Teaching in Difficult Times

This page provides helpful classroom ideas for dealing with tragedies and crises. Caveat: these are not official university guidelines or policies.

In addition to the ideas below, we also suggest that you sign up for Teach-Net, the campus teaching discussion email list. In a time of crisis, you will be able to discuss problems and strategies with other faculty and support staff on campus.

Helping students who may have family members or close friends directly involved in a tragedy or crisis.

One or more of your students may be personally affected by a local, national or international event. You can direct students to the resources at University Health Services, Tang Center – and the Gold Folder, in particular.

Canceling class or acknowledging the events in class.

We suggest that some mention of major events, some acknowledgement, no matter how brief, would be beneficial. If you wish to cancel class, you might plan to stay for a few minutes in the classroom to explain why class was cancelled and to answer questions.

Using class time, or part of class time, for discussion.

Every instructor will handle crises in a different way. Some instructors may simply not want to discuss it, at all, for a variety of reasons. Others will not want to devote very much class time to open discussion. Still other instructors may choose to check in with students at the start of class to see whether students want to discuss the event for all or a portion of the class session. If you do not want to use class time to discuss the tragedy, you might consider inviting students to your office hours, or schedule another time when you can be available to discuss it with them.

If you would like to spend any portion of class to discuss event/s, and/or design a learning experience from it, refer to the page on Sensitive Topics in the Classroom for information, tips, and resources.

Holding a class discussion on a tragedy or crisis.

(adapted from the CRLT at University of Michigan)

1. Think through supportive ways to introduce and close the session.

  • Ask the class to establish ground rules for the discussion. Some ideas you might want to propose to students before they begin discussion include: avoiding blame and speculation; respecting each other's views and avoiding inflammatory language; it's okay to share personal stories and feelings (be prepared for students to be emotional, and try to support and comfort them); it's okay to express anger and frustration within limits (while it is important for students to express themselves, it is also vital to control the class and maintain an environment that is safe for all students).
  • Be prepared for the fact that, sometimes, in the wake of crises, when particular groups get blamed, there is a backlash against people who share an ethnic/cultural/religious heritage with those accused. It is important that students not be doubly hurt by this tragedy--first by the shocking news that has shaken us all and second by misguided generalizations. For more on this topic, refer to the page on handling sensitive topics in the classroom for information, tips, and resources.

2. Create a framework for the discussion. Possible discussion topics include:

  • What hopes and fears do you have about this discussion?
  • In what ways are you personally affected by these events?
  • How might these events affect your/our future?
  • What positive actions can individuals take in response to this event (e.g., give blood, support students new to campus or far from home)?

3. Allow everyone a chance to talk (when possible), but don't force students to participate. Ways to accomplish this include: 

  • Use a "round" (give each student a chance to speak in response to a guiding question without interruption or discussion, allowing students to pass if they desire). Following the round, open the discussion for general response.
  • Divide students into discussion partners or groups.
  • Give students a chance to write before speaking or ask students to do some writing when discussion seems to be getting unproductive.

Developing class assignments related to the event/s.

Some subject areas, of course, lend themselves more than others to developing assignments or altering syllabi.

Here are some examples of assignments: 

  1. Gathering newspapers from around the world and having students examine the attitudes expressed in the reporting.
  2. Following the reporting in one or two papers, or online news sources, over the course of several days.
  3. Asking students to write a "memoir" of their reactions during the day, with the idea in mind that it's something they will want to read in 25 or 30 years.
  4. Shifting the syllabus to introduce now a relevant topic originally scheduled for later.