Teaching during a Crisis
Many events unfolding over the past year—COVID-19, protests over racial injustice, conflicts over the elections, riots in the US Capitol, and more—have had significant impacts on our students, making it more difficult to focus on their learning. Some of these are ongoing tragedies that impact students in chronic ways, but when a specific crisis occurs, it can put up a sudden wall to students' ability to engage in our courses. Instructors often wonder if and how they should address a crisis or tragedy, especially if it doesn't seem to have obvious connection to their course content. The impacts of these events don't stop at classroom or disciplinary boundaries, however, so it is important that all instructors are ready to address these issues and help students find ways to navigate a crisis and succeed in the course.
It is important to note that a crisis or tragedy might not impact all students the same, nor may an event even seem like a crisis for some individuals. For example, a racially-charged attack on campus might have significant traumatic impact on students of color, but have less impact on white students. It is important that instructors acknowledge crises by their impact on students.
We offer the following suggestions in hopes they can help you better prepare to support your students.
Note: If the crisis involves the death of a student, consider the suggestions in "What to Say after a Student Dies" from The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Research on reactions of students to the 9/11 terrorist attacks clearly indicates that they want their instructors to acknowledge stressful or tragic events, even if it isn’t within the purview of the course’s content (DiPietro, 2003). Addressing tension around a crisis can help students, whether you take time for a discussion or simply acknowledge the challenges some students may be facing. Just don’t discount or ignore a situation that might significantly impact students; the research says they notice, and it influences their opinions of the course and instructor, which in turn can impact their success in your course and beyond.
Communicate You Care
Whether or not your subject area has anything to do with the topic of the crisis, and even if you don’t normally build close relationships with your students, it is important that you express that you care about them and their success. And, yes, you can do that without opening your class to politically-charged discussions or becoming an ad hoc counselor for your students.
Here is some sample language to use and adapt; note that it 1) acknowledges the real impact on students; 2) normalizes struggles by admitting stress impacts you, too; 3) suggests ways to get help; and 4) reinforces that you care about their success. And importantly, it is apolitical and supports all students. If you meet with students online, saying this in a live meeting or in a video recording may be more meaningful and personal than sending it in an email.
I recognize that there has been a lot of tension around the demonstrations and riots in Washington, on top of all the other stressors of COVID-19. I know this has all had an impact on me, too, sometimes making it hard to focus on my work. If you are struggling with these events, please seek out help and support—whether that is from friends or professionals at CAPS. And please talk to me if you are struggling with your work in this course. I want to make sure you succeed, especially in a stressful time like this.
If you are comfortable with it, you might also consider sharing with your students a bit about how you are coping with stress. It could be as simple as talking about how you take time for self-care—sharing some de-stressing or time-management strategies, posting a poem or song that helps you get through rough times, or sharing a cute picture of your child or dog.
Think about Timing and Deadlines
While you cannot schedule in advance for an unexpected crisis, be aware of scheduling issues that might arise as a crisis unfolds. If you have the ability to shift your class schedule and move deadlines, students may be able to better attend to your assignments. Trying to compete with a crisis for students' emotional and cognitive capacity won't work well for anyone.
As a crisis unfolds, you might plan to record lectures, knowing students may be preoccupied during live class meetings. So, recognize the inevitable stress and competing demands for attention, and give your students a break from big deadlines for a few days… and yourself from needing to grade work or prepare lessons.
Rely on Disciplinary Connections
Be ready to talk about the crisis and its implications from your disciplinary perspectives—whether that involves an overt content connections, potential impacts events might have on your field of study, insights your field might bring to consideration of the event and its impact, or the promotion of effective argumentation and analysis. Not only does this disciplinary connection make discussion of social and political issues more relevant and appropriate in your classes, but it also provides students with frameworks for discussing complex and sometimes emotional issues. Be certain that you acknowledge the diversity of perspectives within your discipline, so students can see the complexity of issues and approaches.
Admittedly, sometimes students may want (and need) to discuss their emotional responses to issues, but if that doesn’t fit with your class and teaching approach, you can acknowledge their concerns and gently nudge them back to applying class concepts to the issues at hand. Or you may have a different focus for different conversations—some discussions may be more open, and others more discipline-focused. Here is some sample language to adapt to your situation:
I understand that this is an emotional topic for many of us. While I acknowledge the frustration and concern you may feel, I want to help you see how we can bring our disciplinary ways of thinking to these issues. So, for now, how can we apply class concepts to explain this topic? I’ll be prompting you to re-think or rephrase your comments within certain concepts and theories we’ve been studying.
Some students have a lot at stake in some tragedies or crises, feeling that events spotlight their social identities and may even put them at risk: Latinx students who feel targeted by immigration policies and the use of stereotype to describe their communities, Black students who feel threatened by racist groups that feel emboldened in the current political climate, or conservative students who feel they cannot express their opinions without being attacked or shunned by classmates. Vulnerabilities may be heightened online as anonymity and distance can depersonalize communication and embolden people to say more harmful things online.
