12 Tips for Supervising Student Staff Through Times of Uncertainty

In my experience, supervision simultaneously requires the greatest learning curve and, yet, is the most rewarding responsibility there is.

In my many years of being in a supervisory role, I’ve come to understand that effective supervisors have to continually relearn and reshape their approaches. Staff members cycle in and out, circumstances change, and life happens. As supervisors, we can’t stay the same and expect our staff to acclimate to one singular style. If we want to see continued investment and growth, it’s on us to offer individualized support.

It can be time-consuming and emotionally taxing to intentionally lead in a way that’s both personally and professionally developmental. This is especially true when your supervisees are experiencing a myriad of complex emotions — uncertainty, grief, fear, or sadness just to name a few — while working to meet job expectations. 

But many of us are in this field to guide our students through the toughest times. Our motto is “challenge and support,” right? So, if we can compassionately coach our student staff through the multi-dimensional identity of being both a complex human being and a paid employee, I’m hopeful that we will see them through to the other, brighter, side. That’s where we (and they!) reap the greatest rewards.

So, how do we do it? How do we hold our students accountable for their job performances while also extending our empathy and understanding? I have a dozen that might help.

One-on-Ones

1. If you’re working with a student who seems to be struggling both in the job and in their personal life, consider increasing the frequency or length of your meetings. That way, you’re not only making space for personal life conversations but also giving your and your students more opportunities for job-specific dialogue.

If you spend one meeting talking about their personal obstacles, you don’t have to feel guilty that you didn’t directly discuss their job performance; you can tackle that the next time.

2. Every so often, it may be best to repurpose your one-on-one time. If it seems as though your support isn’t helping a student process their mental health challenges, offer to guide them over to the counseling center or to another office on campus (like academic advising or international student services) that can help them. Since the time is already set aside in their schedule, you can advocate for making these office visits a top priority.

3. Raising your student’s spirits could also help motivate them to re-engage with their job responsibilities. Explore campus together to help increase their endorphins while getting some fresh air. Visit their favorite coffee shop or cafe and order them their favorite brew or pastry. 

On the contrary, if your student’s stressors are related to life on campus, it may be helpful to provide a change of scenery. Taking them off campus will serve multiple purposes; it provides a bit of self-care for the personal side of things and frees up space to discuss the professional components, too.

4. Do your best to maintain control of your one-on-one agenda. If you find that all of your meetings with a student have become time for emotional processing, look for opportunities to tie their personal experiences back to the role. 

Some questions you could ask to facilitate this transition are: 

  • How is this impacting other areas of your life on campus  — like socializing with your friends, your relationship with your residents, or your ability to focus on studying? 
  • Are you finding that others in your life — such as sorority sisters, fellow staff members, or advisors — are doing their best to support you through this? 
  • When are your struggles most difficult to manage? For example: Is it when you have many assignments due at once, when your free time is taken up by job responsibilities, or when you don’t get a chance to work out?

These guiding questions allow you to make professional suggestions that will still serve them personally, too.

Hands-On Coaching

5. Everyone handles uncertainty differently. For some students, a tangible action plan helps. You could take such students through an “If, Then” exercise through which they map out areas of concern and how they’d handle them.

Seeing that there are feasible solutions and support available for each obstacle should hopefully alleviate some stress and help them refocus.

6. Perhaps your student is feeling overwhelmed by the weight of uncertainty. If so, they may have packed their schedule full — in an effort to create structure through ambiguity — but now, they’ve overextended themselves. 

To help free up their time and energy, encourage your student to bring a copy of their class schedule, along with other weekly commitments, to your next meeting. This will give you the chance to challenge them on unnecessary obligations, encourage them to seek space for self-care, and remind them of job-related tasks that may have slipped their mind in the scramble to overextend.

7. Propose the 5 Ws to your student: 

  • Who are your people? 
  • What brings you joy? 
  • Where are you most at peace? 
  • When are you most energized? 
  • Why does your mental health matter?

