Teaching in Times of Crisis

By Nancy Chick, Academic Director of the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning

Charlottesville, Virginia. Barcelona and Cambrils, Spain. By the time this blog is published, chances are that the list of recent traumatic world events won’t end there. So yet again, many of us will walk into a classroom with some kind of crisis haunting the campus, the country, or the world.

I’ll never forget walking into my American literature classroom on the morning of September 11, 2001, or the day after one of the many school shootings in the US, or the day after one of my students was murdered. The work of teaching is already challenged by the complexities of power, vulnerability, and the emotional undertones of our subject matter, not to mention the emotional residues of our everyday lives.  On these days, we may focus on quieting our own internal turmoil, so we can teach our classes and get through the day.

But what about the students? Should we ignore the larger context and get on with the course subject matter, giving everyone an emotional break? Should we ask them how they’re doing? Should we point out that this crisis is awful but unrelated to our subject matter, and move on?   In the wake of such events, it may be too difficult for us to decide, and we may simply want a break and so power on to maintain our own composure.  Unfortunately, this can be a mistake.  A little awareness and preparation for the inevitable will help us during these moments.

A few years ago, when I was still at Vanderbilt University, I wrote a guide on “Teaching in Times of Crisis.” It pops up on social and professional listservs a few times every year and is making the rounds again now, so it seems like a good time to share it here.   It includes a variety of ways to handle these days—from very small to more comprehensive—but the key comes in this paragraph:

A 2007 survey by Therese A. Huston and Michele DiPietro (2007) reveals that “from the students’ perspective, it is best to do something. Students often complained when faculty did not mention the [September 11] attacks at all, and they expressed gratitude when faculty acknowledged that something awful had occurred” (p. 219).  Students report that “just about anything” is helpful, “regardless of whether the instructor’s response required relatively little effort, such as asking for one minute of silence…, or a great deal of effort and preparation, such as incorporating the event into the lesson plan or topics for the course” (p. 216). The exception, the least helpful and even most problematic responses are a “lack of response” and “acknowledging that [the crisis] had occurred and saying that the class needs to go on with no mention of opportunities for review or extra help” (p. 218). 

Perhaps it’s time to adapt this guide to the University of Calgary with links to our local resources and some of the newer research.  For now, though, I hope it helps you prepare, so you and your students make it through our next difficult day.

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