Teaching in Times of Tragedy

October 20, 2017 / by Lisa Hollenbach

As teachers, we’ve all dealt with days that are particularly tough in the classroom. Unfortunately, we seem to be increasingly faced with teaching in the days and weeks that follow a local or a collective tragedy. For nearly two weeks, Northern California has been ravaged by devastating wildfires -- the deadliest in California history. For many at Teaching Channel, the Bay Area is home, and we’ve been thinking a lot about how we can help our friends and neighbors. From making a donation to volunteering your time, if you’re looking for a way to help, you can find a number of great ideas here and here.

Whether local, national, or international in scope, times of crisis can have a significant impact on our students and our classrooms. While the impact is more obvious when students are in direct proximity to the event or personally involved, large-scale national crises, often accompanied by heavy media coverage, can be equally difficult to navigate. The resulting stress and anxiety students -- and teachers -- bring into the classroom in response to a crisis can affect teaching and learning.

What Can Teachers Do To Support Their Students?

There is no lesson plan for tragedy. But as educators, the health and well-being of our students are always paramount. First, as you look for ways to support your students, check with your administrator to find out if your school district has a policy in place for guiding students through a crisis. If your school or district doesn’t have an expressed policy, encourage your principal to begin a discussion about what supports are available and what interventions -- academic or otherwise -- will best meet the needs of your unique population.

Whether you’ll be building your plan as a team or individually, keep these tips for teaching in times of tragedy in mind.

Acknowledge the Tragedy, But Stick to the Routine

Simply recognizing what happened can be valuable and reassuring for your students; the way in which you respond will be personal and individual to you and to your class. As you plan for the days ahead, remember that school and classroom routines provide a sense of comfort and stability for students who may feel like the events of their lives are otherwise out of control.

Here are ten ways you can help your students feel safe, secure, and supported during and in the aftermath of a traumatic event:

1. Seek information about how many of your students have been personally impacted by the event and to what degree.

2. Observe a moment of silence.

3. Allow students time to reflect privately in writing or express their emotions through art.

VIDEO: Writing to Learn

VIDEO: Writing to Learn

4. Allow for class time for a structured or unstructured class discussion of the event without explicitly linking to class content.

VIDEO: Respectful Talk

VIDEO: Respectful Talk

5. Be prepared for “hot moments” or conflicts in the classroom when discussing sensitive topics.

6. Create a safe, inclusive space where diversity of opinions and student backgrounds are recognized and honored.

7. Allow students to express emotions and ask questions.

8. Develop class assignments related to the event or shift your plans to introduce a relevant topic now that was scheduled for a later date.

9. Use the lens of your discipline to examine the events surrounding the tragedy.

10. Brainstorm with students about how they might respond positively or develop agency through volunteerism or other meaningful social action.

Offer Support to Mitigate Student Stress and Anxiety

  • Mind the Cognitive Load: Consider deadline extensions, reducing student workload, providing additional time for review, and offering supplemental resources to support student learning.
  • Encourage Students to Take a News Break: Students and teachers can get caught up watching an endless loop of media footage from the disaster if they stay tuned in to news broadcasts and social media timelines. Although everyone will want to stay informed, periodically unplugging can lessen stress and anxiety as a tragedy unfolds and in the aftermath.
  • Look for Students in Crisis: Talk with struggling students individually and connect with guidance counselors, administrators, and families when necessary.
  • Be Resourceful: Help students and families access resources and additional support services provided by the school or in the community.

Finding Peace in the Aftermath

As with any traumatic event, there will be difficult days ahead for students and teachers impacted by the Northern California wildfires.

Practicing mindfulness in your classroom can help you and your students connect with positive emotions and social experiences -- something that a brain changed by trauma sometimes struggles to do. Mindfulness-based strategies such as deep breathing and guided relaxation will help to slow down the amygdala, the fear center of the brain that is often hyperactive following a traumatic event, and help everyone regulate behaviors, emotions, and impulses as they recover, rebuild, and find peace.

VIDEO: Mindfulness in the Classroom

VIDEO: Mindfulness in the Classroom

Take Care of Yourself

When your students are hurting, it will take an emotional and physical toll on you as well. You’ll need to find strategies to cope with any vicarious trauma as best you can so that you can better support your students in a time of crisis. Focus on a long-term, on-going strategy for teacher wellness and self-care. For some great ideas on where to start with teacher wellness and self-care, check out the self-care suggestions in our Back-to-School Starter Packs and take a look back at Tch Laureate Crystal Morey’s #TchWellness journey.

Your students take cues from your words and actions, so not only will you be stronger when they need you, you’ll also be a great model as they figure out which coping strategies work best for them!

Additional Resources

What ideas do you have for teaching in times of trauma? What's worked in your classroom? 

Topics: Professional Learning, Class Culture, Social Emotional Learning, Video Playlist, Teacher Wellness

Lisa Hollenbach

Written by Lisa Hollenbach

Lisa Hollenbach is a former high school Social Studies teacher and Department Chair, an adjunct professor, working with pre-service social studies teachers and behavioral science students, and serves as a mentor for the Teacher Leadership program at Mt. Holyoke College. Lisa is passionate about storytelling, teacher voice and leadership, collaboration, innovative instruction, social learning, and redefining professional development. Lisa is a member of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Teacher Advisory Council, several ECET2 Steering Committees, and is a Co-Founder, Director, and Writing Coach for the National Blogging Collaborative, a non-profit organization that cultivates and supports the capacity of all educators to use their unique voice to elevate the craft of teaching and learning. Lisa leads the Collaborative in engagement and social media storytelling. Connect with Lisa on Teaching Channel, on her blog, or on Twitter: @lisa_hollenbach.

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