When carrying out support you are nurturing individuals and small groups of students and this inevitably means that, at times, you will become closely associated with students’ emotional and overall well-being. While this type of support is undoubtedly what will make you an effective tutor, it does come with a ‘health warning’. It exposes you to some of the dangers of getting ‘too close’ to the issues and by implication, at times, to the students themselves (Luck, 2010). Also, if boundaries are not considered and adhered to, your role as tutor may sometimes feel as though it is morphing into that of social worker or even counsellor. This is especially so since academics are increasingly called upon to support students experiencing mental health problems and increasing levels of stress.
It is at times like this that boundaries are critical and must be discussed and enforced appropriately. Support for the academic to cope with this pressure and to perform their role effectively must also be forthcoming (Tinklin et al, 2005; Robotham and Julian, 2006; Jordá, 2013; Hughes et al, 2018).
Boundaries can be best understood by grouping them into different types and by examining examples alongside their rationale.
|Boundary type #1 – Expertise and referral|
(Grant, 2006; Wisker et al, 2007; Swain, 2008; Whittaker, 2008; Aultman et al, 2009; Thomas et al, 2017; Hughes et al, 2018)
Tutors may lack certain levels of expertise or training and so may not feel comfortable in providing specific types of information, advice, guidance and support. At the same time, colleagues elsewhere in the institution may be employed specifically for these purposes (Hughes et al, 2018).
Student Counselling/ well-being:
Self-harm, (sexual) abuse, (domestic) violence, suicidal tendencies, traumatic bereavement, severe depression, alcohol or substance abuse or anything which strays from the normal student experience and would benefit from professional mental health support (Smith, 2008; Luck, 2010; Watts, 2011; Hughes et al, 2018).
A student whose loan has not come through so cannot afford to both eat and travel to campus that week.
A student who needs to escape their home for a place of safety so seeks advice (Luck, 2010).
A student discloses that they feel they may be dyslexic but has no previous diagnosis.
|Boundary type #2 – Temporal (time)|
(Gidman et al, 2000; Wilcox et al, 2005; Aultman et al, 2009, p 639; Hughes et al, 2018)
Time is a major determinant in how the personal tutor role is undertaken and how effective it will be (Gidman et al, 2000, p 406). Tutors have limited time o support struggling students due to competing or even conflicting demands (Rhodes and Jinks, 2005; Luck, 2010; Watts, 2011; Gubby and McNab, 2013).
A tutee’s complex individual pastoral needs take up excessive amounts of tutor time leading to increased pressure and work hours (Dobinson-Harrington, 2006; Luck, 2010).
|Boundary type #3 – Independence and engagement|
(Wisker et al, 2007; Thomas et al, 2015)
The quality of learning in HE can depend on the correct balance of scheduled contact and directed independent learning (Soilemetzidis et al, 2014). If students become overly dependent the relationship can become damaging and the consequences severe (Luck, 2010; Thomas et al, 2015; Hughes et al, 2018). Students generally accept the idea of independent learning but require support to learn autonomously and reflect upon this learning (Dobinson- Harrington, 2006; Harvey et al, 2006).
A tutor strays too far in their support, becomes overconfident in their ability to help and even provides their personal contact details to students, leading to constant phoning/ messaging at all hours or even stalking (Luck, 2010; Hughes et al, 2018).
It becomes clear that late enrolling students who were not inducted into a shared understanding of independent learning disengage or become disruptive in classes (Luck, 2010; Thomas et al, 2015).
You find that those students who are clearly and actively engaged in their studies benefit from their active involvement on the programme (Thomas and Jones, 2015).
Clear boundaries, wherever they lie, apply to both academics and to students themselves. In other words, an understanding and articulation of boundaries is absolutely necessary for the benefit and protection of both the student and the tutor.
On the student side, recognising boundaries can avoid over-dependency. From a tutor’s perspective, boundaries can help you to achieve a healthy balance. They can ensure that you are looking after yourself and are able to compartmentalise both your personal and professional responsibilities. This is even more crucial when you are exposed, on a regular basis, to students’ distressing or emotional circumstances (Shaw, 2014; McFarlane, 2016). If you do not consider or enforce healthy boundaries then you risk compromising your own emotional well-being and this can easily lead to exhaustion and/ or impact on your energy levels, sleep patterns and home life (Hughes et al, 2018).
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