Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Prepare in advance: consider how you will respond

Whether you are concerned about maintaining a good classroom climate, you anticipate difficult dialogues in class because of the course content, or you want to be ready in case external events make their way into the classroom, it is good to think ahead about how you would react in situations of heightened student emotions.

  • Know your personal triggers. Everyone has biases, pet peeves, and things that push their buttons. Being aware of what causes an intense emotional response in you will help you manage those feelings if a triggering event occurs in the classroom or you have to manage student emotions.
  • Leverage your areas of strength and what you can control to best support your students. It’s important to recognize that you needn’t (or perhaps shouldn’t) discuss hot-button topics if that is not your expertise. For example, in your role as the instructor, showing that you value students’ feelings and acknowledging that current events may have caused them distress means a lot to students (see acknowledge the event and student distress). Another area of strength/control you can leverage relates to assignment deadlines and learning resources (see offer support to mitigate...).
  • Triaging your response about the uncertainty and/or the outcome.
    There are pros and cons to each “level” of response:




    L1: No response

    Business as usual

    • Students get a “break” from what is going on
    • Instructor won’t derail class or say the wrong thing
    • Students may not want to talk about it
    • Students may be upset that you aren’t acknowledging their distress, may think you don’t care
    • Students will be distracted, may bring it up themselves
    • If most CMU instructors do nothing, students may feel like this community doesn’t care

    L2: Acknowledge & Communicate Support

    e.g. brief statement acknowledging impact on student well-being, mentioning resources available to students, offering extensions on deadlines, etc.

    • Lets students know you are aware of how the event may be impacting them
    • Can be expressed in class or outside of class (e.g. email, Canvas); doesn’t has to take much time
    • Can prepare what to say/do in advance
    • Students may or may not feel it is enough
    • Making a statement that is perceived as dismissive of student experiences OR that content coverage is more important than student feelings
    • (E-mail) Tone is harder to convey; may be misinterpreted by students

    L3: Dialogue

    e.g. deliberately engaging in a conversation with students in or outside of class about the election

    • Potentially relevant to course
    • Students want to talk about it
    • Classroom climate is good and students are comfortable discussing hot topics already, 
    • Instructor feels comfortable moderating the discussion 
    • Classroom climate not conducive to difficult dialogues
    • Instructor does not feel up to the task of facilitating
    • Not all students may want to have a dialogue (opt in or opt out?)
    • Students may be negatively impacted if the conversation is not well moderated
    • Not relevant to course, takes time

  • Strategies for facilitating difficult discussions:
  • External web resources on teaching around the 2020 election


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 (pp. 207-224). Bolton, MA: Anker.


GO TO:  Microaggressions  |  Hot Moments  |  Teaching in Tumultuous Times