Supporting Our Students and Ourselves
Current and ongoing events can impact students’ performance in the learning environments that we create—and the ways in which we create these learning environments—positively as well as negatively. How can we support students in difficult times, and in ways that correspond with our own personal needs and pedagogical approaches?
As educators, we usually interact with students in a defined number of contexts, such as class interactions, advising appointments, office hours and check-ins, research mentoring, workshops, and other programming. Of course, our lives and those of our students extend far beyond these contexts. Just like the students we interact with, we ourselves bring not only prior knowledge but also emotional responses to current and ongoing events into our classrooms and other learning environments.
For students, these emotional responses can impact learning in many ways, from enhancing interest in a related course topic to feeling unable to engage in any course. Although events impact individuals in different ways, it is helpful to keep in mind the aspects of an event associated with likely distress. Among these aspects are the magnitude and scale of related media coverage and the presence of related events, such as vigils, protests, and fundraising efforts.
In the literature on how learners respond to stressful current events, most report a desire for educators to respond, as well as gratitude when educators do so. This aligns with the broader literature on the importance of relationships for well-being—specifically, how much learners believe there are specific individuals to whom they matter, including both peers and educators.
In research on the educator perspective of how to respond after a tragic event, educators often express feeling uncertain about what to do or say. It is important to note that learners do not expect educator responses that require significant time and tailoring. Some educators may pursue more involved ways of responding to an event in their courses; however, even simple acknowledgments that a tragic event has occurred, and that additional support is available, are appreciated by learners.
Check-in with Yourself to Consider Your Own Needs First
As you consider how you might engage with your students during difficult times, it is important to first consider your own needs. The ways in which we can best take care of ourselves vary from person to person – sometimes leading us to focus on ourselves, other people, or both. Consider what’s best and possible for you, be it mentally, spiritually, and/or physically. Even when something difficult arises in real time, taking time for yourself to think and process can also give others time to do the same. Silence can be helpful for resetting as well.
Take time to pause and check in with yourself, bringing to mind your own triggers and facilitation style so that you can have a plan when a difficult situation arises in the classroom. You may also find it helpful to explore the Employee Assistance Program, as well as free access to counseling from Healthiest You. You might also consider checking in with trusted colleagues. In addition, you might reach out to the Engaged Pluralism team, as well as colleagues in the Learning, Teaching, and Research Center, for support in planning a class session.
Strategies for Teaching in Difficult Times
Once you’ve given thought to what you need to do for yourself, consider the following approaches to supporting your students, keeping in mind that you may want to focus on one or two of the following strategies rather than implementing all of them:
- Acknowledge what is happening and its impact
- Remind learners of your availability to support them
- Establish community agreements that guide engaged participation in difficult discussions
- Consider how what is happening might relate to your course content
- Remind students of the support available to them beyond your classroom
Read on below to consider more in-depth which of these strategies might work best for you in your context, and how to implement them:
Acknowledge what is happening and its impact
Consider incorporating a brief acknowledgment and activity at the beginning of a session together. For example, instructors may start class with a moment of silence or a brief period to write or draw privately. Providing space for independent contemplation acknowledges the stress that learners might be experiencing and gives them the opportunity to transition and refocus on the learning at hand.
Instructors may also ask students how they are doing, either as an unstructured discussion during class or written as a “minute paper” response. This can indicate to students that you care and are there to support them. However, it is important to consider the audience for these activities and determine whether responses and reflections should be private or shared. Moreover, when inviting students to share their thoughts, be sure to explain your reason behind this activity: this transparency on your part will support learners in understanding the potential benefit of what you are asking them to do. Furthermore, give students the chance to opt in or opt out of the activity.
If you find that you need more time to address the topic, you can still acknowledge it, and defer how to process it if needed. Perhaps you suggest to your students that some groundwork is necessary before more fully addressing the topic, and offer something for students to reflect on in preparation for a future discussion.