Be aware of these vulnerabilities when you have class discussions, knowing that students may feel uncomfortable engaging in conversations or other activities. You might include ways for students to communicate these concerns to you, and offer them other opportunities to meet related course objectives. Or you may consider other mechanisms for communicating ideas, such as this approach:
Have student respond to prompts (e.g., “What concerns you most about the riots and protests in Washington?”), but have them “pass around” those responses so someone else is randomly assigned to give them voice, at which point the class can discuss what they hear happening in that response. In a pre-COVID class, this involves dropping your note into a box and picking another one out to read aloud. Online, it could involve an anonymous survey, with you distributing the answers with randomly assigned readers.
Communicate How Participation Impacts your Grading
Students may be hesitant to share their views because they may perceive risks related to grading. In short, they may fear your grading of them may be biased if you hold opposing viewpoints. Be clear about how any politically-related discussion or activity will (or will not) be graded. If a discussion is outside of the course’s learning outcomes, be clear about it not impacting their grades. If it is related to learning outcomes, and you do intend to grade their engagement or performance, make sure your grading criteria are clear, such as a rubric and examples of different levels of work quality. And as mentioned above regarding vulnerability, avoid grading participation, and be ready to offer alternate assignments for those students who feel at risk in your classroom. Finally, note that students may worry about instructor bias outside of politically-related activities, so you will likely have to increase the grading transparency for all of your assignments during the semester to build trust and confidence of fairness.
Lay Some Ground Rules
Part of any sensitive class discussion involves setting ground rules for the conversation, which are even more productive if they are generated and agreed to by the group. But while these guidelines help manage the immediate discussion, just as important is attention to the longer-term stability of the learning community. Should an event—an election, impeachment or legislative vote, or other political decision—go against us, how would we want to be treated by those on the "other side"? When there is disagreement, particularly over political matters, how can we commit to moving forward as classmates and co-learners in this class or major? While some responses to these questions might be cliché, other responses might reveal personal vulnerability and real concerns that humanize us and make us more than political opponents.
Prepare for Class Discussions
There are many ways we can manage difficult classroom discussions—conversations on those “hot” topics which may be important to have, but which can cause discomfort in our students or which have a higher risk of becoming uncivil. The three broad categories to consider include:
- Preparing for discussions: Establish clear goals, provide pre-discussion activities to shape the conversation, establish discussion guidelines, and be open with students about the challenges ahead.
- During class: Provide frameworks and guiding questions for the discussion, actively manage or moderate discussions, pause for structured reflection if tensions rise, and be ready to confront inappropriate language.
- Following up: Synthesize the discussion to demonstrate value, reflect on the conversation’s dynamics, and share relevant support resources on campus for students who need them.
For a detailed exploration of this topic, see our Managing Difficult Classroom Discussions page.
Provide Students with Resources
As part of supporting students whose stress levels may increase to the point of crisis, make sure they know of resources that are available to them. Consider pointing to resources as part of your larger messaging about stress surrounding the election, and work to normalize it:
“It is not uncommon for us to need extra support during stressful times, and it is perfectly normal to reach out for professional help. In fact, it is a good thing to know when to seek some extra help. So, if you think you may need help getting through this time, reach out now to the folks at CAPS, or other professionals you know.”
- Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS)
- Know a student or classmate in crisis? Fill out an anonymous Care Referral and someone will reach out to them.
It is important that you take care of yourself, too, recognizing you are not immune to stressors surrounding a crisis, on top of ongoing political unrest and the pandemic.
- Look at your upcoming workload and adjust your plans to lighten that load. Build in time over the next few weeks in case you experience additional stress or anxiety that impact your work, and/or you may need to provide extra attention to students in distress. The day after a tragedy is probably not a good time for a day of Zoom meetings, big writing deadlines, or other tasks that require our best efforts. We may need to teach, but be ready to adjust those tasks and expectations, too.
- Know and prepare your own support systems, whether that is family, friends, colleagues, or counseling professionals.
To learn more, explore these resources:
- Managing Difficult Classroom Discussions (IUB CITL)
- Making Educational Use of Difficult Moments (IUB CITL blog post)
- Trauma-Informed Teaching (IUB CITL)
- Teaching and the Election (University of Oregon)
- Teaching Civic Engagement across the Disciplines (American Political Science Association)
- Civic Prompts: Making Civic Learning Routine across the Disciplines (AAC&U)
As always, if you want to talk more about these and other teaching strategies, you can contact the CITL to meet with one of our instructional consultants.
DiPietro, Michele (2003). The Day After: Faculty Behavior in Post-September 11, 2001, Classes. To Improve the Academy: A Journal of Educational Development, 21.1, pp 21-39. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.2334-4822.2003.tb00379.x
Sanger, Catherine Shea (2017). What to Say after a Student Dies. The Chronicle of Higher Education. October 24, 2017.