Teaching After Tragedy

Teaching After Tragedy

Our community has lost a student and a faculty member to violence. The effects of this loss will be many and enduring. At this point, we can only attempt to manage the impact of these events upon the learning we hope to cultivate in our classes, even as we strive to process our own emotions.

Unfortunately there is no formula for the right way to proceed. We know that many of our students will be experiencing grief, fear, shock, rage, and other powerful and distracting emotions.

The APA points out that mental health problems are learning problems. Students experiencing stress or grief or fear (or anxiety, or depression) learn less. They learn less deeply, and less quickly. Their cognitive capacities (working memory, memory formation, higher-order thinking, etc.) are impaired, and their levels of interest and attention are necessarily reduced. They may have difficulty sleeping or concentrating. So, indeed, may we. (Click here to see symptoms of vicarious trauma.)

As we attempt to salvage a semester marked by disasters and violence, we will need to be flexible and compassionate. We will need to extend deadlines, read generously, excuse absences, respond patiently to questions, and above all show care. Some students may not be able to face coming to class in the coming days. We should not penalize them, but we should also check in on them. Routine and stability can bring comfort, so we should attempt to maintain a semblance of normality, but we must also acknowledge the loss.

In past crises, students reported that saying nothing was the worst approach faculty could take (Huston and DiPietro, 2007). Students want us say something—to acknowledge that something awful has happened, and that they (and we) are affected. Catherine Shea Sanger’s column in the Chronicle offers good language and suggestions, and the FSU Counseling Center can help (850-644-2003).

Students will have trouble concentrating, so additional review sessions and additional scaffolding will be helpful. If you are able to minimize new content, and allow your students more opportunities to practice and consolidate the learning they have done so far, they may still end the semester having attained many of your learning goals.

It’s also important to enhance our sense of community. Students need each other in these times. The bonds they forge with each other, and with you, will help them to be more resilient. Dense social networks make us stronger.  We should take every opportunity to show our care for our students, and to strengthen their ties with each other, allowing them to work together, study together, talk to each other, and listen to each other.

Here are a few suggestions for ways you can support your students:

Steer students to the Student Resilience Project Resources: This fall, FSU launched a set of online resources, designed by Dr. Karen Oehme and other colleagues from the College of Social Work, to help students grow more resilient in stressful conditions. The materials have been updated this weekend, in response to the shooting.

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

Refer students to the Counseling Center. As faculty, we naturally wish to support distraught students, but we’re not trained counselors, so we should resist the pressure to assume that role. We can tell students where to find help, and assure them that seeking help is healthy, and a sign of strength. In urgent cases, you can even walk students to the Counseling Center (250 Askew Student Life Building).

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 shooting in an analytical way, but others will find it 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.

Take care of yourself, too. At the best of times, good teaching involves a great deal of taxing emotional labor. You cannot be an anchor for your students if you don’t attend to your own mental health. The APA offers a list of tips–prominently featuring exercise and good nutrition– for coping in the aftermath of a mass shooting. FSU’s Employee Assistance Program provides important support.

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 here to assist you. Just email us at pro-teaching@fsu.edu.