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Teaching in Times of Stress and Challenge

​Emotions play a vital role in teaching and learning and it is especially important to be responsive to the vast range of emotions that may surface in the classroom during challenging times. When entering the classroom, instructors and students alike bring with them all of their experiences and challenges. In this way, learning spaces act as microcosms of the larger “outside” world. In times of stress, it can be challenging to navigate these spaces, as an emotionally distressing event beyond the classroom can manifest itself in a classroom in ways that impede mental, emotional, behavioral, and cognitive functioning of students (Cavanaugh, 2016; Cook et al., 2005; Darragh & Petrie, 2019; Eyler, 2018; Sitler, 2009). 

This resource offers strategies for teaching during times of stress and highlights campus support available to help you and your students navigate challenges. Interwoven are excerpts from thank you notes submitted by Columbia students to their professors (through the CTL’s Thank-a-Professor | Thank-a-TA initiative), a good reminder of the gratitude students have for the things we do in the classroom to support them. 

Cite this resource: Columbia Center for Teaching and Learning (2021). Teaching in Times of Stress and Challenge. Columbia University. Retrieved [today’s date] from https://ctl.columbia.edu/resources-and-technology/resources/teaching-in-times-of-stress/

Introduction: Adopting Pedagogies of Care

Perhaps one of the most significant things we can do as teachers is to care for our students as learners. Caring pedagogies do not require us to lower standards or to cross boundaries. They simply require that we be present for our students as fellow human beings and that we invest ourselves in helping them to succeed. (Eyler, 2018: 148)

Columbia faculty and TAs are on the frontlines of teaching and learning, often doing the emotional labor needed to help students continue learning during challenging times. Over the past several years, we learned much about how to navigate teaching and learning in a time of great stress and challenge and it’s important that we not leave these lessons behind. It is essential to take these lessons forward, and adopt pedagogies and approaches that allow for proactive responses. Hitting pause to reflect back on the experience of teaching through such a stressful and challenging time, one recognizes that pedagogies of care (e.g., empathy for our students and ourselves; flexibility with regards to our course designs) are essential and can remain pillars in our teaching approaches.

Instructors can build a pedagogy of care with social and emotional presence by showing that they are human and recognizing that their students are people outside of the classroom (Eyler and Cavanaugh, 2020). Some instructors feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and feelings about recent events and their own challenges with their students. A little bit of vulnerability can help students feel connected and comfortable asking for help (Mays, 2021). Additionally, sharing campus resources that are available to help students through challenging times, lets students know that we see them as whole beings. 

“I wanted to say thank you for all you have done this year. I have never felt as supported by a professor at Columbia as I have in this course. I appreciate your critical insight for all the texts we have read but also for your understanding, care, and flexibility as an instructor. I cannot tell you how many times your extensions have given me a breath of relief from stress. (…)” 

– Student writing to Annie Pfeifer, Assistant Professor of Germanic Languages. Course: Contemporary Civilization in Spring 2021.

“Thank you so much for your unwavering energy. Throughout a year of high stress and unexpected changes, you were a welcome constant. I knew that every time I showed up to lab I would be able to learn from someone who cared about my education and my future. Thank you for making me laugh, taking your time to explain even the easiest concepts, and always encouraging our growth.  You saved us all this year.” 

–  Student writing to Mary Moran, Instructor in Nursing at CUIMC. Course: SIM Lab in Spring 2021.

The following sections highlight some of the elements and approaches to enacting a pedagogy of care.

Read on and visit University Life’s page on supporting students during times of stress for faculty and staff for FAQs and additional resources, and see additional campus resources in times of crisis.

Take Care of Yourself

Pedagogies of care emphasize instructors’ social and emotional presence in the classroom, helping students see that they are recognized as whole beings. However, before instructors can show up in this way for their students, it is important that they show up for themselves. Thus, this resource starts with taking care of yourself, which is a process that can look very different for many people.  

