How to Talk with Your Students About Crises
Updated: Jan 22
THE ORIGINAL ARTICLE PUBLISHED BY HARVARD BUSINESS PUBLISHING EDUCATION.
With so many Americans infuriated and heartbroken by the events that occurred in Washington, DC, on January 6, 2021—as rioters violently stormed the US Capitol to disrupt the process of democracy at work in a horrifying display of domestic terrorism—it again reminds us that when major events like this happen, with millions of people watching all over the world, spillover into the classroom is inevitable.
Yet, many educators are unsure about how to discuss current events that elicit strong opinions and emotions from their students, so their default is to say nothing or to make only a passing comment. Resist that tendency.
Instead, lean into this moment of disbelief, frustration, anger, fear, and anything else students might be feeling. When something unspeakable occurs, you won’t find the perfect words to calm your students and restore their focus. No one can. But it is important that you acknowledge pain when it is felt. It is top of mind for your students, and they’ll be looking to you for direction and guidance.
As you approach these crucial conversations, two things should be clear in your mind:
Political views may vary, but there is no tolerance for the spreading of disinformation, racism, violence, or attacks on democracy in a civil society or a respectable learning institution.
Each student’s context is unique. For example, as American women of color, we are hurt and angered by the contrast between US law enforcement’s docile response to the Capitol rioters and the undue force shown to peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters last summer. Others might be triggered by displays of Confederate flags or “Camp Auschwitz” sweatshirts because it harkens back to horrific acts of past violence. And students born outside the United States who have histories in countries with government uprisings leading to civil wars might be reminded of those experiences.
With these points in mind, you can focus on encouraging an inclusive dialogue that shows your students you care about them, both in the classroom and in life. Here’s a template you might follow as you discuss this event or any other crisis: Create space. As educators, we have lesson plans to get through. But it is important to allow students time to process and share, even if it shifts our planned schedule. Let your students know that the crisis has been on your mind, and that you want to give them time and a venue (even if it’s virtual) to express their feelings about what’s happened. Clarify that it’s also okay to not discuss it if they prefer.
“I want you to know that part of being able to be yourself in class is not ignoring the things that impact us outside of class.”
“What’s on your mind today? You can share as much as you want, but you do not have to share anything at all if you don’t want to. Either way, it’s OK.”
“How did that situation make you feel about the learning you’re doing here?”
Acknowledge. Show that you understand how difficult it can be to process traumatic events.
“It’s OK if you cannot put all of your feelings into words.”
“I know it might be hard for any of us to get our heads around what happened.”
“I understand that it might be hard for you to focus today.”
Affirm. Demonstrate that you are taking in individual perspectives.
“I appreciate you sharing how this looks and feels through your eyes.”
“It took a lot of courage for you to share that. Thank you!”
Personalize. Share your own authentic reactions, but don’t make assumptions or generalizations about how others feel.
“I felt _______ when watching the news.”
“Today, _______ is really on my mind.”
Do not say, “I can imagine as a person of color you may feel upset or angry.”
Offer support. Let students know you stand ready to help them today and going forward.
“How can I offer you support?”
“Whether it’s now or later, I’m here for you if you want to talk about this or anything else that might be on your mind.”
Reinforce values. Remind people of your personal and your school’s commitment to student wellbeing, democratic values, and diversity, equity, inclusion, and anti-racism education.
“Our school is working very hard to _______.”
“I’m always going to stand up for this class and our values.”
Highlight resources. Point people to your school’s diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and mental health support groups and programs, as well as online guides to external help. Even after a year of uncertainty brought on by a global pandemic, events such as the attempted coup on the US Capitol can leave a great many of us reeling. Educators need to check in with their students now more than ever, engage in open and honest conversations, help students and peers process their evolving emotions, share their perspectives and opinions, and offer ongoing support. Done right, this sets the stage for developing strong future leaders who can not only weather turbulent times, but also emerge more strongly from them.
This piece was adapted from the HBR.org article “How to Talk with Your Team About the Violence at the U.S. Capitol.”
Ella F. Washington, PhD is a professor of practice at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business and the founder of Ellavate Solutions, which provides diversity and inclusion strategy and training for organizations. She co-hosts a weekly podcast Cultural Competence. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alison Hall Birch is an assistant professor at the College of Business at the University of Texas, Arlington (UTA), where she studies stigma-based bias, diversity management, and leadership.
Erika V. Hall, PhD is an assistant professor at Goizueta Business School at Emory University, where she conducts research on racial biases and stereotyping in the workplace and broader society.