Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Teaching in Tumultuous Times

Both instructors and students can have difficulty following an event of crisis, tragedy, or social unrest. Such events may take an emotional and cognitive toll on students, disrupt their lives, and interfere with learning for extended periods of time. Given such events may be local, national, or international, it is worth noting that students’ proximity to the event does not always determine their response (Silver et al., 2004). For example, students may be seriously affected by events that involve total strangers. Additionally, students’ surface responses may not be indicative of the actual effect.

As an instructor, it’s important to consider the impacts such events have on students as human beings and as learners. What can instructors do to support students in the wake of tragedy or crisis, regardless of what they are teaching in their courses?

When a tragedy happens, the most important thing for instructors to do is to acknowledge students’ distress. You can share campus resources for students and make adjustments to the course to support their continued learning as they deal with grief, anxiety, and distraction. Whether or not you discuss the event in class will depend on your context and comfort level; either way, you can work to promote a positive class climate where students will be able to discuss difficult topics in the future.

Studies of students’ perceptions of instructor responses to tragic events show that acknowledging the event is helpful for the vast majority of students (Huston & DiPietro, 2007; Morse et al., 2008). Students appreciated acknowledgements whether they were short or long, simple or connected to course content, immediate or delayed. However, instructors who didn't respond at all to tragedies were perceived as being insensitive and uncaring. A lack of response was most common in large-enrollment classes, where more students are impacted, so we especially encourage these instructors to consider what they can do.

Much of the research on this subject has been done on events where all community members agreed on what happened (e.g., natural disasters, shootings, 9/11 before the emergence of conspiracy theories). But in this era of social media “bubbles” and rampant misinformation, remember that everyone in the room may have very different perceptions even of what has actually happened, and naming the event is itself a political act. For controversial or emerging crises, you may decide that you are not informed enough to succinctly summarize what has happened without alienating some of your students. However, you can still acknowledge that you know many of them are scared and hurting.

An acknowledgement might include:

  • (1 min) Observing a moment of silence.
  • (2–5 min) Asking students whether they or their loved ones have been impacted, creating space for these impacts to be acknowledged.
  • (5–10 min) Having students brainstorm ways they can support each other and affected communities. Experiencing trauma often lead to a desire to support others, for example by offering emotional support to friends or volunteering with community efforts, and these prosocial behaviors have been shown to decrease PTSD symptoms in undergraduates (Frazier et al., 2013). 
  • (10–20 min) Offering an opportunity for students to privately reflect on the event in writing. One intervention asked students whose peer was killed in the Flight 93 crash to write about their emotional reactions 20 minutes a day for four days, and found that they experienced a significant decrease in trauma symptoms (Honos-Webb et al., 2006).

To prevent additional student frustration and disappointment, avoid superficial, dismissive acknowledgements such as “I know X happened, but we need to press on to stay on schedule.” It is also important to consider what you would say if a student asks to talk about this event more (see Decide Whether to Discuss the Event in Class for strategies).

Your acknowledgement might include sharing how you feel about an event to normalize vulnerability and emotional processing. This can be as simple as acknowledging the gravity of what has happened and saying that you are having to process your emotions regarding it. If you do not feel comfortable disclosing aspects of your identity or your reaction to an event, that is absolutely okay! It is valuable for students to see that you, an adult with experience and authority, are also impacted. It is also okay for your students to see that you are uncertain how to talk about a difficult topic but are still making the effort because you care about their well-being.

We encourage you to take inspiration from your colleagues and leaders, but do not follow a script. Your sincerity will show better if your own voice gets through.

There are many resources on campus that are available to students. During times of distress, however, students may forget that they are there or may be reluctant to ask for help. It is important to remind students of these CMU services and encourage them to seek them out; even students who do not end up using resources report feeling better knowing they are available (Morse et al., 2008).

Some students may come to you with personal details of how an event has impacted them. Most instructors are not expected to respond competently to such disclosures since this is outside of their field of expertise (nor have they received the appropriate training), but there are many people on campus who can. By knowing the kinds of resources available on campus, you will be better able to guide students to the service that can best provide the support the student needs, and we encourage instructors, if possible, to provide a “warm handoff” (for example, helping the student find the correct contact information or walking the student over to the relevant office) (Felten & Lambert, 2020, p. 141).