The workload both in and out of the classroom can be overwhelming; teaching in times of collective trauma can make that work feel more challenging and more exhausting. Recognize that you are best able to support your students when you practice self-care. Proactively create a self-care plan and identify campus resources and networks to help you navigate challenges, while maintaining your personal and professional responsibilities. Columbia resources to explore include: 

Acknowledge what is going on

“Too often it can be easy to slip into the trap of seeing our classrooms as separate from the world, an intellectual oasis from the life beyond its walls. Nothing could be further from the truth. Students do not drop their worries, stressors, and needs at the door when they come to learn from us. Having a sense, then, of the psychological and social dimensions that affect learning can be a powerful tool for teachers.” (Eyler, 2018: 187)

Whether events are taking place on campus, within the local community, nationally, or internationally, students appreciate instructors that acknowledge what is going on in the world beyond the classroom, that these events may elicit a variety of emotions, and that students may be experiencing challenges. Recognize that students may have a hard time concentrating on learning, completing activities, meeting assignment deadlines, or remaining motivated to engage in class or study outside of class. For support with navigating these potentially difficult conversations with students, see the CTL’s resource Navigating Heated, Offensive, and Tense Moments in the Classroom.

Ensure your course designs and policies do not add stress

Transparency about your course goals, assessments, and policies help manage student expectations. It is possible to build-in both rigor and flexibility into courses. Consider how course designs or course policies might need to be adjusted so that they do not add undue stress to you and your students. 

Re-examine your course and your expectations for the semester:  

  • What are the learning objectives for your course? Do those learning objectives need to be readjusted and narrowed down to the most essential that you would like your students to focus on? 
  • Can some of the assignments be replaced with more flexible options? For example, could you administer more frequent lower-stakes quizzes rather than one or two high-stakes exams? Could you allow students to produce their final projects in a multimedia form (video, podcast, oral presentation, etc.) rather than just an extensive final paper? 

Just as it is important to ensure that course design and policies don’t add undue stress, it is equally important for instructors to set clear boundaries for expectations. Be explicit about what students should expect from you around communication, email response times, assignment feedback, etc.: be sure that students know your preferred methods of contact. Being explicit benefits both students and instructors; students will appreciate knowing how they should communicate and when they can expect responses and feedback, while for instructors, “an intentional approach to boundaries can help us balance care for students, a commitment to the standards of our disciplines, and self-care.” (Schwartz, 2020).

Foster a class environment of trust, connection, and communication

Student learning benefits from a classroom environment that prioritizes rapport, trust, and connection among students, and between students and the instructor. Thus, it is essential to remember the importance of accessibility in teaching and learning, inclusive teaching, and anti-racist pedagogical practices. Additionally, trauma-informed teaching practices (see Baez & Marquart, 2020; Carello, 2020a and 2020b) can help inform decisions about our learning environments to ensure students feel respected, supported, and empowered.

Students appreciate knowing that they can communicate with you if they have a concern about their learning in the course or their ability to complete tasks. Let students know how best to communicate with you and connect with you during or outside of class time and office hours. If a student does not come to you and you are concerned about the student’s well-being, you can reach out to your dean or counselor for advice. 

You may also consider holding space and time to respond to the current moment, providing students opportunities to discuss issues with their peers as they relate to the course and student lives (e.g., talking about race in the classroom – see Sue 2015 for strategies for facilitating such dialogues). Creating space for dialogue in class, no matter how brief, can help students process and feel a little less alone.

Hit pause for reflection and wellness practices

Create opportunities for students to refocus and reflect upon and/or process the moment, or to stop and think about themselves as learners. This can be done by embedding contemplative pedagogical practices (e.g., a mindful pause for silence and focused breathing) or through individual reflective writing and/or dialogue. See the CTL’s resources on Contemplative Pedagogy and Metacognition to learn more and to adapt practices that work for your course context and teaching style.  

Embedding wellness practices into a course can help students (see the ACUE and Active Minds 2020 report for recommended practices). In her presentation for the 2021 Celebration of Teaching and Learning Symposium, Professor Denise Cruz describes how she practiced self care for and with her students. She emphasizes not just the importance of self-care for herself, but also the benefits of modeling such practices for her students.

Check-in with students

Regular check-ins allow you to gauge how students are doing and to partner with them to remove any course obstacles that may get in the way of their learning. Invite students to reflect on how the class environment or other course elements are supporting them. When events arise, you can ask your students: “how can I help you learn during these difficult times?” (Mays, 2020). Office hours and anonymous surveys (e.g., a mid-semester check-in) can be helpful to stay informed and make adjustments accordingly.

