Robert Neubecker

How a student’s panic attack changed my approach to teaching

My students were taking midterms when my phone erupted with urgent messages. “Student is having a panic attack,” texted a teaching assistant. I ran out of my office, down a flight of stairs and found the student—a pupil in my 350-person organic chemistry class—lying motionless on the ground outside the exam hall. “I can’t move my fingers, head, or legs,” she cried. “I don’t know what’s happening to me.” My mind raced as she slipped in and out of consciousness. I asked a bystander to call 911 and held the student’s hand, reassuring her that help was on the way. “Did my exam really trigger a panic attack?” I asked myself. “Why am I not prepared to deal with a situation like this?”

It was my first time teaching the course. But I knew that the subject was challenging for my undergraduate students. I also knew that the course had a reputation for doling out few A’s. This was a source of stress for premed students in particular, who feared that a low grade in organic chemistry would keep them from getting into medical school. I had no idea that my exam could elicit a full-blown panic attack, though.

The saving grace that day was another student, who had emergency medical training and rushed over to help. She led the student through a series of breathing exercises that calmed her down and helped her regain the use of her limbs. Afterward, I asked her what happened. “I panicked when I was reading the questions,” she said. My heart sank, wondering whether I could have done anything to prevent this.

The following day, I was scheduled to lecture to the same class. I knew that I had to address what had happened during the midterm. I didn’t want to infringe on the student’s privacy by mentioning her. So, I started by saying: “I want to take some time today to talk about something important. How many of you think that this is a weed-out course?” Half of my students raised their hands gingerly. “I’m sorry to hear that,” I continued. “I want you all to know that I do not consider any of you to be weeds; you all deserve to be here.”

I flashed a slide of flowers in various shapes and hues—a stark contrast from the chemical structures I’d shown in past lectures. I smiled at my students and said: “I think of you as flowers—different flowers with different needs. You may not bloom at the same time, but you will bloom! You may not do well in a midterm exam, but you will learn from your mistakes and do better on the final exam. I believe this. I believe in you.”

I think of [my students] as flowers—different flowers with different needs.

From that point on, my office hours were packed. Previously, only a few top-performing students had come, but the new batch included students who were struggling as well as those who were first-generation college attendees. Some asked about lecture topics and study strategies; others opened up about personal issues—family health problems, impostor syndrome, depression—that they’d been struggling with. I was amazed that a simple, frank discussion in lecture could make such a difference.

We educators shouldn’t need a crisis to remind us of our students’ emotional needs. But it took a crisis to transform my approach to teaching. I now make a point of talking about mental health at the outset of every course, giving the students my “flower” speech and mentioning places where they can go for extra support. Before exams, I ask my students to use digital clickers to rate their current mental health and I share the results onscreen, which helps students realize that they’re not alone in feeling stressed.

Finally, I do my best to learn my students’ names. This may seem like a small thing, and it’s challenging in such a large class. But I’ve found that they feel valued—and are more likely to ask me for help—when I put in the effort to recognize them as unique individuals.

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