In addition to these general CMU resources, there may be other timely resources or events happening on campus or in the community. Keep your eye out for emails from university officials and make sure to pass along this information to your students.

In addition to acknowledging student distress, it is important to also recognize the impact that significant events can have on their academics. Many students may have difficulty staying focused in class, studying, and completing their assignments (Morse et al., 2008). Here are some ways to offer grace and support to your students:

  • Offer extensions for all students, or for any student who requests them.
  • Lead a review session or hold additional office hours.
  • Make your slides or class recordings available so students can refer back to them.
  • Share supplemental resources to support student learning.
  • Avoid lecturing at length or covering too much content quickly and instead focus on teaching your core learning objectives well.
For additional ideas, see the “Flexibility” section of our Syllabus Updates page.

Your next step will be to decide whether or not you want to devote class time to a discussion of the event and its causes or impacts. This will depend on the established classroom climate and on your own willingness and ability to manage the “hot moments” that may arise.

“Green flags” for devoting a class session to an upsetting topic:

  • Students show an eagerness to talk about it.
  • The course content is relevant.
  • There are established guidelines for class discussions.
  • Students have productively discussed difficult topics before.
  • Any discomfort is likely to be productive (for example, majority students will learn about the experiences of others).
  • You feel comfortable moderating the discussion and have learned enough about the topic to be able to speak without spreading misinformation.

“Red flags”:

  • Not all students want to have a dialogue.
  • The course content has not provided students with any knowledge or analytical frameworks that will be relevant to the topic.
  • The classroom climate is not conducive to difficult dialogues.
  • Students are likely to be negatively impacted if the conversation is not well moderated (for example, minoritized students may have to listen to harmful comments).
  • You do not feel informed on the topic or up to the task of moderating the discussion and responding to unproductive comments.

If you do decide that a class discussion will be valuable, you will want to prepare discussion prompts and anticipate likely issues. The University of Michigan has prepared guidance for instructors preparing to lead discussions on specific topics, such as instances of racist or homophobic violence.

If discussions go well and students are interested in connecting the course content to this real-world issue, you might consider including it in other lessons or projects. See an example of creative course activities after both local and national tragedies that aimed to counter a rise in anti-immigrant sentiment (Ditchfield, 2021).

If you decide not to have a discussion, this can be a good time to consider how you can promote a healthy class climate to prepare for other difficult conversations in the future.

Your response to a tragedy or controversy will be most successful if you have established a positive class climate where students feel safe being their authentic selves. This takes time. Here are some things you can do create a learning environment that will be up to these challenges:


Center for Research on Learning & Teaching. (n.d.). Guidelines for discussing difficult or high-stakes topics. University of Michigan.

Ditchfield, L. G. (2021, Summer). Borders to bridges: Awakening critical consciousness. The Radical Teacher, (120), 32–41.

Felten, P., & Lambert, L. M. (2020). Relationship-rich education: How human connections drive success in college. Johns Hopkins University Press.

Frazier, P., Greer, C., Gabrielsen, S., Tennen, H., Park, C., & Tomich, P. (2013). The relation between trauma exposure and prosocial behavior. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 5(3), 286–294.

Honos-Webb, L., Sunwolf, Hart, S., & Scalise, J. T. (2006). How to help after national catastrophes: Findings following 9/11. The Humanistic Psychologist, 34(1), 75–97.

Huston, T. A., & DiPietro, M. (2007). In the eye of the storm: Students’ perceptions of helpful faculty actions following a collective tragedy. To Improve the Academy, 25(1), 207–224.

Morse, W., Fennell, G., Crothers, M. K., & Schneider, K. S. (2008). Implications of terrorist attacks and other campus deaths for on-going student support needs. Illness, Crisis & Loss, 16(1), 65–84.

Silver, R. C., Poulin M., Holman, E. A., McIntosh, D. N., Gilriva V., & Pizarro, J. (2004). Exploring the myths of coping with a national trauma: A longitudinal study of responses to the September 11th terrorist attacks. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, 9(1–2), 129–141.