Teaching in the Face of Tragedy

Teaching in the Face of Tragedy

Upsetting and sometimes tragic events that occur locally, nationally, or internationally can divert attention away from day-to-day learning and teaching. In these situations, instructors are faced not only with the challenge of coping with the events personally, but also with the task of managing the responses of their students. In response to previous tragic events, the higher education community has developed resources to help instructors address the concerns of their students.

Whether and how to broach the subject of a tragedy is always at the instructor’s discretion. However, as a most basic response, it can be helpful to acknowledge the event in class in a humane way to help students cope and focus on their coursework. Students can find a total lack of response from their instructors frustrating and disappointing. Furthermore, many students find it unhelpful for an instructor to say that the “class has to go on” or that “there is nothing we can do” without offering additional comment. An instructor does not have to have a discussion about the event in class, especially if he or she feels it is unrelated to the class topic or if he or she feels unprepared to have such a challenging discussion. However, there are simple teaching strategies which students find helpful during times of crisis (Huston and DiPietro, 2007):

  • Offer extensions to students who request them.
  • Offer to add review sessions or to revisit class information at a later date.
  • Allow a minute or two of silence before proceeding with the course material.
  • Give students a few minutes to write their thoughts down about the event. Instructors don’t need to collect these writings; they can simply be placeholders for students’ thoughts so that they can focus on the course material.
  • Read an inspirational passage.
  • Remind students of support structures on campus which are equipped to manage students in stress or shock. IUB’s office of Counseling and Psychological Services offers a walk-in service for students who need help.

If you choose to discuss the tragedy in class, set up discussion structures that support the emotional and psychological safety of students in the class.

Other resources:

  • The office of Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) offers individual counseling, group counseling, couples counseling, and psychiatric consultation. Any kind of concern can be discussed confidentially with a counselor to enhance psychological growth and increase problem solving skills
  • Indiana University Bloomington has created the Emergency Preparedness and Continuity website as part of the campus's ongoing emergency preparedness efforts. In the event of a disaster or emergency, the site will contain regularly updated news, instructions, and information.
  • Other services for students are listed on the website of the Dean of Students.


Huston, T. A., & DiPietro, M. (2007). In the eye of the storm: Students perceptions of helpful faculty actions following a collective tragedy. In D. R. Robertson & L. B. Nilson (Eds.) To Improve the Academy. Vol 25. Resources for faculty, instructional, and organizational development (pp. 207-224). Bolton, MA: Anker.