Teaching in Difficult Times

photo by Marcus for Sonnyvisions Flickr via Compfight cc

As we prepare for a new academic year, two things are certain:  1. there will be times of difficulty for all of us, and 2. our teaching and our students’ learning are affected by these difficulties.  Whether the crisis is local (a neighborhood hit by a tornado, a death on campus) or beyond (e.g., a school shooting, a major political event), we may wonder what to do as we walk into the classroom and all eyes are on us.  The last third of James Lang’s wonderful book Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning(2016) is devoted to

“the fact that both learners and teachers are more than collections of neural networks, or receptacles of information, or practitioners of cognitive skills. They are fully realized human beings with emotions, attitudes, and other attributes that intersect with both teaching and learning” (p. 161).

The morning of September 11, 2001, was the first time I really thought about the fact that I was teaching at this “intersection,” that we were all “fully realized human beings.”  (I wrote about it in a reflection published in Academic Exchange Quarterly.)


Years later when I worked at Vanderbilt University, I updated an old guide on dealing with crises in class to reflect some of what we’ve learned about teaching in the wake of September 11.  I’m sad to say that this guide, Teaching in Times of Crisis,” is my most shared online resource.  After every school shooting, terrorist attack, major hurricane, even the death of a beloved celebrity, my social media accounts fire up with colleagues eager for such guidance. Here’s the key:

A 2007 survey by Therese A. Huston and Michele DiPietro (2007) reveals that “from the students’ perspective, it is best to do something” (p. 219).

I then explain a few possible responses, such as taking a moment of silence, minding the cognitive load, assigning relevant activities or materials, or facilitating a discussion about the situation.  You can read more about each in the guide.

Rollins Resources

Rollins College is a rare campus–in my experience–in the range and quality of resources available for such moments.  I reached out to Penelope Strater (Director of Student and Family Care in the office of the Dean of Students) for the following:

  • The Office of Student and Family Care is a resource for students, faculty, staff and families to provide holistic care and support for students as they navigate college life from matriculation through graduation.  We care deeply about providing a safe and secure environment to learn and work.  If you are concerned about a Rollins community member or are concerned about a specific incident, you can report your concerns through the Report a Concern web form, which is also available on the Faculty FoxLink Tab and Dean of Students website.
  • For information on how to identify and work with students exhibiting distress or disruptive behavior, please review the Student Care Guide for Faculty and Staff, which is also available online on the Faculty FoxLink Tab and Dean of Students website.
  • Additionally, for further information and resources to assist in holistically supporting and caring for students, please review Student and Family Resources, which is also accessible via the Dean of Students website.
  • The Office of Student and Family Care is located on the first floor of the Cornell Campus Center in Dave’s Boathouse, and can be reached at extension x2345 (407-646-2345) or via care@rollins.edu.

As the semester begins, let’s take a breath and honor our own and our students’ “fully realized humanity.”

*  Watch James Lang’s workshop on Small Teaching here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.