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As students face mounting pressure, teachers feel increasingly helpless | Perspective

The hardest thing about being a professor is not the grading, the emails, or the cell phones in class. It's being entrusted with the wellbeing of a roomful of complicated, unique strangers, and always feeling like there is something more you should be doing.

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Contrary to the popular notion that college students are coddled and carefree, the college campus can be a pretty desperate place. It's easy from the outside to envy the parties, the youth, and the freedom, but that Panglossian vision overlooks the mounting pressure on the average student. As the cost of a degree increases more rapidly than the rewards, all but the most privileged undergraduates are feeling the stress. Add in factors like housing and food insecurity, social pressures, mental-health issues, and safety concerns, and you have a fraught situation that is only getting worse.

In the past academic year, Temple University endured seven student deaths: a mixture of murders, suicides, and drug overdoses. In February, a student organization opened an on-campus food pantry for students who could not afford to eat. The same week, there was a campuswide shelter-in-place drill, which the official email stressed was "different from a lockdown, which is used for a violent human threat of any kind, including an active-shooter scenario." The idea of feeling truly secure on any campus can seem absurd.

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I am an associate professor in Temple's English department, and I can tell you: The year was weird and sad from start to finish. Some days, I could get caught up grading papers or meeting with students, and forget the broader context of the year's miseries, but that doesn't mean they went away. The anxieties infect every aspect of campus life, making it harder not just for the teachers to do their jobs but for students to endure. The question for all of us is: Given the scope of our problems, how do we help young people to thrive instead of succumbing to the pressure?

In April, an energetic and gregarious student came to my office, put her head in her hands, and said: "I don't know what to do. It's all just so hard." She didn't want to talk about it, but she wanted to sit in my office and cry for a minute. I felt powerless watching her. Some of the problems these students face are not solvable, not in the short term, and certainly not by me.

In these situations, I think the best thing we can do is acknowledge the students' pain. The first instinct many professors have is to respond cynically to a complaint. You try to figure out what angle the students are working, rather than engaging with their humanity. I've often been guilty of rolling my eyes at the email about the dead grandmother the night before a paper is due, but every time one of us does this, it reduces us. It makes the world a crueler and more hostile place. It makes us part of the problem.

When another student told me about his mother dying — a situation complicated by the fact that he was his family's only English-speaking member — I could not help him address his grief. But I could take time to listen to him, to be flexible on deadlines, to introduce him to our counseling services. He was grateful for the extensions on his assignments, but even more grateful that I had reckoned with him as an individual who was in pain.

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In a strange way, helplessness can be comforting. It's easy to shrug and say, "There's nothing we can do." It doesn't make anything better, but it frees you from the responsibility for making change. My job is to do something, and to fight the feeling of powerlessness. It's a good lesson for all of us in positions of authority. Sure, some people abuse the system. Some are immature or overreacting. Some have brought their problems on themselves. But we are living in particularly distressing times, and when you have the opportunity to offer others the slightest relief, the moral thing is to listen to them and let them know their pain matters.

The hardest thing about being a professor is not the grading, the emails, or the cellphones in class. It's being entrusted with the well-being of a roomful of complicated, unique strangers, and always feeling as if there is something more you should be doing.

Tom McAllister is the author of the novels "How to Be Safe" and "The Young Widower's Handbook." He teaches at Temple University and lives in New Jersey.