A Social Justice Approach to Teaching in Difficult Times

... we are all in the same storm, but in different boats ...
(Sherwood, VanDeusen, Weller, & Gladden, 2021)


As global tragedies and crises become more hypervisible in our increasingly connected world, it is more and more likely that students in your class(es) are, in some way, impacted by current local, national, or global events. Instructors (Sherwood et al., 2021) found that their work to infuse trauma-informed instructional practices created opportunities for community and student engagement during collective crisis. This page offers suggestions for dealing with the effects of these events in your classroom communities, drawn primarily from trauma-informed and social justice approaches to teaching. 

When the world is in turmoil, the overarching sentiment from students is that it is important to acknowledge these events rather than pretend they are not happening. When instructors do not acknowledge these events, or make space for students to process them, it can come across as insensitive. While faculty at Berkeley already have some essential responsibilities toward their students in crisis, as crises become increasingly collective, it is becoming increasingly necessary to hold space for students to collectively process these events. 

While there is no one perfect strategy for navigating these moments in the classroom—and indeed, they may vary across disciplines, class formats, and students’ own needs at the time—it is important to realize and acknowledge that students’ processing of these events may bleed into their ability to focus and engage in class. When this becomes the case, it can be helpful to:

  • Notice when students are disengaged from the classroom and focused on processing—and, crucially, not judge them for it. 

  • Make space for reflection, action, and discussion; in other words, for problem-based coping strategies

  • Model the ways we might act as engaged, supportive citizens in the face of grave events in our world.

*Remember: whether or not you intend to leave a lasting impression or not, students will remember how you responded (or did not respond) to a crisis and how they felt in the face of that.

In times of crisis, our first instinct may be to retreat from collectively processing the situation at hand(link is external)(link is external). However, when we fail to acknowledge these moments of crisis, students may assume we do not care, even if that is the furthest thing from the truth! This, then, may lead students to feel disconnected from their classroom community, and that their class is disconnected from the world around them and their lived experiences. Particularly at the university level, students may feel passionately about a response being necessary and look to their instructors to provide examples of how to act in the face of tragedy and injustice. 

When instructors make space for this awareness in the wake of challenging events, students may show up hungry for opportunities to actively engage these issues beyond their peers and residential environments. Showing the connections between life and learning makes learning more powerful, meaningful, and enduring. How, then, can we go about addressing these difficult moments in our classes to support our students as they process?

Conflict is an inherent, and good, part of a university environment, but not when it impedes student mattering, learning, and inquiry. Of course, instructors cannot hope to foresee all possible areas of conflict, but they can come prepared with strategies for generating good discussions or providing opportunities for nonjudgmental reflection. These can then minimize escalation and focus on enhancing student learning.

This section is devoted to strategies to help you be prepared and responsive when sensitive topics arise in the classroom. Before making your plan, it is important to start with yourself. As faculty members, it is critical to make time to process your own feelings and become aware of your positionality vis-à-vis a challenging event in the world. We inevitably bring our backgrounds and lived experiences to any discussion or acknowledgment of sensitive topics. Understanding your own positionality will help you have a measured approach to addressing the sensitive topic, especially when you may be both a subject matter expert and personally impacted by the events unfolding.

While it is natural to feel uncomfortable discussing a sensitive topic that may not “apply to you” or your own life, it may be acutely affecting those of your students. Indeed, not having to think about a given issue is often due to privilege. We urge you to anticipate and accept the discomfort that you may feel in broaching these sensitive topics for the benefit of promoting a mutually supportive and respectful teaching and learning environment.

Strategy 1: Take a moment to learn

It is impossible to deeply understand every single issue, crisis, or tragedy unfolding in this world; however, these moments present an opportunity to learn, as much as you reasonably can, about a given issue in the service of better supporting your students. This can include researching the historical context of a current moment of tragedy or injustice from multiple lenses, as well as thinking critically about a perspective you may be taking for granted. Of course, be mindful of your own emotional experience related to events unfolding if your positionality may create an environment that feels in any way unwelcoming to you

*Above all: Don’t let perfectionism become the enemy of progress and deeper connection. Choose instead to learn in public, acknowledging your goal to broaden your perspective and learn together.

Strategy 2: Create a caring space

Set the stage for sharing and reflection, acknowledging that students’ processing of sensitive topics or destabilizing events may vary based on their backgrounds. There are numerous strategies that can guide your acknowledgment and instructional moves related to sensitive topics. One to consider, shared on Facing History (with a focus on K-12, but applicable to higher education), is “Head, Heart, and Conscience.” 

First, the head considers:
- What information do you know about this topic already? 
- Where have you been finding information? 

Next, the heart considers: 
- What emotions do these events/this issue raise for you?

Finally, the conscience asks students to consider: 
- Who is impacted by this crisis, instance, etc? 

Exercises like this one can provide a structure to discussion and reflection that has the dual purpose of avoiding escalation in moments that may feel chaotic and charged, as well as facilitating non-judgmental and reflective information-sharing. 

University level resources: Principles of Community, Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination,Free Speech webpage

Strategy 3: Watch for Well-being

Finally, consider the emotional well-being of yourself, your class, and the community. When challenging times arise, it takes a toll on our emotional well-being. Consider and act if you see that any of your students are in crisis, modeling how best to care for oneself in challenging times. It is our collective responsibility to take care of one another in university settings for a wide range of reasons, some of which are due to the very nature of students living on a residential campus. We have an obligation to keep an eye on students’ well-being and support them in times of crisis. 

University-level resources: Student Crisis support

To pair with the overarching strategies above, these recommendations are focused on key moments before, during, and after instruction. 

Before Instruction

Consider learning about and enlisting strategies to support non-judgmental discussions, structured responses, etc. When providing a space to discuss difficult issues unfolding in the world, using a structured discussion strategy with norms for engagement can help support the type of dialogue that promotes connection and avoids escalation or circular conflict. 

Sample language to use before a moment of silence

We want to acknowledge the hateful shooting that occurred over the weekend at the queer club in Colorado, and the impact that it had on the victims and broader queer community. We know that a simple acknowledgement is not adequate and does not solve or address all of the issues at play, but it is what we can offer to you in this space today. We’ll give people a few moments of silence, so please feel free to turn off your camera and use this time in a way that works for you. If you need more support or would like to talk more, please reach out to us (Crite, M. & Siliman, S., 2023).

During instruction

Interrupting discriminatory comments is an important role that instructors can play during challenging conversations. 

After Instruction 

Be mindful to follow up on class discussions as a way to offer space for reflection and connection with students. We as instructors may be able to remember a traumatizing experience while we were students ourselves, especially if it was not addressed within our courses. How did that (in)action feel? Was it ignored, or addressed as a one-off discussion with little to no follow-up? Following up can afford the classroom community an opportunity for reflection and purposeful check-in to ensure students have access to the support they need. You may even ask students directly if they need support and let them know where and how to access it.

In addition to the resources linked throughout this page, many units on campus are also equipped to help instructors deal with these and related issues:


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