Remind learners of your availability to support them
Beyond acknowledgment in class, you can demonstrate your support as an instructor in multiple ways. For instance, you may offer flexibility in the course, such as letting students request an extension on an upcoming assignment. You might offer expanded office hours and review sessions, letting students know that these are times in which you are available to support them. Additionally, providing guidelines to your class about how to best communicate with you—and ideally, multiple options for doing so—is essential for cultivating a supportive rapport with students.
It is important to be mindful that the same event or crisis can impact students differently. You may want to acknowledge that events and actions, both in and out of the classroom, have the potential to result in widespread impact and systemic inequities. Likewise, what we do in the classroom can result in different student responses. Therefore, as much as possible, be transparent about activities and expectations, as well as any changes you make to the plans for your course.
You may also want to gather student input when making decisions, which can in turn help identify difficulties to address. When gathering feedback, don’t forget to consider carefully whether this feedback will only be shared with you or with the whole class, and to communicate this with students.
Establish community agreements that guide engaged participation in difficult discussions
If the difficult or polarizing topic does become something you want to discuss in class, consider ways to establish community agreements together with your students: create “ground rules” for class participation that emphasize the necessity of these guidelines for the sake of creating constructive, engaged dialogue. Creating such guidelines together involves full participation from your students in the process of building classroom community in the midst of conflict. When you are co-creating these agreements, frame these as guidelines that are open to revision as well as expansion.
You may have a few guidelines that you develop yourself and share with students, before then asking them to amend or add to them as needed; alternatively, you might create the full list of agreements together as a class. During the process, be sure to pause and see if anyone has more to add or revise, and check in to see how students are reacting to the list of agreements you develop together. If you teach a larger lecture course, it may not be feasible to co-create community agreements with all of your students during class. Instead, you might consider including students in the development process by inviting them to use time outside of class to revise or add to agreements that you have created. You can also consider doing this online through Google Docs, Moodle, or another software tool.
Establishing community agreements—and referring back to them regularly—can help model for and with your students how to authentically embody the kind of engaged dynamic you intend to create in the learning community of your class. This is true as a general practice for any course but can be especially helpful when navigating controversial topics. Make these community agreements visible and citable in the syllabus, in the classroom, on Moodle, etc., so that you and your students might refer back to them as needed.
Consider how what is happening might relate to your course content
If appropriate, it may be worth assessing whether what is happening can become a teaching tool that relates to other topics relevant to your course or context. Do you see an important connection between the event and your desired learning outcomes? Can you engage your students in analyzing the event in terms of related concepts, theories, and frameworks? You may also want to invite students to share how they see the topic relating to your course, perhaps asking them to share thoughts and questions with you, whether privately or as a class, depending on what you deem most fitting in your course context.
While not appropriate in every context, connecting the difficult topic to your course content can be a powerful means of integrating real-world events with your discipline or learning domain. Knowing that the topic is sensitive, be intentional about how you scaffold and integrate the topic into your course so that students can process and reflect on their learning as it relates to the difficult topic.
Remind students of the support available to them beyond your classroom
The students you work with may be in need of resources beyond the scope of your particular context and expertise. Vassar provides a range of resources and support for students, many of which can be found through the comprehensive Resource Library for students offered by the Dean of Student Living and Wellness.
If the issue is impacting students’ ability to show up in class, they might also reach out to their Class Advisor in the Dean of Studies office, as well as the Accessibility and Equal Opportunity office. You can also encourage students who want to connect learning with action and organizing about conflict can reach out to the Office of Community Engaged Learning. Finally, you might also direct students to the resources available through the Learning, Teaching, and Research Center, as well as Engaged Pluralism.
To request a one-on-one consultation about how you might address difficult topics in your course (or to discuss any aspect related to teaching), email Alexia Ferracuti, Director of Inclusive Pedagogy (firstname.lastname@example.org).
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