As you get to know your students better, they may ask for your advice on academic-related matters (eg, “Should I change courses?” or “I get so nervous during exams that I can’t sleep”) and they may also want to talk to you about more personal concerns (eg, “I can’t pay my rent,” “I suspect my partner is using drugs” or “I think I am pregnant”). In such cases you may wish to offer a listening ear but you should not feel responsible for your students’ choices or actions. In other words offer support but not open-ended assistance. At LSE there is a wide range of student support services and specialist sources of advice and guidance. Your role, therefore, is probably one of referral, putting the student in touch with the people at LSE who have the specialist knowledge and expertise to offer them information, help and guidance. GTAs are not expected to be trained counsellors or to offer advice in these situations and, with the best of intentions, you may actually do more harm than good.
The first person you can encourage your students to turn to is their academic mentor. This may be particularly appropriate for issues around course choice, initial ideas on future careers or other course and department-related issues. For the wide range of pastoral and personal issues, you may wish to familiarise yourself with the many student services, or alternatively point students to how to find these out for themselves on the School website, or in the undergraduate and graduate handbooks.
When you work with students in this way, you should keep a careful written record of your conversations and correspondence with them and be aware of issues of confidentiality. In your dealings with your students always strive to be open and honest. As a general rule you should respect your students’ privacy and keep their confidences. However, there may be some circumstances where it may also be sensible to liaise with the course convenor of the course and/or the student’s academic mentor. If this is the case you should make your views clear to the student and gain their consent and permission to take things further. Even better, it may be possible to support the student in resolving their own problem or encouraging them to talk to the relevant people for themselves.
If you are uneasy about a student’s personal/mental state, do seek advice even if you do not think it is yet an emergency situation. You can always speak to a member of your department or one of the specialist student support services on a no-names basis in the first instance. It is important that you do not try and tackle difficult student problems on your own. There is now detailed advice in the booklet Cause for concern: guidance to working with students in difficulty .
Finally, there are some circumstances where it is vital that you inform others. In particular, if you suspect that a student may be at risk of harm to themselves or to others, contact either a senior member of staff in your department without delay or contact The Disability and Wellbeing Service via firstname.lastname@example.org.
To protect students’ interests and to maintain a professional teacher-student relationship, it is better to avoid getting too friendly with your students or gossiping or colluding with their moans and complaints. It is unwise for GTAs to get drawn into discussions about individual members of academic staff and other GTAs or to be openly critical of the course, the department or the School. If there are issues that do need bringing to the attention of the course convenor or the department, do so tactfully but assertively. The ability of the GTA to act as a communication bridge between students and the academic staff responsible for the course is one of the enormous benefits of the class teaching system at LSE. Note that you have a formal opportunity to provide feedback on the course on which you are teaching in Winter Term.
Many departments now have a member of full-time academic staff who acts as adviser to GTAs and a point of contact for when they have concerns. The other key person you may wish to contact is the Head of Department or Institute.