When “collective tragedy”, for example terrorism, or natural catastrophes like hurricanes and floods, or pandemics, happens, it is difficult to decide whether, and how, to act as teacher. Should we acknowledge the event, and if so to what extent and in what form, or is it better to stick to business as usual to give students a sense of normalcy and stability? Collective tragedies often involve not just dealing with traumatic losses and experiences, which would be difficult to talk about in itself, but often also relate to controversial topics of politics, or culture, or religion, which might make us hesitant to bring the topic up in class.
Looking at how students experienced their teachers’ reactions to 9/11, Huston & DiPietro (2007) recommend to “do something, just about anything”.
What type of events “deserve” a reaction?
Criteria that Huston & DiPietro (2007) identify for what should be addressed in the classroom include magnitude and scale of events (so for example national events that are covered broadly in the media), how close something happened to the campus (directly on campus, same city), how likely it is to impact students (or their friends and families) directly (what they don’t mention but I am thinking about here are also international students that are affected by events in other countries!), and how likely students are to identify with the victims (maybe due to victims being the same age or being involved in the same practice of a sport or subject).
When in doubt whether or not to react to something, Huston & DiPietro (2007) recommend looking out for “situational cues”: Do students seem affected by an event, which might become visible for example by student-led events on the campus, like demonstrations or vigils? Is the event on mine, the teacher’s, mind so much that I have difficulties shaking it off when I start class? Do students even bring it up to you, or do you overhear them talking about the topic? Then it is probably worth addressing.
What kinds of reactions are helpful?
After 9/11, 11% of the faculty that responded to a specific study said they did not speak of the attacks at all. But of those other faculty that did react, reactions ranged from really low-effort, small scale actions, like a minute of silence, large efforts like making the attacks topic of (parts of) the course. Generally, there was a lot of confusion about their role as a teacher, and what that meant for what they should do, and still afterwards what they should have done, both for instructors who had reacted and those that didn’t.
While it is unclear what effects reactions or the lack thereof actually did have on students, this is what students report:
- Completely ignoring was perceived as the instructor not taking the situation seriously enough, not caring about how the students did, and generally as “terrible”.
- 78% of students report that they appreciated when instructors suggested ways to become active to, in some small way, make the situation better (like where to donate blood or where to give to charity), which is called “problem-focussed coping” and has been found to often be effective at reducing stress by giving people agency.
- 69% of the students found being offered extensions of deadlines, or other alternative ways to deal with the workload of the course, helpful to counteract the mental load of dealing with a traumatic event
- !! Acknowledging the event but not adjusting anything in class was perceived as really unhelpful !!
In addition to the students’ self-reports, clinical research found psychological interventions, for example journal writing, or an active approach to get involved in community efforts to help others, effective ways to deal with trauma.
So in summary, my impression is that it is (as always!) important to show humanity as a teacher: Acknowledging that something terrible is happening, showing that we care about students by asking them how they are doing and trying to lessen their burdens as far as that is within our powers, and giving them the opportunity to reflect on what is going on and possibly digest it by scientifically approaching the topic in the frame of the course, as well as supporting them in dealing with the real-world effects of the tragedy by suggesting ways to become active for the benefit of the community. That is quite a tall order, but I think it is good to keep in mind that it is better to do anything positive, no matter how small, than doing nothing.
Huston, T. A., & DiPietro, M. (2007). 13: In the Eye of the Storm: Students’ Perceptions of Helpful Faculty Actions Following a Collective Tragedy. To improve the academy, 25(1), 207-224.