Having challenging conversations with students is normal and completely necessary as an educator. Students, especially those in the secondary education age range, are impacted by political, social, religious, and other challenging topics on a daily basis. With the instant access they have to information revolving around these topics through social media platforms, it’s important as an educator to navigate these conversations in a controlled and safe environment. Easier said than done.. I know.
Like I said in my first blog, my number one priority as an educator was that my students left the classroom better prepared for the real world outside of my classroom, than when they walked in. A huge part of that is being prepared for uncomfortable conversations and situations that are simply inevitable outside of school. Now, more than ever, it feels as though young adults have a major voice when it comes to controversial topics. Our job as educators is to help them find that voice.
After teaching 10th graders for several years, I noted multiple ways to make this process more organized and less intimidating for educators. Here are 7 ways to get comfortable with uncomfortable conversations in your classroom:
1: BUILD MUTUAL TRUST
This, of course, is something you need to establish in your classroom with your students every day. Trust takes time, but having challenging conversations can help. Oftentimes, an unnecessary and harsh boundary is established between teachers and students. This boundary usually makes students feel like they’re not able to discuss certain topics around or with their teachers. Arguably, there’s a fine line. However, in my experience, when you teach your students how to have conversations in a respectful manner, the topic, even when uncomfortable, can be navigated.
On any day, whether having an uncomfortable conversation or not, students' feelings and experiences need to be acknowledged. For me, creating a trusting environment meant being genuine and giving each student the confidence to share, in one way or another, their stories and experiences in my classroom. More on that later.
2: PROVIDE RULES
This is important. Without rules or guidelines, students can’t be held accountable for the way they treat you as their teacher, or their fellow classmates. Rules create order in the classroom and in conversation.
I established classroom rules WITH my students. The benefit of doing it together is that then students can’t complain that rules are unfair, because we agreed on them together. Again, we’re building mutual trust amongst all of us. We made it an activity right at the beginning of the year. Some of the rules I recommend (that deal directly with having uncomfortable conversations) are as follows:
Genuinely and actively listen to others, making them feel heard and understood.
When in disagreement, show respect for opposing viewpoints before defending your perspective.
Avoid any inappropriate language, gestures, and behavior at/ towards others.
3: COME PREPARED
Organization is key in creating a comfortable environment for a not so comfortable conversation. Students need guidance, especially when it comes to organizing their thoughts. Many times, expressing yourself as a student (and even as an adult), can be challenging without prompts and cues.
Ask students pointed questions about the topic in discussion. With that, give them time to think about your question. Some students will be inclined to answer your questions immediately, whereas others might need more time to process and evaluate. The most important aspect of questioning is variation. As educators, we are responsible for providing questions that vary in difficulty and complexity. Higher level questions usually involve application of key points to the real world outside of just their own experiences.
Students, just like teachers, should also plan to come to the conversation prepared. Give students advanced notice about the type of lesson or conversation you intend on having to prepare them for what’s to come. One way I like to do this is by asking students to come with their own questions for the discussion (I like to approve the questions before the conversation takes place).
"When you teach your students how to have conversations in a respectful manner, the topic, even when uncomfortable, can be navigated." - Emilia Herman
4: PROVIDE A VARIETY OF SHARING OPPORTUNITIES
Like I said earlier, not every student will be as inclined to participate in the conversation as others. Really, “participation” needs to be evaluated on a variety of scales in order to accommodate each student. Just because a student may not willingly raise his or her hand to share in front of the entire class, doesn’t mean that student doesn’t have something to say.
Make sure you’re providing students with other ways to get involved in the conversation. For example, give students the opportunity to write in a ‘Reflection Journal’ where they can clearly outline their viewpoint on the controversial topic being discussed. With an alternative assignment like this one, provide expectations/ guidelines for the students, so you’re still getting out of them what you’d expect in an oral response during class. And just like with an oral discussion, make sure you provide your students with a response, so that they know you’ve heard their opinions/ viewpoints and that they’re valued.
5: MAKE IT RELATABLE
This was essentially my mantra when it came to teaching in secondary education: make your content relatable! I remember being in high school and dreading the classes I felt like I had nothing to relate to. In 2022, there are infinite resources and ways to make students feel as though they have a personal stake in the information being taught.
I believe every good teacher can find a way to use controversial and relatable topics to educate. For example, I recently started following an account on TikTok called Jubilee. The vision behind Jubilee is “to create a movement of empathy for human good.” From watching several videos, I learned the concept was to bring in a wide range of people (based on background, ethnicity, profession, class, etc.), make a simple yet controversial statement, and see where each person falls in the argument. Everyone has the opportunity to share their perspective. Perhaps not every topic would be relevant or appropriate in the classroom setting, but many of them are. This concept of bringing people together through controversy is fascinating to me. Probably too fascinating for this paragraph and needs a whole new blog on its own. I digress.
My point is, our students are surrounded by controversy on a daily basis. Whether it be on social media, in person at home, or anywhere else, it’s happening. Why not bring that controversy into your classroom, and educate students on how to navigate the conversation?
6: NORMALIZE DISCOMFORT
Having uncomfortable conversations is a part of life. Debating is also a part of life. The most important takeaway from having conversations like this IN class, is being able to have controversial conversations OUTSIDE of class.
Many times, ‘disagreeing’ has a negative connotation, when really, disagreeing is what makes us all unique. Our perspectives come from our culture and experiences, and that should be shared. Those conversations start ideally at home, but also in the classroom. Make it known to your students that when controversial topics come up, it's normal to feel uncomfortable. However, that discomfort shouldn’t prevent us from talking.
7: REQUIRE REFLECTION
Lastly, conversations should always end in reflection. A lot of the time, when having a conversation that’s controversial, it might feel like a lot was left unsaid or that we all could have said more. Give students that opportunity.
Require students to answer, again, pointed questions on their own time about the conversation you had as a group. This gives students the chance to say anything that wasn’t said out loud, as well as reflect on other perspectives that perhaps differed from theirs. Remind students of the rules you established at the beginning, and that those apply in the written reflection the same way they do in the in- person conversation. That continues to establish a respectful relationship both in and out of class.
As educators, it's our responsibility to spend time preparing our students for the world outside of the classroom. The best way to do that, is to be authentic, have challenging yet engaging conversations, and give students the opportunity to form opinions around situations happening in the world around us.