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Teaching During Challenging Times

As we have all learned from experience, teaching during a crisis is challenging. The loss of a student causes acute and pervasive trauma for all on our campus. Regional, national, and global crises also deeply impact our campus community members and our classrooms. The resources below highlight proactive strategies that can be implemented before a crisis occurs to make adaptations easier, and we also present ideas for how to respond to students in the moment. 

We recognize that students are not the only ones affected by the traumas that are perpetuated from these crises. As you consider how you might respond, reflect on where you are and what you need to do to take care of your own mental well-being while also supporting students. Lastly, you are not alone in this. We hope that you can identify others to reach out to who can help support you and your students. We are part of an intricate ecosystem at SCU, and these crisis moments are important times to lean on each other for support.

Before a Crisis Occurs: Create Flexible Course Policies

Consider your standard course policies on attendance, late policies on assignments, and grading approaches. Being transparent and flexible with these policies helps students manage routine things such as illness and caregiving responsibilities; should a significant event occur, you could then lean on the established flexibility during a moment of crisis. Some examples include:

  • Recording lectures so that if a student misses class, they have an opportunity to keep up with the course.
  • Transparent late-policies: Let students drop the lowest grade for specific assignments. Give students access to tokens which allow them to turn in a few assignments past the due date. Provide opportunities to make-up quizzes or exams.
  • Is attendance mandatory for all classes? Give students the opportunity to miss a set number of classes without having to justify their absence. Provide alternative online assignments for students who miss class to encourage their continued engagement with the class.

The more transparent you are with your policies prior to a crisis, the easier it will be to be transparent with your students about how you plan to respond to the crisis. You may be able to lean on existing flexible assignments or you may need to change just a few things to support your students as they process their emotions.

Responding to a Crisis: Allow Time to Grieve  

A Barnard College/Columbia University resource titled Trauma-Informed Pedagogy recommends: “A traumatic event that impacts the entire campus can have a devastating impact on students and the campus community at large. Be flexible in terms of structuring the class, class attendance policy, or grading for the remainder of the semester after such an event.” While not all students will have the same emotional challenges after a traumatic event, offering flexibility can support students with a wide range of needs. The grief and healing process will look different for each student, but responding with flexibility in class policies and deadlines is one tangible way to show support for students after traumatic events.

The University of Virginia Center for Teaching Excellence created a list of strategies and talking points when their community was responding to the traumatic loss of three students. They recommend that responding to students in your classes during national or local crises might range from “acknowledging the emotional impact of this moment, to helping students process their reactions through reflective writing, to discussing the issues within the context of your course content.” The resources also note that reflecting on your own “skill, positionality, privilege, emotional capacity, and commitment to the community” may be helpful as you make choices about how to respond with purpose in these situations. 

Here’s a sampling of trauma-informed strategies to consider from UVA, Vanderbilt, and Barnard, among others:

  1. Consider adjusting attendance policies, assignments, and exams to best support student learning during emotionally difficult times. Adding flexibility does not mean lowering expectations. Be transparent with accommodations and provide a clear path for communication so that students can manage their learning through these difficult moments.
  2. Encourage students to make a plan to mobilize their sense of agency. This might include thinking about how they will interact with news coverage or get involved in University-sponsored or community events centered around the crisis in question.
  3. Acknowledge the emotional impact. You might say something in person, in a Camino announcement, or via email. Let students know that you understand they may be struggling to keep up with their work or having a tough time emotionally. Let them know you’re available and committed to their well-being.
  4. Invite students to reflect and engage in self-care. Model self-care by being clear on your own limits on flexibility and added workload. Let students see that they are not alone in managing their trauma.
  5. Facilitate discussions related to the topic at hand. This might not be for everyone, but if you open up discussions, be sure to have ground rules for conversation, and you might want to review a resource on managing difficult dialogues.  

Collective Support: We Are Not Alone in This

The University community is a vast network that shares responsibility for supporting individual students. You will want to be ready to direct students to SCU colleagues at the Office of Student Life, Cowell, Campus Ministry, Wellness Center, OML or the Rainbow Resource Center who can support them (depending on the type of support that is needed). If you aren’t sure where to start, check out this Faculty Guide to Student Support on the Resources for New Faculty site

Individual departments and units may establish communication plans prior to a traumatic event. Department chairs and program managers or unit directors can help to disseminate information that is specific to the unit and builds on the primary communication from the University regarding the situation. During a crisis, individual instructors are best equipped to make decisions about what is best for themselves and their students, including giving space for discussion of the crisis during class, continuing with instruction, or canceling class altogether. It is helpful for conversations about how others in the department are planning to respond to a crisis to be communicated effectively as it allows all instructors to be aware of what agency they have to make the best choices for themselves and their students in these difficult moments.

Additional Resources 

Interested in exploring other resources about teaching during crises?

Looking for support in your teaching on this or other topics? Contact the Faculty Collaborative for Teaching Innovation or Faculty Development.

Page Authors: Christelle Sabatier, Senior Lecturer and Chair, Biology and Melissa McAlexander, Assistant Provost for Strategic Initiatives

Last Updated: September 28, 2023