Difficult Conversations in the Classroom

We’ve all had (or worried about) that experience where the in-class discussion is lively and productive, until a student says something that upsets everyone.  How to respond on the spot?  How to mend the community that is your classroom after someone has said something ‘out of line’? Or, if the case allows, how to make this a ‘teachable moment’? 

The potential for tricky interactions is heightened in classes that deal with potentially controversial topics such as race, gender, politics or religion. But they can happen in any classroom because each student (and you yourself!) brings a whole lifetime of attitudes, perceptions of reality and biases to the classroom every day. 

Exploratory conversations with students are never without risk—and arguably should not be.  This blog and the conversation with colleagues to follow attempt to investigate what faculty can do to turn potentially harmful outbursts into ‘teachable moments’ for the whole class without damaging any student in the class.  

Of course, context matters: what you teach, who your students are, your own background all play into how conversations will play out in your classroom. We can only talk generically about such moments in a blog. So our first advice is don’t go it alone: get advice from faculty colleagues or from the folks at CIEL who can suggest ideas for your particular situation so that you can move forward with your class in a safe, responsive and nurturing way. 

We teach as much by what we do, value and prioritize in the learning environments we create as by the information we impart.
Our students may come away with a head full of facts about chemistry or economics. But they may also have learned more enduring lessons: that no one cares about them individually. Or that what matters most is the ability to out-argue others, rather than to really listen in an effort to try and understand one another. Or that no one seems equipped to deal with tough topics, so they never get dealt with.  If we want to develop students and citizens with a capacity to learn we need to help them develop connections between the course material, each other, and the real issues in their personal and civic lives…

Bettina Kipp, Start Talking

Prepare Yourself and Your Students

Preparing Yourself

The first step toward addressing difficult conversation lies in preparing yourself for them ahead of time. Practice thinking through potentially difficult classroom situations before they happen, then imagine how you might address them if you had all the time in the world to think about it.  

Note that it is extremely difficult to identify biases we ourselves hold and they can rear their heads when we are in an emotionally charged moment in class.  When you are imagining ahead of time what kinds of ideas and thoughts students may bring to the classroom, reflect on how you personally feel about such ideas. Doing this can help you plan ways of responding more calmly and effectively when your buttons are pushed in real time. 

Preparing Your Students

The best way to forestall damage from difficult conversations is to start your course with students setting the rules for classroom conduct. On the first or second day of the class, tell your students that there will be lively discussions in class. Then ask them to think in small groups about how everyone should behave in a discussion.  You will find that they come up with very similar kinds of rules as you would like.  The beauty of it is that they came up with them, and so they do not feel ‘imposed’ but more like community norms that they have had a hand in designing.

The process for creating a classroom contract for respectful behaviour can look like this:  

5 students with colored pencils huddled around a table writing ideas on poster paper.
  • Collect what the groups have said. You can do this on a board, on posters, in an online clipboard app—whatever tool helps you get a good sense of what students are thinking and makes it visible to the whole class. 
  • Discuss the list with the whole class: which rules are the most important?  Winnow it down to a manageable number of topics.  Take notes of the conversation (or ask a student to do so)
  • Discuss what the emerging rules actually mean.  Students might say “treat people with respect”. That’s great, but what does that actually look like?  Does it mean to come to class prepared? To listen? To get the quiet people to speak up? To avoid personal comments in discussion? Get the class to help define their terms.
  • Write all this up as a classroom contract: take all of your notes home, write the rules up yourself, and put them back to the students for review and revision.
  • Post the final result somewhere students will see. VIULearn is a great place to do that. 

The value of this process is that students now ‘own’ the rules of the classroom. As long as the teacher imposes the rules, students perceive that the teacher has to intervene in all instances.  With community defined rules in place, students have a tool to talk with peers who are not following those rules: they now see their own responsibility in reminding their peers of the rules of conduct. 

During the Difficult Conversation

It’s important not to shut down a student who has made an ill-advised comment because doing that can make them pull back and entrench them in a perspective that may not be useful for safe discussions. 

The faculty we know wish to have open, constructive conversations in class about critical topics that matter in the world. Constructively critical discussions take into account differing perspectives, explore the best evidence, and identify areas where there is legitimate room to disagree. 

One of our strongest convictions about discussion is that students learn to speak in critical and democratic ways by watching people in positions of power and authority model these processes in their own lives.

Brookfield & Preskill, Discussion as a Way of Teaching

Faculty who engage in constructive discussions take students’ perspectives seriously, explore them critically, and attend to the well-being of each student, all at the same time.  Faculty who pull this off give students valuable tools for difficult conversations for the rest of their lives.

A blue and red hand are shaking. Where their hands and fingers meet the hands change to a purple color. The hands have words such as welcome, cooperate, merge, connect, respect, relate to, communicate written all over.

