Helping Students Capture the Teachable Moment

Dr. Warrennetta Mann (Photo by Pablo Yanez)

Dr. Warrennetta Mann (Photo by Pablo Yáñez)

One of the key things that faculty members can do to help students grow and develop is to watch for “teachable moments.” Robert Havighurst defines the teachable moment this way: “When the body is ripe, and society requires, and the self is ready to achieve a certain task, the teachable moment has come.”^1 In the context of this helping distressed students, this means helping students identify moments where they could benefit from additional help. By preparing for these moments in advance, faculty can help students through tough emotional times.

Dr. Warrenetta Mann, Director of the W&M Counseling Center, recently talked to faculty members and graduate students about “teachable moments” and distressed students. The following FAQ is compiled from her presentation and it has been approved by the W&M Counseling Center.


I am comfortable in my role as “educator” but not that comfortable acting as a “counselor.” Is it okay to be “just” a faculty member and not a counselor?
Absolutely. You only need to observe and if a student seems troubled, refer them to the Counseling Center. Mental Heath counseling has greatly expanded in recent years, and, if done with empathy, referring a student to the counseling center can be a step to helping students get help while still maintaining the role of faculty member.

Assuming I am comfortable helping a student, what exactly does “helping” entail?
There are several specific actions faculty can take to help students. These are of great help to the student and not likely to not make you uncomfortable.

  • Be willing to help students make connections to support services
  • Reassure the student that your relationship will stay intact
  • Provide helpers with all the information they need to start
    working with the student
  • Set limits for your involvement with reasonable flexibility
  • Let the student know specifically what you are seeing or hearing
    that makes you concerned
  • Express your intention to continue to support them, but also that
    you see the need to involve others
  • Stay in your role as professor

How can I recognize when students are having emotional difficulties?
For many students, the teachable moments come when they face low grades or the consequences of missed classes or deadlines. The seemingly mundane details that appear in your syllabus such as absence, late, incomplete and make-up policies, and the details of your grading system, all help you create “teachable moments”. For example, if you allow, say, three absences in your course, and a student misses four classes, this gives you an opportunity to contact them to make sure everything is all right. This gives students openings to bring up problems that they might otherwise be reluctant to initiate. These types of policies on a syllabus, if made explicit, can help you act quickly while student is receptive to helping solve the problem, as can lists of resources such as information on Academic Advising, office hours, and other resources.

Please refer to the Counseling Center’s guide for Faculty Wishing to Help Students for more information [link] about recognizing distressed students.

If I meet with a student about his or her problems, should I say I will keep the conversation confidential?
Be careful not to say that a conversation is completely confidential. If a student expresses that he or she might do harm to themselves or others, you should not keep this to yourself and immediately seek the help of others.

When referring students to seek the aid of a counselor, are there any places I can suggest that are off-campus?
Last year, the W&M Counseling Center saw 13% of the student body and most of these students found it helpful.^2 However, this is a small campus and not all students may want to seek help at the Counseling Center. If a student feels more comfortable going off-campus, there are a number of Williamsburg-based services that are available.

  • Colonial Mental Health Center (mental health counseling, 220-3200)
  • Bacon Street (mental health counseling, 253-0111)
  • Avalon (sexual assault counseling, 258-5051)
    The Counseling Center also keeps a list of community providers who enjoy working with our students and have provided good service. You or the student may contact us for this list.
    Please note, if a student is suicidal, you must contact one of
    these campus offices so the student can get immediate attention
  • Dean of Students Office (221-2510)
  • Counseling Center (221-3620)
  • Student Health Center (221-4386)
  • Campus Police (221-4386)

If I suspect that a student needs help, but I am not entirely sure, where can I turn as a faculty member?
The Counseling Center (221-3620) does phone consultations with faculty who need advice. Alternatively, you can contact the the Dean of Students (221-2510).

For more information about, you can visit the W&M Counseling Center’s on the web

1. Teachable Moment Quote: Robert Havighurst, Human Development and Education, 1953, p. 5. (

2. 85% of students seen rated its services as good or excellent. 58% of students seen reported it played a role in their staying in school and 77% indicated that the services they received helped improve their academic work.

Comments are closed.