What happens when we can’t help a student when they need us most?

The job of university personal tutor is not nine-to-five, and academics in support roles are fallible and don’t always get it right. Catherine Lee shares advice for those times from personal experience

Catherine Lee's avatar
Anglia Ruskin University
25 Apr 2023
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As educators, we know the importance of giving students personal as well as academic support. In universities, counselling and other student services have seen unprecedented demand as students present with increasingly complex needs.

The role of university personal tutor can never be nine-to-five, because students often reach out to us in crisis when the university closes for the holidays and they suddenly realise their on-campus routine, safety and support will not be there until teaching resumes in autumn.

But what happens when we don’t help a student when they need us most?

My experiences as a schoolteacher under Section 28, a UK law that was in effect from 1988 to 2003, have informed how I feel about student support. Section 28 stated that schools must not “promote homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. As a young lesbian PE teacher, I feared I would lose my job if I was outed at school or talked to students about same-sex relationships in positive terms.

Some 35 years later, I remain haunted by a particular incident. One Saturday night, I ran into one of my students in a gay bar in Liverpool, where I lived. I immediately left the bar, panicking for the rest of the weekend that the student would out me and I would lose my job. That isn’t what happened, though. This distraught student approached me on Monday morning at school, upset at having ruined my evening and desperately seeking someone to talk to about her sexuality.

My diary recorded my conversation with the student, whom I’ve called Julie, that day in school:

“You shouldn’t be in a place like that,” I tell her angrily. “You’re not even 18.” Julie starts to cry. “I have thought for ages that I might be gay,” she blurts out between sobs, “and I just wanted to see what it was like at a club.” “Look, you’re still very young and, I promise you, you’re not gay. And even if you are, don’t be! That club is no place for you to be on a Saturday night. There are some people in there who are not very nice, so stay away!”

If Julie had told me she was pregnant, had been abused, was unhappy at home or was struggling with her coursework, I’d have ensured that she got access to all the help she needed, but because of my fear of being exposed as a lesbian, I was cruel to her, betraying both myself and the LGBTQ+ community.

I left schoolteaching for higher education in 2010, and for the first time was able to be my authentic self at work. And that fateful day with Julie has, in part, driven the work I have done since. In 2016, working with schools, I set up the UK’s first leadership-development programme for LGBTQ+ teachers, Courageous Leaders. This programme has supported more than 100 LGBTQ+ teachers to secure positions of school leadership as their out, authentic selves. I am, through this programme, helping to create LGBTQ+ teacher role models.

I am my own worst critic and I regularly berate myself for not being the role model Julie and countless other LGBTQ+ young people needed. However, it is important for all of us who look back with regret that we were not braver, or we could not go that extra mile for a student in their time of need, to remember that times change and we are human beings who come to student support with our own baggage.

So what advice would I give to others who, like me, regret not being better when a student needed us?

  1. Know the support your university offers and be ready to signpost a student in need to these services. Universities have staff trained in counselling and support, so it makes sense to leave support to the experts if we are struggling.
  2. Trust your instincts and don’t get out of your depth. If an interaction with a student doesn’t feel right, then it probably isn’t. Trust your gut and, when in doubt, refer your student to student services.
  3. Know your responsibilities, but also know your limits. Many of us are personal tutors, so it is important to know that we have a responsibility to ensure our students are ready to learn. However, we are not trained counsellors and sometimes issues are too complex for us to handle. When we have reached the limits of our interventions, it is time to refer on.
  4. Take care of yourself, too. We are all products of our past. When a student presents with a problem, it might evoke in us memories of something similar that happened to us or to a loved one. It is OK not to be able to help sometimes, especially if the emotional cost to you is likely to be significant. Again, if this is the case, signpost your student to the experts; they are better placed than you to offer the help needed.

In February, I published my Section 28 diaries. The book, Pretended, inspired the Bafta-nominated film Blue Jean and a theatre production, After the Act. As someone who spent most of her career hiding her personal identity, I have at times been left feeling exposed and uncomfortable from the attention the film, play and book have garnered. Is this further atonement? Who knows.

Recently, one of my academic colleagues got in touch to say that they had read Pretended and seen Blue Jean. They told me how as student at school during Section 28, they were bullied for being gay. For years they resented those teachers they knew were probably gay but who passed by in the corridor, pretending not to hear the homophobic taunts my colleague suffered. In learning about my experiences, my colleague said that they now understood the climate of state-sanctioned homophobia in which their gay and lesbian teachers worked and could forgive his own teachers for not intervening.

I have taken comfort from knowing that, by sharing something of the regret I felt in not helping Julie, I have helped my colleague make peace with the bullying he experienced at school. I have no idea whether Julie has seen Blue Jean or read Pretended, but I hope that, wherever she is and whatever she is doing, she can forgive me for that fateful day.

Catherine Lee MBE is interim PVC dean at Anglia Ruskin University. Her latest book is Pretended: Schools and Section 28 (John Catt, 2023).

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