Yale Center for Teaching and Learning

Teaching in Context: Troubling Times

World events influence perceptions of the present for both students and faculty. Teaching during a challenging time is most effective when we reflect on the complexities of our world, nation, and community. The COVID-19 pandemic has claimed the lives of millions of people around the globe. Black, Indigenous, and people of color suffer from violence, trauma, and racism, including inequities in higher education. A tense presidential campaign and election occurred throughout 2020, and the Capitol experienced a terrifying attack that resulted in lost lives and underscored deep divisions within the U.S. In addition to social and political unrest and job insecurity, people have faced increased stress, anxiety, and mental health challenges.

During troubling times, we recommend that instructors revisit these questions: What are my teaching priorities? What will my students need from me? How will I know? How can I prepare when an outcome is uncertain? The Poorvu Center encourages all instructors to consider the following framework, developed with input from Yale faculty and students. This framework will allow instructors to prioritize their well-being, their students’ well-being, and center the learning experience.

Recommendations and resources

1. Explicitly acknowledge circumstances or events

Communicating care and concern for your students always means a lot. We recommend revisiting the Guiding Principles for our Teaching and Learning Community, created during the summer of 2020 by a Yale Faculty of Arts and Sciences committee. Patience, compassion, and flexibility are especially critical when broad issues threaten peace and well-being.

Expect students to be distracted during class meetings during troubling times. If you plan to hold class as usual, take a few moments to explicitly acknowledge what’s going on. You could give students a chance to write quietly or reflect on a quotation or image as preparation to focus on class content. An optional meditation is another way to start class.

Here is a sample statement you could adapt and read at the beginning of class (created by Brown University’s Sheridan Center):

I understand that this is likely a challenging day to be thinking about [subject]. I also imagine that by being here today, like me, you find some reassurance in observing this moment as a community. In a minute, I will turn to the topic in the syllabus, but I do understand that it may be difficult to focus, and so I will both record the session and be available later this week during office hours to support your learning and well-being.

You may want to collect input from your students about how they are doing, what they need from your class or course adjustments that might help them cope. The anonymous feedback tool in Canvas is one option to gather input, or you may use Google Forms, Qualtrics, or other means to gather feedback on specific questions.

2. Provide flexibility and clear communication

Students will respond differently to social movements, current events, or troubling news. Some may appreciate extra flexibility with attendance for synchronous class meetings, while others may crave the community of the class. If you have important due dates during troubling times, consider no-penalty extensions for everyone.

Many instructors want to give students the opportunity to process events with their peers in class. Preparing for such discussions can be challenging. The University of Michigan’s teaching center has guidance and considerations for discussions in response to various events. The University of Michigan’s teaching center notes, “students and instructors whose identities are repeatedly targeted or negatively represented can feel unsafe, unwelcome, and drained emotionally and intellectually by the rhetoric and realities of” a divisive election or event. Instructors may consider allowing students to opt out of such a discussion if they are not feeling ready to share their thoughts in class.

Most importantly, the Poorvu Center recommends communicating with your students so they know what to expect in your class and your intentions to accommodate their needs with flexibility.

3. Consider your role(s) in the classroom and beyond

Many instructors have found ways to connect their discipline and their course content to current events or movements. At its best, the Yale community can foster productive exchanges across different ideological or political viewpoints. Instructors can equip students with tools to think about and process various events and outcomes and what they mean for the discipline and beyond. Take some time to think about the specific and general impact and stakes of events or policies for you, your students, and the broader community. Black, Indigenous, people of color, Muslims, migrants and immigrants, LGBTQ+, women, or people with disabilities have frequently faced negative rhetoric, which has implications for their sense of belonging in the classroom and elsewhere.

Keep in mind that widely held viewpoints on specific issues can inadvertently isolate those few who hold opposing views. Libby Roderick, a University of Alaska expert on facilitating difficult dialogues, advises us to “assume that everyone is in the classroom at all times.” Her book, Start Talking, includes additional strategies for conducting conversations across differences.

Lastly, Yale Health has a collection of mental health and wellness resources for students and instructors. Don’t forget to take care of yourself. Review Yale College-based Mental Health and Wellness Support links.

Additional support from the Poorvu Center

The Poorvu Center’s staff is available to help any instructor looking for advice or exploring how to navigate pedagogical challenges. Contact us to schedule a consultation.

Further reading