Finding Balance After Tragedy
Submitted by Christopher S. Kleva and adapted from Teaching In Times of Crisis (Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching)
Throughout history, teaching has consistently been forced to adapt. More recently, teaching has rapidly evolved due to the exponential rate of technological advances in the 21st century. Using the COVID-19 pandemic as an example, it is truly impressive how quickly professors and academic institutions adapted to transitioning to online teaching. I would be remiss to not also mention the flexibility and resilience of our students to also make that adjustment. Unfortunately, the increasing number of national tragedies, such as the recent shooting at UNC Chapel Hill, has also forced changes to academia. Much of the changes have been on the institutional level, including implementing safety measures (e.g., limiting public access) and providing active shooter trainings; however, there have also been dramatic changes to the role of an educator. As an educator, we are not only tasked with teaching our students the subject matter of the course but now, we are also responsible for meeting the emotional needs of our students after a national tragedy. The difficulty in this task is the lack of support and guidance as to how to best support our students during times of tragedy. Furthermore, as psychologists (supposed experts of human behavior), our students may look to us to have answers to the “why?” We must juggle wearing these multiple hats, while also attempting to manage our own emotions after tragedy. There is no perfect way for us to respond in our classrooms; however, there are a number of ways we can address tragedy and offer support to our students.
Taking A Pause (and Perhaps a Moment of Silence)
In moments of crisis, there is so much uncertainty of “what to do” and fear of saying or doing the wrong thing. First, it is important for you to be true to yourself, what you believe you can offer, and what you can handle. Secondly, Huston & DiPietro (2007) found that not acknowledging collectively tragic events was noticed by students and the majority expressed they preferred if their teachers did something – whether it be a moment of silence or something more involved such as redesigning the lesson. Simply sitting in the flood of emotions with your students can be impactful in showing them they are not alone.
Offer Flexibility in the Course
Trauma can have a significant impact on cognitive functioning. For example, post-traumatic responses to traumatic events can reduce working memory capacity (Pitts et al., 2022). As instructors, we can offer flexibility on deadlines and alter the syllabus schedule to reduce the workload shortly after the event. It can also be beneficial to have these decisions be an open discussion within the class. In times of tragedy, it is easy for students to feel like they have no control when the world around them appears to be falling apart; giving students the ability to make joint decisions may help them regain some degree of autonomy and empowerment.
As much as our students often look to us as their guiding light, it is forgotten that we may also be struggling. As a result, we may not be in the position to provide additional emotional support and THAT IS OK! As instructors, we can recognize the impact on our students and direct them to appropriate resources. For example, we can remind students of any university or school counseling services available to them. Typically, after traumatic events, such centers or services will offer additional resources including expanding their hours. Depending on availability, we can even invite an appropriate counseling professional to come into class and speak.
Center for Teaching (2001). Teaching in times of crisis (revised April 2013 by Nancy Chick). Vanderbilt University. Retrieved from https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/crisis/
Huston, T. A., & DiPietro, M. (2007). In the eye of the storm: Students perceptions of helpful faculty actions following a collective tragedy. In D. R. Robertson & L. B. Nilson (Eds.) To Improve the Academy: Vol 25. Resources for faculty, instructional, and organizational development. Bolton, MA: Anker. Pp. 207-224.
McLean, D. (2023). How Colleges Are Trying To Prevent The Next Mass Shooting Retrieved from https://www.highereddive.com/news/how-colleges-can-prepare for-the-next-mass-shooting/649335/
Pitts, B. L., Eisenberg, M. L., Bailey, H. R., & Zacks, J. M. (2022). PTSD is associated with impaired event processing and memory for everyday events. Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications, 7(1), 35–35.https://doi.org/10.1186/s41235-022-00386-6