Teaching in Times of Crisis

Resource Updated: July 2023

This resource was remixed from the Centre for Teaching at Vanderbilt University and adapted to Queen’s University context. The piece was originally written in 2001 by CFT at Vanderbilt University and edited in 2023 by Nancy Chick. Thank you to Arunima Khanna, Taylor Cenac, and Cory Laverty at Queen’s University with their support and guidance in adapting this resource.  

Whether local, national, or international in scope, times of crisis can have significant impact on university classrooms. It is important to know that students do not have to be directly related or personally involved in an incident or event to experience stress, anxiety, sadness, or even trauma. While proximity (a local event) may lead to a more obvious impact on your students, the effects can be just as difficult based on “the sheer magnitude and scale (national events with wide media coverage)” and “the degree to which students are likely to identify with the victim(s) of the tragedy and feel like ’vicarious victims’” (fellow students, fellow women, fellow members of a group targeted by a hate crime, fellow Americans) (Huston & DiPietro, 2007, p. 219). Such incidents or tragic events can also trigger memories of past personal or historical group trauma for certain students, depending upon their personal and social-cultural contexts.

The resulting anxieties students—and teachers—bring into the classroom in response to a crisis can affect student learning, as documented by psychological, cognitive, and neuroscience research.   Communal crises, such as the unexpected death of a fellow student or teacher, the hate-crimes in the community, or the breaking of a war and civil unrest around the world, or repeated global climate crises can affect students’ wellbeing both at a personal and academic level.

“It is Best to do Something.”

A 2007 survey by Therese A. Huston and Michelle DiPietro (2007) reveals that “from the students’ perspective, it is best to do something during times of crisis. Students often complained when faculty did not mention critical incidents   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).

There are many possibilities for how to address a crisis in class, from activities that take only a moment to restructuring your entire course, and plenty in between. Again, consider that students appreciate any action, no matter how small.

“The general conclusion from the students’ perspective, appears to be ‘do something, just about anything.’”
Huston & DiPietro, 2007, p.216).

Taking a Moment of Silence

Taking a moment of silence interrupts a course very little but gives everyone a chance to reflect as a part of a community and demonstrates the instructor’s sense of humanity.

Minding the Cognitive Load

Such events affect students’ cognitive load, as “working memory capacity is reduced immediately following an acutely stressful experience” (p. 218). In light of this, you may consider being lenient with due dates or adapt your syllabus for the week following the crisis to accommodate a reduced workload, both in terms of introducing new concepts and expecting students to exercise typical study habits.  Holding a review session for material covered during the crisis may also be helpful.

Assigning Relevant Activities or Materials

Huston and DiPietro cite specific activities that helped students cope after 9/11: “College students who participated in a journal writing exercise or who listened to a story that addressed themes relevant to the terrorist attacks showed greater improvements and fewer signs of trauma” (p. 209). Consider how you may “use the lens of [your] discipline to examine the events surrounding the tragedy,” such as assigning a relevant poem, connecting it to a similar historical moment, or examining the engineering concepts involved in a relevant structure (p. 219).

Facilitating a Discussion

If you would like to talk directly with your students about the crisis, you might consider contacting Queen’s Student Wellness Services or the Centre for Teaching and Learning  for ideas on how to approach such a conversation. Additionally, the information below may also be useful in discussing a tragedy with your students.  There are a number of factors that can affect how a conversation about a crisis might go.  As Deborah Shmueli (2003) has suggested, some things to take into consideration are as follows:

  • 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 conversations (Chaitlin 2003):

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Craft community agreements with students to help facilitate difficult conversation in intentional and respectful ways. Building a shared responsibility to make the classroom space gives students the ability to curate together expectations about turn-taking, accessibility needs, or space sharing.
  • Let students set the ground rules: Allowing students to set community agreements not only can help students them create a space where they feel more comfortable 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. Community agreements should be set before the conversation begins and reiterated every time thereafter that the conversation is continued.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

You may even want to identify or even facilitate a way to help those most affected by the crisis, such as collecting money, donating goods, volunteering to help at the crisis site, or other ways of supporting rescue and relief efforts.  Such “problem-focused coping” is among the most helpful responses identified by students and one explanation for the “lower levels of long-term stress” among people “indirectly affected” by 9/11 (Huston & DiPietro, 2007, p. 216-218).

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.  See the resources below.

Providing Resources

If you are unsure of your ability to provide emotional support 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.  Below are a few suggestions:

Depending on the nature of the crisis, the following offices on Queen’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:

Mental Health Services

Free to all students
Email: conselling.services@queensu.ca
Phone: 613-533-2506

Peer Support, AMS Peer Support Centre

Email: peersupport@ams.queensu.ca  
Phone: 613-533-6000 ext. 75111

Residence Life and Dons

Email: reslife@queensu.ca
Phone: 613-533-6790

Ban Righ Centre

Welcoming women of diverse backgrounds and ages, especially mature women returning to studies.

