Teaching During a Personal Crisis

teaching during personal crisis

I reread Nancy Chick’s “Teaching in Times of Crisis” with depressing regularity. It’s about what to do when the horrors of the world—the mass shootings, the hurricanes, the hate marches—walk our students to class. I recommend reading the full article, which discusses practical and specific techniques in detail, but Chick also boils down her research to “acknowledge the crisis.” After neo-Nazis plastered our campus with racist recruitment posters this semester, my students echoed this take-away. As one student put it, “tell us you’re there for us, that you’re a listening ear.”

Chick’s advice is a godsend for the tragic or troubling events we experience with our students. But what about when the crisis is personal? How do we teach when our world has been turned upside down by a death in the family, a serious health issue (either our own or that of a loved one), or some other private adversity? I spoke with teachers who have weathered crises, as well as mental health professionals, to outline some general recommendations for both the person in crisis and their colleagues.

When the crisis is yours:

  1. Acknowledge the crisis. Recognize that because of what you’re going through, you won’t be able to do everything you used to do at the level you’re used to doing it.
  2. Triage. You have less time and energy than usual. Make a ranked list of the most important things you do as a teacher. Make another ranked list of how you usually spend your time as a teacher. Merge the lists, identifying the areas you’ll be able to maintain and those that can stand light neglect for now.
  3. Consider telling your colleagues. This will depend on the collegiality of your institution and the nature of your crisis. If your colleagues offer help, especially if it involves a reduction of duties, accept it on the spot. You can always opt back in to committees and other obligations as your situation improves.
  4. Consider telling your students. Wait, you say, this is totally inappropriate. And it would be if you told them in the same way as you did your colleagues, as peers. But if your performance and availability are limited due to the crisis, you can reduce guilt and minimize questions by letting them know something is going on. Therapist Caylen Sunderman suggests emphasizing to your students that you don’t need help from them, you have that support elsewhere, and you only want to inform them of the situation. It should not be brought up again unless absolutely necessary.
  5. Adjust your expectations. You will not be the same teacher you usually are. Remind yourself that you’ve made a plan to preserve what you believe to be the most important aspects of your teaching, and give yourself permission to drop some balls.
  6. Try new routines. Anxiety, exhaustion, physical pain. Not the best productivity boosters. If the way you usually work isn’t working, consider grading in shorter bursts, writing in coffee shops, allowing yourself to work in “wrong” or inefficient ways. Always, but especially in crisis, the great is the enemy of the good.
  7. Protect yourself. It’s okay to be around less. It’s okay to avoid the well-meaning person who always makes you cry or tends to probe a bit too much.

If you have a colleague in crisis:

  1. Listen respectfully. Think carefully before sharing your own feelings or stories. If your colleague has cancer, he doesn’t need to know that you lost a brother to cancer. He doesn’t need to know that you’re scared for him. Do not make the person in crisis do emotional labor for you. This is tough in the moment! It’s okay to listen and say “I don’t know what to say.”
  2. Don’t offer false reassurance. Just as you don’t want to ask your colleague to deal with your pain, you should also avoid assuring your colleague that “this is for the best,” or “everything will be okay,” or “at least…” Minimizing the crisis by trying to offer silver linings is hurtful as well.
  3. If you can help, offer to help. It’s perfectly fine if you can’t help because your own plate is full. If you have some extra time, energy, or money, you might consider asking one of these questions:
    • Would you like me to let the department or administration know what’s going on?
    • Can I be on call to cover your classes?
    • Can I help you with grading? (A script for explaining this arrangement to students: “As I’ve mentioned, I’m dealing with X. Dr. Wonderful has offered to grade this set of papers. I will read the papers as well, but the comments will be hers.”)
    • What is your favorite restaurant? Personal crises are expensive, and a free burrito can help.
  4. If you can’t help, at least be sure not to add to your colleague’s plate. You may think a new project will make the colleague feel “normal” and keep her mind off her problems, but that’s not helpful to someone who’s already feeling overwhelmed. It is a true kindness not to ask her to do any extra at this time.

Elizabeth Barnett in an assistant professor of English at Rockhurst University where she teaches American literature, creative writing, and composition.