Teaching in times of collective tragedy

Teaching in times of collective tragedy

As teachers, we’ve dealt with snow days and sick days, but unfortunately we seem to be increasingly faced with teaching in the day or days following a local or a collective tragedy. Some events happen close to home, as in the death of a student, whereas other events are further removed but larger in national scope and impact.

What can we do when our teaching days coincide with collective tragedies?

Campuses have set up crisis response plans, and at DU students and faculty are often referred to the resources of the Health and Counseling Center (303-871-3511), or the University Chaplain (303-871-4488). However faculty members might often be at a loss of if or how to deal with such tragedies in the classroom.

Therese Huston and Michele DiPietro (2007) interviewed students and DiPietro (2003) interviewed instructors after the September 11th terrorist attacks to find out the most common instructor responses to this tragic event, and which responses students found most helpful.

Students generally found the following responses helpful:

  • Acknowledge that class needs to go on but reassure students that there could be accommodations if they are too distracted to proceed with material immediately
  • Offer extensions for assignments or excused absences
  • Ask if family and/or friends were affected
  • Refer students to campus counseling services
  • Have a brief discussion with the class or provide time for journaling
  • Read a passage from an inspirational book
  • Mention ways to take action (Red Cross, donate blood, etc.)
  • Observe a moment of silence
  • Devote the class period to discussion or a project related to the event
  • Incorporate the event to lesson plans

At least a few of the responses are consistent with the literature about trauma. Huston and DiPietro remind us that that our working memory capacity is reduced following an acutely stressful experience, so giving students extra time if needed may result in more thoughtful work in the end. In addition, providing students with possible actions they can take simulates problem-focused coping strategies that are considered to be useful responses to trauma.

The only response students reported as generally unhelpful was to acknowledge the attacks but proceed as usual without any mention of opportunities for review or extra help. While acknowledging that all individuals respond to tragedy differently, most students seem to find any response that offered assistance or acknowledgement of their feelings helpful, suggesting that instructors, “do something, just about anything” (Huston & DiPietro, 2006, p. 10).

So how do we deal with such events in the classroom?

Huston and DiPietro recommend that instructors first take into account the proximity and magnitude of an event, and the likelihood that students have any direct connections with or can identify with the victims. This will help to determine how great an impact such events will have on student learning and the level of response that might be needed.

However it may come as a relief that instructors often do not need to make time-intensive or complicated actions. It appears that what can be most helpful to students is to go a bit beyond simply acknowledging that events have occurred, and to recognize that it may take time to adjust and offer some extra support.


“In the Eye of the Storm: Students’ Perceptions of Helpful Faculty Actions Following a Collective Tragedy” by Therese A. Huston & Michele DiPietro, To Improve the Academy, Volume 25, D. Robertson & L. Nilson (eds.), Bolton, MA: Anker.

“The Day After: Faculty Behavior in Post-September 11, 2001, Classes” by Michele DiPietro, To Improve the Academy, Volume 21, C. Wehlburg & S. Chadwick-Blossey (Eds.), Bolton, MA: Anker.

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