Email: brc@queensu.ca
Phone: 613-533-2976

Yellow House

We are committed to creating a comfortable and accountable space for students who identify as Queer, Trans, Black, Indigenous, and/or as People of Colour (QTBIPoC) to feel safe, to create community, to be empowered, to celebrate their identity and to flourish. We seek to engage students in initiatives that actively dismantle oppressive, racist and colonial ideologies and practices.


Faith and Spiritual Life

Email: chaplain@queensu.ca
Phone: 613-533-2186

Addiction and Mental Health Services – Kingston

24/7 Crisis 613-544-4229
Administration 613-544-1356


Post-secondary 24/7 student helpline 1-866-925-5454
Crisis Text Line: text GOOD2TALKON to 686868

Resolve Counselling Services

Phone: 613-549-7850

Additional Resources for Faculty

Dunn, A. H. (2022). Teaching on days after: Educating for equity in the wake of injustice. Teachers College Press.  
What should teachers do on the days after major events, tragedies, and traumas, especially when injustice is involved? This book features teacher narratives and youth-authored student spotlights that reveal what classrooms do and can look like in the wake of these critical moments.

Hosek, A. M., & Austin, L. (2016). Exploring Pedagogical and Emotional Response in Higher Education Classrooms During the Boston Marathon Bombing Crisis. Qualitative Research Reports in Communication, 17(1), 68–76. https://doi.org/10.1080/17459435.2016.1143386

Hughes, B., Huston, T., & Stein, J. (2010). Using Case Studies to Help Faculty Navigate Difficult Classroom Moments. College Teaching, 59(1), 7 12. https://doi.org/10.1080/87567555.2010.489076
This article examines how case studies can be used to help instructors anticipate difficult moments, practice potential responses, and learn from the collective wisdom of their colleagues. Two case studies based on difficult moments in service-learning courses are included.

Huston, T. A., & DiPietro, M. (2007). 13: In the Eye of the Storm: Students’ Perceptions of Helpful Faculty Actions Following a Collective Tragedy. To Improve the Academy, 25(1), 207–224. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.2334-4822.2007.tb00483.x
This chapter investigates the most common instructor responses following a tragedy and which of those responses students find most helpful. Implications for faculty and faculty developers arc discussed.

Kardia, D., Bierwert, C., Cook, C. E., Miller, A. T., & Kaplan, M. (2002). Discussing the Unfathomable Classroom-Based Responses to Tragedy. Change (New Rochelle, N.Y.), 34(1), 18–22. https://doi.org/10.1080/00091380209601831
Describes how, when asked to devote the day following the September 11 tragedy to class discussions, University of Michigan instructors benefited from the skills and classroom strategies honed by colleagues whose classes regularly deal with complex human realities.  

Kite, M. E., Case, K., & Williams, W. R. (2021). Navigating difficult moments in teaching diversity and social justice (M. E. Kite, K. Case, & W. R. Williams, Eds.). American Psychological Association.
Contributors discuss the many roles instructors play, inside and outside of college and university classrooms, for example, in handling personal threats, responsibly incorporating current events into classroom discussion, navigating their own stigmatized or privileged identities, dealing with bias in teaching evaluations, and engaging in self-car."
Includes this chapter:
Pickering, R. M. (2021). Emotionally charged news in the classroom. In M. E. Kite, K. A. Case, & W. R. Williams (Eds.), Navigating difficult moments in teaching diversity and social justice (pp. 119–132). American Psychological Association. https://doi.org/10.1037/0000216-009
Discusses the pros and cons of three main approaches to responding to events in the news.  

Stoddard, J. (2021). Echoes of Terrorism in Today's US Classrooms: A Re-Reading of Media Used to Teach about 9/11. Canadian Social Studies, 52(2), 74-88.
Idea: don’t focus on the sensationalization of the event in the media. Use it to uncover the historical context behind the event. ”Many teachers today focus on the shock and horror of the events, an approach I argue is problematic as the affective response is emphasized over the historical context and consequences. Instead of using these media to foster collective memory, they could instead be viewed as primary sources to inquire into the historical context of the events and response in the form of the Global War on Terror.”

Creating Safe Spaces for Communication:  This article by Julia Chaitin 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—Some Ground Rules and Useful Guidelines” in Chaitin’s article for an expansion of the suggestions listed above.

“Working with the Emotionally Distressed Student”: A booklet from the Counseling and Psychological Services of San Diego State University

GrievingStudents.org:  website from the Coalition to Support Grieving Students with resources and advice for how to respond to students dealing with loss (written for K-12 students, but the experiences of grief and compassion don’t magically change at 18 yrs old); see this NPR story