Faculty Ombuds Representatives Encourage Open Communication With Students and Supervisors

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

A Message from Ramon Velez-Cruz and Ann Heiny, Faculty Ombuds Representatives

In this month’s article, we explore how faculty can benefit from actively communicating with their students and supervisors.

For decades, a respectable piece of advice was to not talk openly about our feelings and troubles, especially in the workplace. Individuals may have felt tension with a co-worker or perceived disappointment from a supervisor but never created the opportunity to clarify expectations, needs and emotions. The result could be years of discomfort at work or even searching for a new job to escape the awkwardness or alienation. In regard to students, miscommunication or lack of communication with them could create perceived discrepancies over class policies, with results ranging from tense conversations to poor student performance to formal student complaints.

As faculty ombuds representatives, we encourage open communication that will result in authentic relationships and clear understanding, as well as reducing chronic stress in our lives.

As a society, we have become more open and empathetic to the idea of talking about our feelings, although some are still hesitant to reach out and talk to someone for help. Putting feelings into words helps us relate to the problem differently. Research has shown that when we put feelings into words, we activate a part of our brain called the amygdala. This activation was described as almost like hitting the brakes of a car on our emotional response.

Talking about our thoughts and feelings slows down impulsive reactions and allows us to formulate rational options. This allows us to make more productive decisions. In application, perhaps, next time we want to generate a change in communication, we can try putting feelings into words and exploring solutions rather than allowing feelings to fester and become more and more negative (Lieberman, Eisenberger, Crockett, Pfeifer & Way, 2007; Wolpert, 2007).

Right now, many faculty members may be facing issues with student absences. The question is, how do we handle students disappearing from our courses for extended periods then possibly resurfacing with the expectation that they can complete all the work late and still earn their desired final grade? Communication may be a key factor to a successful resolution.

A clear attendance policy in the syllabus creates a strong foundation for students’ understanding and decreases the need for negotiation. Classroom discussion of the attendance policy and expectations the first week of the semester also goes a long way toward understanding. We are still able to make exceptions for individual circumstances, with a clearly communicated general policy that will address most concerns on the matter. The same may be said about communicating certain needs with our dean or discipline chairs through thoughtful and meaningful communication to avoid issues in the future.

As we mentioned in our October Grove and Faculty Insight article, if encountering a conflict, communicate with open-ended questions to help clarify the situation. Having this insight may help ease tensions. Always seek to understand. When asking clarifying questions, seek to comprehend and not to challenge.

Students are responsible for communicating absences or course issues to us, and we are responsible for responding to those in careful, equitable and thoughtful ways. We need to keep our students and campus leadership up-to-date with the content and happenings in our courses, especially when novel or contentious situations arise. While we might allow students to attend certain courses via Zoom for a quarantine-related absence, it is vital to communicate these things to our students every chance we get. As instructors, we should offer equitable options that students are given to stay up-to-date in our courses. Perhaps we can ask students to share their preferred method of communication to help encourage an open dialogue. Whether with students, colleagues, or leadership, communication is key.

If you need help finding the best way to engage in open dialogue, feel free to connect with us by contacting Ann at aheiny@valenciacollege.edu and Ramon at rvelez20@valenciacollege.edu.

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