Teaching in Times of Crisis


Whether local, national, or international in scope, times of crisis can have a significant impact on the college classroom, especially if students have a personal connection to the crisis. The anxieties students—and teachers—bring into the classroom in response to a crisis at hand can affect student learning.  Individual crises, such as coping with the loss of a family member or recovering from a difficult break-up with a significant other, can affect an individual class member’s learning and performance; but communal crises, such as the unexpected death of a fellow student or teacher, the shock of 9/11, the devastation of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, or the tragedy of the shootings at Virginia Tech can affect everyone’s academic well-being.

Providing Students with Resources

If you notice signs that students are experiencing emotional distress in your class during such times of communal crisis, you may wish to address the crisis openly, but you also may feel unqualified to do so. If you are unsure of your ability to provide emotional support in regards to the crisis but feel the need to show that you are aware of its impact on your students,  acknowledge the crisis by providing your students with resources for dealing with it. For example, you could:

  • Ask a professional from the Vanderbilt Psychological and Counseling Center to come talk to your students.

  • Be lenient in terms of when assignments are due.

  • Adapt your syllabus for the week following the crisis to accommodate a reduced workload.

  • Facilitate, if your students wish, a way to help those most affected by the crisis by collecting money, donating goods, or volunteering to help at the crisis site.

Remember that it is not necessarily your role to help students through the crisis, and, in fact, it may be counter-productive for the students if you bring up emotionally difficult issues without providing appropriate support and assistance. 

Discussing the Crisis with Your Class

If you would like to talk with your students about these issues directly, you might consider contacting the Vanderbilt Psychological and Counseling Center for ideas on how to approach such a conversation. The information below may also be useful in discussing a crisis with your students.  There are a number of factors that can affect how a conversation about a crisis might go; as Deborah Shmueli, a professor at Haifa University in Israel, has suggested2, some things to take into consideration are:

  • Students’ perceptions about how the crisis has affected them personally

  • Students’ perceptions about others whom they consider to be affected

  • Issues deemed important to each person or group

  • Institutional, financial, and other impediments to successful communication

Taking these factors into account, researchers and practitioners who study communication make the following suggestions for difficult conversations1:

  1. Consider how much time the conversation might take: Teachers who wish to create safe places for communication need to consider how much time a difficult conversation will take and how much time they can provide for that conversation within the semester. Since a single conversation may not be enough to address the issue fully, teachers should be willing to be flexible, extending the conversation into future class sessions or over the course of the semester, as needed. The teacher should allow enough time for each conversation so that students who have difficulty opening up to the class or who need time before they can begin talking about their experiences may also be included.
  1. Acknowledge both verbal and nonverbal communication: In a discussion or conversation, silence can make a teacher feel uncomfortable, but silence and other non-verbal behaviors can be just as vital to a productive conversation as words are. It is tempting to fill silence with variations on the question asked, but doing so can inhibit students’ abilities to think through the issue and to prepare to share their thoughts with their classmates. If students repeatedly need extremely long silences, however, the teacher should invite conversation as to why students do not feel comfortable sharing with their classmates.
  1. Let students set the ground rules: Allowing students to set the ground rules not only can help students create a space where they feel safe to share their thoughts, emotions, and ideas, but can also help students find power at a time when the crisis has left them feeling powerless. Ground rules should be set before the conversation begins and reiterated every time thereafter that the conversation is continued.
  1. Encourage students to be empathetic listeners: In conversation people are often thinking about what they want to say in response rather than fully listening to the individual who is talking. In addition, if the crisis at hand is difficult to handle emotionally or if classmates feel defensive, empathic listening becomes all the more challenging. Pointing out such dynamics to students can at least encourage them to think about their positions as listeners.

  2. Allow freedom of participation: If students feel uncomfortable, allow them to leave. If they feel coerced into the conversation, then they are likely to withdraw from the conversation or guard closely what they say.

  3. Balance the power in the classroom as much as possible: Ensure that no one student or group of students has more rights than others and take care that all receive equal respect.

  4. Provide a predictable forum: For continuing conversations, provide a format and space that is familiar and predictable for your students so that they feel more comfortable sharing their thoughts and experiences.

Campus Resources

The Center for Teaching’s library has books on how to handle difficult conversations that are available for check-out.  Depending on the nature of the crisis, the following offices on Vanderbilt’s campus may be able to offer individual support to your students or be willing come to class to speak to your students as a whole:

For crises that evoke particularly sensitive issues, there are various offices that may be able to offer information, programming, and / or discussion facilitators:

Web Resources

  • Creating Safe Spaces for Communication

    This article by Julia Chaitin entitled “Creating Safe Spaces for Communication” comes from the website of the Beyond Intractability Project, which is dedicated to conflict intervention and successful communication.  See especially “The Creation of Safe Places for Open Communication” in Chaitin’s article for an expansion of the 7 Suggestions for Difficult Conversation listed above. 

This page on multicultural teaching from the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching at the University of Michigan includes links to resources for talking about hurricane Katrina, the war in Iraq, 9/11 and other sensitive topics.

  • Safe Spaces in the Classroom

    An interesting, archived conversation from the Women’s Studies Listserv about what it means to create “safe space” in the classroom.

A list of resources compiled by the Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education (POD) in response to the tragedy at Virginia Tech in April 2007.

Consulted Works

  • Chaitin, Julia. "Creating Safe Spaces for Communication." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Research Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: July 2003.

  • Shmueli, Deborah. "Conflict Assessment." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Research Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: October 2003.


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