After they’ve answered, encourage them to tick all five off each week: Spend time with their people, do something that brings them joy, go to a place that brings them peace, maximize their spurts of energy, and reflect on how they’ve prioritized their mental health. 

Use this format to inform the beginning of your time together. If they’ve checked the boxes, you can feel good about moving on to processing their workweek. If they haven’t, consider tip #2 and discuss how you can best connect them to additional support on campus.

Flexible Boundaries

8. Establish the non-negotiables, AKA the aspects of the role that you must be firm on, and communicate those clearly to your student. Additionally, decide what you are willing to be flexible on and discuss those elements as well. 

We all need a little grace every once in a while, so how can you extend that courtesy to your students as they work through uncertainty? Maybe you allow them to miss a staff development activity for one month so they can be home with family. Or perhaps you can extend the deadline on a report that’s due.

This isn’t perpetual leniency; it’s a show of adaptability that will enable them to fulfill the most important parts of the role while taking some time for healing.

9. Collective uncertainty can take its toll on your staff. You want to allow space for conversations and reflection but it’s helpful to set a limit so that staff morale doesn’t plummet. Set aside time in a staff meeting to discuss current events before tactfully moving on to the next part of the agenda. 

That doesn’t mean the conversation has to end. Rather, you can encourage your team to continue the dialogue after the meeting or in your next one-on-one.

Filling Your Own Cup

10: Most student affairs professionals are so good about preaching this, but terrible at heeding the advice. You know what I’m talking about: Self-care. 

Investing in our students is an essential component of our field, but it can quickly burn us out. Emotionally charged conversations have the potential to drain us, and unmet expectations have the ability to disappoint us. If we’re not careful, we will take that baggage home with us and give it a front place spot on the mantle. 

So, an essential component of supervising students through times of uncertainty is to take care of yourself so you can then care for others. When you walk through your front door, unpack. Stow the bags away. And if you need help practicing that, don’t be afraid to ask.

11. Home isn’t the only place where you should take care of yourself. Implement measures within your day-to-day to preserve your energy. If you’re scheduled to have a one-on-one with a student who is struggling, don’t bookend it with stressful meetings. Instead, give yourself a 30-minute break in between to visit your favorite spot on campus or to grab a snack with a trusted colleague.

You will be a better supervisor, and become a healthier version of you, if you give yourself time and space to recalibrate.

Tough Conversations

12. Sadly, sometimes the best way to support struggling a student is to coach them out of the position.

I’ve saved this tip for last because I think that’s where it should fall on the list of measures you take with a student who is unable to fulfill their responsibilities due to unprecedented circumstances.

Involvement on campus is like oxygen for many of our students. It keeps them going. So, stepping away from such a meaningful experience may feel like a critical loss to them. 

You must keep in mind, though, that the well-being of your student must always come first. If their job is too difficult to maintain, you have to advocate for their mental health above all else. That doesn’t mean your student will lose you as a mentor, coach, friend, or advisor. It just means clearing some space, temporarily, to make room for clarity and calculation.

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As a supervisor, I always want the best for my students. I want them to be happy, healthy, and successful. 

I also want to be all things to them: Their supervisor, their counselor, and their friend. I haven’t always been successful at this balance, but I’ve learned to do my very best. I hope these tips enable you to do the same.

There are many challenging things we do as student affairs professionals. We respond to crises in the middle of the night, administer sanctions, and convince students they shouldn’t go out into the snow in flip flops. But perhaps most challenging of all is supervising students with both accountability and empathy.

Though tricky, empathetic accountability is the key to supervising students through uncertainty. It’s the key to their holistic development. And, ultimately, it’s what will have them remembering you as a supervisor who made a pivotal impact at a time when they needed it most.

What additional tips or questions do you have about supervising students through times of uncertainty? Connect with us on Twitter @HelloPresence.

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Chelsea Jordan

About the author: Chelsea Jordan is a student affairs jack-of-all-trades with a passion for women's leadership. She currently serves as the Assistant Director for Campus Operations at Tufts University, and if she could have dinner with anyone tomorrow, it would be with the woman who inspires her most: Brené Brown. Learn how we can help get your students involved.

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