Teaching in Traumatic Times

Last fall was an unusually stressful semester for students. Student services, and faculty, saw higher-than-average numbers of students in distress. Students may still have been feeling unsettled, even before Wednesday’s shooting in a Parkland, Florida high school. This event hits very close to home: many of our students are from South Florida, and some may have lost friends or relatives on Wednesday. They have probably heard the screams and gunshots–and worse–on social media. We can expect that many of our students will be experiencing trauma. You may be reeling, yourself.

It is difficult to know how to teach effectively or respectfully in such circumstances, but the worst approach is to ignore the situation (Huston and DiPietro, 2007). We don’t have to be experts: students want us say something—to acknowledge that something awful has happened, and that they (and we) are affected. If you’d like advice on how to handle the sorts of discussions that might ensue, the FSU Counseling Center is happy to help (850-644-2003).

It’s also important to consider the strain that stress exerts on cognitive load. Stress and anxiety reduce working memory and impair higher-order thinking. Students’ learning will be affected. Their sleep patterns may be disrupted. It will be humane, at this point, to be flexible with deadlines and attendance, particularly for students who need to return to South Florida. Students may have trouble concentrating this semester, so additional review sessions and additional scaffolding will be helpful. You may even want to reduce some content, if you find that students are struggling.

Here are a few suggestions for responding to the crisis:

Invite a representative from the Counseling Center to your class. You can make a request here; and of course you should refer distressed students to them. You can ask them to facilitate a discussion of the events, or just to let students know about resources.

Let students write about the events, and their reactions. Huston and DiPietro found that students who wrote journal assignments after 9/11 coped better with the stress. You don’t have to read the responses: the process of writing can help students label their emotions and clarify their thoughts.

Discuss the events through the lens of your discipline or material. This is challenging, of course, and many of us may not feel equipped to manage such discussions, and the emotions they provoke. It’s especially important to remember that some students may not feel able to engage in, or listen to, such conversations, and we shouldn’t require them to take part. But if you feel able to negotiate a discussion, your students will appreciate it.

Assign a reading that seems relevant. Whether it’s a sociological framework or a poem, a reading may also help to moderate a discussion, or focus a writing assignment. Some students may not be ready to process the events in an analytical way, but others will find it very useful. 

Observe a moment of silence. This is a simple, low-stakes strategy, but acknowledging the reality of loss will feel meaningful to your students, and demonstrate your compassion.

The Rice CTE’s advice for teaching in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey is generally applicable to teaching in times of crisis. If you’d like to discuss responses, or changes to your course, we’re always happy to assist you. Just email us at pro-teaching@fsu.edu


Florida State University Libraries will host a one-day Open Education Symposium on March 8th in Strozier Library’s Bradley Reading Room. The symposium is a free professional development opportunity for faculty and students, focused primarily on raising awareness about Open Educational Resources (OER) and their potential to support student success by reducing textbook costs and creating opportunities for open, learner-centered pedagogy.

“This symposium will provide faculty with effective strategies for relieving some of the financial burden on their students, advancing the University’s strategic goal of ensuring an affordable education for all students regardless of socioeconomic status,” said Julia Zimmerman, Dean of University Libraries. “In addition, the symposium will also surface innovative ideas related to open pedagogy, including open assignments that empower students to connect with a global audience, engage with real-world issues, and develop their skills as digital citizens.”

The symposium will feature a number of distinguished speakers, collaborative sessions, panel discussions, and a keynote address from Dr. David Wiley, Chief Academic Officer of Lumen Learning. Registration is free and participants are welcome to attend the entire event or individual sessions. Participants can also attend remotely via a live webcast. This program is sponsored by FSU’s University Libraries, College of Education, and College of Communication and Information.

For program details and to register or view the live webcast, please visit bit.ly/opened-symp.

There’s also a survey about textbooks, affordability, and OER. You can respond here:https://fsu.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_3ye1JznpRAwzzZr