So what does a constructively critical conversation look like? Below is a process that can help you begin to think about how you might model these skills for your students.

Show Your Own Vulnerability

The first—and sometimes the hardest—thing to do is to show your own vulnerability as a teacher.  If you feel uncomfortable with a comment that has been made in class, or see that other students are responding to a comment that has made them uncomfortable, it’s time to name the feeling you are having and explain your discomfort.  Naming your own feelings about what is happening humanizes you so you can be seen as a conversation partner, not an authority figure. You can say something like: “Ok, I’m feeling a bit uncomfortable here, and I’m wondering if others feel the same way.  I’m uncertain exactly how to move forward: I’m concerned that your statement might be taken in ways you may not have meant and it could feel hurtful to some people.” Stating your concern in ways that does not call out the student who made the comment but instead points out the potential damage it might do may help the student realize the import of their words.  It also signals your solidarity with the students who have or might take offense before anyone jumps in to argue back and create an explosion. You have set a calm standard for the conversation by taking this approach.

Slow things down, explicitly take the debate seriously

When something emotional happens in the classroom, the best thing is to find a way to slow down so you can address the issue carefully.  You could say something like: “Let’s take a bit of a break here.  I see that this topic has raised a lot of issues and I see that we’re hearing some strong opinions. But I’m concerned that we’re not taking the time to examine everyone’s ideas during our discussions. Let’s take this one step at a time: I’d like each of you to take out a sheet of paper and take 3 minutes to write down what you think is happening here, and how we might move forward as a class in this discussion.” 

Now you have given yourself time to think of key questions to ask during the ensuing discussion that allows students to have their say.  Once students have taken the time to write (and possibly cool down) you can facilitate a discussion about what has just happened. Make sure students don’t just complain, but that they are explaining what they think happened in ways that do not point fingers or lay blame. 

Reserve the ‘how we might move forward for later in the discussion” for later (see below). 

Restate the issue

You want to make sure students feel heard, so now restate the issue in ways that do not repeat the hurtful comment. You might say something like: “Sarah has been saying (state Sarah’s issue). My understanding of what Sheila was saying is (state the idea behind the hurtful comment in the most positive well-intentioned way possible).  So you can see that people don’t always agree on things that seem really evident to others. How can that be?”  

Give new information

The question you just asked opens the door to a brief lecture that lays out the actual facts of whatever the students are disagreeing about. Or it might emphasize the complexity of the issue that can lead to different opinions. The point is that your expertise in the field is now called upon to answer the question “how can we legitimately disagree on this?”  Your answer might be that it’s a grey area, or that many people don’t have the facts and here they are.  If it’s a question of facts and evidence, you might end the short lecture with a statement something like: “So while it may look at first as if (restate Sheila’s imperfect grasp of the facts without mentioning Sheila), the reality is actually quite different.” 

Reiterate the rules of conduct

Make sure to point students back to the class conduct contract.  You might say something like “I want to get back to the conversation we all heard a moment ago: When we’re talking about controversial topics, it’s OK if the conversation gets energetic. But we should all be remembering our class rules of engagement for discussion: careful listening, asking questions to learn more from one another, and no name-calling were key things we agreed on.  Let’s make sure we continue to abide by these rules, even if we’re feeling a little emotional.”

Involve the students in the solution: 

Ask students what they wrote down about how the class should move forward. Maybe say something like: “Now that you’ve had a chance to think about it, did anyone see additional ways that we can move forward with today’s discussion?”  Take notes of what students say. Once you have a set of ideas for moving forward, let the students know you will take all this advice into consideration for future classes.    If, after this discussion, you’re not sure what next steps to take, say something like “These are interesting and good ideas. I’ll be looking for some additional resources that will help us ground this discussion for our next class.”  Then look for those resources and plan to present them at the beginning of the next class, taking care to use the best suggestions from the students.  

The image shows a profile outline of two faces facing each other. Words such as listen, open, thank, welcome, invite are written on the black outline of the faces.

After the Difficult Conversation

Make sure you don’t try to handle everything on your own.  Colleagues and folks at CIEL may have good ideas for you. 

Check with Colleagues

Ask your colleagues what additional readings you could assign to give a clearer picture of the reality of the situation, how you might begin the next class period, and what you might say to the students involved when they are invited to your office.  

Check with Students

In an email, separately invite the students who were central in the heated discussion to discuss the incident with you. Listen carefully and support each where you can.  Make suggestions for future discussions in class and explain how you will ensure a space for constructive disagreement.

Context Matters

Some of what is contained here may not fit your style of teaching. Or it may be difficult to see how you would do this in your discipline. You might have concerns particular to your teaching context that are not addressed here. In this case, contact CIEL at learnsupport@viu.ca for a one-on-one conversation about your concerns.

Want to Learn More?

Check out these additional resources:

And, as always, we encourage you to contact us for a conversation about this or any other teaching and learning topic.