Teaching in a Crisis

A page within CATL Teaching Improvement Guide

Be informed & transparent about the changes to your (now online) role.

Experts agree that it’s best to acknowledge an ongoing or imminent crisis in your class. Students will appreciate any effort to acknowledge and process difficult events, no matter how small.

  • Be informed about campus and local support services. Students are likely to be impacted by other kinds of personal situations in the midst of a crisis and face restricted services; it’s helpful and reassuring to know where to refer them should they need academic or personal assistance.
  • Current events may be affecting feelings of safety and security for students. Even if you do not plan to address the global health crisis directly in your class, acknowledge feelings of fear and anxiety as normal responses to an uncertain time.
  • Be transparent about your (new online) role: make explicit how and when you will be available, when you will be unavailable, and what kinds of support students can expect from you. 
  • Meet students where they are. Some students may have a desire to delve deeper into conversations surrounding the crisis and its impacts; others may feel unprepared for these kinds of discussions. Still other students may be indifferent, even hostile, to current events. Acknowledge all different types of possible responses to the current situation when planning lessons by giving options (see below).

Be responsive & flexible.

While online teaching benefits greatly from consistency and continuity, students will also appreciate accommodating and personalized instruction. 

  • Encourage agency, choice, and independent learning. Offer choices for participation in class activities, many of which should be asynchronous. Offer alternative assignments for students who feel (emotionally or otherwise) unprepared for triggering or upsetting readings, feelings which may be exacerbated during a pandemic. As much as is possible, let students set the ground rules, with guidance from you. Ask students for regular feedback on online activities and assignments, and be prepared to adjust the course accordingly.
  • Be mindful of the cognitive and emotional load. In addition to the overwhelm students may feel in processing the current crisis, they may also experience heightened anxiety or depression, they may be caring for children or other loved ones, and/or may be experiencing illness or mental/emotional health disorders themselves. Consider holding regular review sessions to give extra practice on material learned during the crisis.
  • Check in regularly with students. Don’t rely exclusively on online office hours; reach out to students who may be struggling directly. Monitor online forums, assignments, and other correspondence for any comments that signal concern, and follow up directly to ask if you can provide any support or resources.
  • Maintain high, consistent expectations even while making accommodations. Be clear which circumstances allow for flexibility, and which do not. Acknowledge any hard limits or deadlines (for example: exam due dates, end-of-semester grades), where they exist.
  • Be reliable. If you say you will have something posted by a particular date or time, honor that (and communicate immediately and directly with students if something comes up). Let them know they can count on you, even in an uncertain time.

Above all, be human.

This situation affects all of us profoundly. We are all in this together. 

  • Normalize and validate feelings. Normalize help-seeking. If comfortable, or it feels appropriate to do so, share some of your own coping strategies. But avoid overly centering on your own experiences (i.e., over-emphasizing the current burdens you are facing with moving courses online, or expressing anger, fear or worry) so that students remain the focus of your class.
  • Model positive relationships and communication. Ask questions and listen carefully to students’ responses. Encourage students to be empathetic and active listeners, even online. Model healthy online communication by offering easy and accessible ground rules for online discussion. 
  • Be inclusive when discussing topics related to identity, relationships, family, and home. As many students will be learning from home these topics will be felt more strongly; how students identify and the people they share space with could shape classroom interactions more than usual.
  • Avoid romanticizing, or making light of the current crisis. Refrain from sharing personal opinions on the global (or local) response to COVID-19 with your classes.
  • Given the kinds of unusual stresses students (and instructors!) are experiencing at this time, think of how you might accommodate a reduced workload in your teaching. How can you meet essential learning outcomes without requiring extra work, especially busy work, of you and of your students? 
  • Be generous: consider facilitating ways for you and your students to engage with and help those most affected by the crisis. Link students to any local efforts to raise awareness about the impacts of COVID-19 on the greater La Crosse area. If they are local, encourage them to (safely, digitally) connect with local businesses and non-profits. If your class was engaged in site-based learning, continue to facilitate positive, supportive communication between students and the site--consider sending encouraging emails or even thank-you cards.
  • Take care of yourself. Stay connected to a network of supportive colleagues, family and friends. Stay healthy by making sure you have time away from work, email, and your computer. Be understanding with yourself--we are all profoundly disrupted by this situation, and it’s okay to feel frustrated, angry, or helpless. Be aware of the resources that exist for faculty, including the Employee Assistance Program and community-based resources.
The Prevalence of Trauma

"Not only do students report uncertainty about academic options and what those options mean for their future, but more than half say that they do not know where to turn for mental health support. This lack of clarity is concerning since one in five students report that COVID-19 has significantly worsened their mental health. ACE, 2020

According to a CDC report, "Overall, 40.9% of respondents reported at least one adverse mental or behavioral health condition, including symptoms of anxiety disorder or depressive disorder (30.9%), symptoms of a trauma- and stressor-related disorder (TSRD) related to the pandemic (26.3%), and having started or increased substance use to cope with stress or emotions related to COVID-19 (13.3%)." Czeisler et al., 2020

By the time they reach college, 66- 85 percent of youth report lifetime traumatic event exposure, with many reporting multiple exposures. Davidson, 2017; Read, Ouimette, White, Colder, & Farrow, 2011; Smyth, Hockemeyer, Heron, Wonderlich, & Pennebaker, 2008

As many as 50 percent of college students are exposed to a potentially traumatizing event in the first year of college. Davidson, 2017; Galatzer-Levy et al., 2012

Female college students with a history of sexual trauma are at a higher risk for repeated trauma. Read et al., 2011.

Trauma-exposed African-American female students are more likely to leave college before the end of their second year, and the effect of trauma exposure on leaving college is higher for African-American students at predominantly white institutions and for African-American students entering college with lower GPAs. Davidson, 2017; Boyraz, Horne, Owens, & Armstrong, 2013

Transgender individuals often encounter gender-based societal risk factors, including violence (National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, 2008) and experience a higher level of individual risk factors and predictors associated with suicidality, including a history of sexual trauma, depression, and substance abuse. Clements-Nolle, Marx & Katz, 2006

Additional statistics about different forms of trauma: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5632781/


Kate Parker, Lindsay Steiner & Bryan Kopp