Empower students to seek help

Equip students with the skills and resources they need to build resiliency and foster community beyond the classroom. Include campus wellness resources on your syllabi, add links to these resources in your CourseWorks site, mention them in class, and remind students of the Columbia University resources available. A few resources to share:

  • Columbia Health, Columbia Health
    Resources for students to improve and maintain their mental health, such as Individual Counseling, Friend2Friend (training to support peers), and Coping Tools (which includes Columbia Health’s Guide to Coping with Loss and Grief)
  • Well-Being at Columbia, Office of University Life
    Overview of campus resources, programs, and practical strategies for well-being for Columbia students.
  • Live Well | Learn Well, Undergraduate Well-Being at Columbia
    Comprehensive list of resources for students to maintain their well-being at Columbia. These range from Academic Advising to Inclusion and Belonging.

“Absolute gratitude and love for making my first semester of Graduate School totally welcoming and fulfilling. We are living through a global pandemic, a re-energized racial uprising, and a wild presidential election. It’s been a pleasure to start the week with your Monday morning class. You’ve made the energy of a virtual class engaging by keeping us thinking and laughing. You have been the only professor who has addressed the importance of boosting our mental health during this horrible moment. Your weekly check-ins and reminders for us to do something that makes us happy are fundamental tools for self-care. This activity also forges beautiful and important relationships between students and professors. Thank you for celebrating and practicing a pedagogy of joy, critical thinking, and subversion.”

– Camilo Godoy, student, School of the Arts, writing to Christina M. Greer, Visiting Professor of International and Public Affairs. Course: Black Politics in Transition in Fall 2020.

Recording from 9/21/21 Columbia panel: “Return to the Morningside Classroom with Student-Well Being in Mind: A Forum for Faculty and TAs”.


ACUE (Association of College and University Educators) and Active Minds. (2020). Creating a culture of caring. Faculty Resource. Practical Approaches for College and University Faculty to Support Student Wellbeing and Mental Health

Baez, J. C. and Marquart, M. (2020). Webinar: Trauma-Informed Teaching and Learning Online, Webinar series to support faculty who are new to teaching online. Columbia University School of Social. 

Carello, J. (2020a). Creating Trauma-Informed Teaching and Learning Environments: Self-Assessment Questions for Educators.  

Carello, J. (2020b). Examples of Trauma-Informed Teaching and Learning in College Classrooms. https://traumainformedteaching.blog/resources/ 

Cavanagh, S. R. (2016). The spark of learning: Energizing the college classroom with the science of emotion. West Virginia University Press.

Cook, A., Spinazzola, J., Ford, J., Lanktree, C., Blaustein, M., Cloitre, M., et al. (2005). Complex trauma in children and adolescents. Psychiatric Annals, 35(5), 390–398.

Darragh, J. J., & Petrie, G. M. (2019). I feel like I’m teaching in a landmine”: Teaching in the context of political trauma. Teaching and Teacher Education, 80(1), 180-189.

Eyler, J. R. (2018). How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories Behind Effective College Teaching. West Virginia University Press.

Eyler, J. and Cavanaugh, S. R. (2020) Building a Pedagogy of Care with Social and Emotional Presence (YouTube video) and resource & discussion guide (PDF). In Pedagogies of Care: Open Resources for Student-Centered & Adaptive Strategies in the New Higher-Ed Landscape.

Mays, I. (2021). Pedagogy of Healing: Bearing Witness to Trauma and Resilience. Inside Higher Education. July 8, 2021.

Mays, I. (2020). Leveraging the Neuroscience of Now. Inside Higher Education. June 3, 2020. 

Schwartz, H. L. (2020). Role Clarity: How Faculty Can Map Their Own Boundaries. Thriving in Academe. NEA. 

Sitler, H. C. (2009). Teaching with awareness: The hidden effects of trauma on learning. The Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas, 82(3), 119-124.

Sue, D. W. (2015). Helping People Talk About Race: Facilitation Skills for Educators and Trainers in Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence: Understanding and Facilitating Difficult Dialogues on Race.

Upcoming Events

The CTL offers sessions on this topic, please check the CTL Events calendar to register for upcoming events.

Additional Resources

See FAQs and resources from University Life for faculty and staff on supporting students during times of stress.