familiar with all the options for care. If a student reports suicidal thoughts while behaving uncharacteristically in some way (perhaps looking more dishevelled, being quicker to anger or tears, skipping many classes), the pastoral tutor may feel most comfortable immediately calling emergency services; on the other hand, if the student seems more calm and states that they have had but are not currently having these thoughts, a wellbeing referral may feel more appropriate. These nuances are the sort of thing that good training should discuss, along with providing tips on how to put students at ease, gain their trust, navigate difficult conversations, and assist them in being open about these sorts of problems rather than suffering in silence.

In a worse-case scenario like that listed above, tutors should not feel that they have to handle the situation single-handedly; a tutor can always call a colleague in to sit with the student while he or she goes off to make sensitive phone calls, or have someone else make those calls while the tutor remains with the student. Even when dealing with less extreme and complex situations, tutors may feel moments of doubt and want a second opinion. Although it is critical to maintain confidentiality–with the exception of extreme cases where the tutor feels a student may be about to harm themselves or somebody else–there are always ways to seek advice by keeping specific details private while still describing relevant aspects of the situation. If a student is feeling bullied, for example, one could ask for generic advice about ‘how should I handle reports of bullying by a senior staff member?’ rather than ‘what do I do about the fact that John says he’s being bullied by Professor Smith?’ The tutor could think about discussing this problem with colleagues outside their own discipline, with the institution’s wellbeing team, with the head of department, or perhaps even with HR. (This scenario also highlights the value of becoming familiar with the support network available to staff as well as with that established to help students; in addition to the wealth of academic and professional services colleagues that are usually on hand to advise, centrally, within the discipline or both, tutors will likely have external partners as well, and students may additionally want to seek peer support through student groups and guild representatives.) It is useful to discuss confidentiality early on with tutees and perhaps gain their permission to share certain details with certain individuals should difficulties emerge.

Listening to others’ distress can be painful, leading to burn-out or compassion fatigue and causing pastoral tutors to feel withdrawn, moody, sad, or even aggressive. It helps to have well-developed coping strategies, which may include calling a counsellor after particularly challenging tutee meetings, attending forums with other pastoral tutors to chat about common problems, or establishing a mentor relationship with someone who can regularly provide advice and guidance. Different tutors will likely benefit from different mechanisms, but it’s important for everyone to keep in mind that no one person can fix every issue reported by every student; inevitably each tutor will eventually find his or her limitations. It’s perfectly acceptable to be human, to admit uncertainty, and to seek help elsewhere–after all, this is exactly what we’re asking students to do when we point them towards pastoral tutors during times of stress. There’s no better way to gain empathy for these tutees than to recognise how it feels to face a challenge that can’t be overcome without outside assistance.

Of course, it is also vital to note that all lecturers, not just those who act as pastoral tutors, are increasingly being open about the long-term mental and emotional challenges associated with working in academia. Many researchers have called for further work on this pervasive problem, and most higher education staff recognise that changes will have to be made across the sector, not just within individual institutions, to improve conditions by, for example, facilitating a better work-life balance.

Ideally, insights and techniques suggested by staff-facing research can be used to inform student-facing practices and policy, and vice versa, leading to an improved pastoral environment for the entire higher education community.



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