Submitted by William Ridgeway, Laura Simon, and Kelly Cuccolo
Teaching certain types of content, particularly content that might be personally meaningful to students, may spark unexpectedly difficult and personal questions and conversations. The conversations may be focused around race, gender, sexuality, or any element of a students’ personal identity. As such, it is important that before you even step into the classroom, you consider how these topics might resonate with your students and how these conversations will move you closer towards accomplishing your course learning goals.
If having challenging and brave conversations is an important part of how you will accomplish your goals for the course, consider trying to make this clear in the syllabus and setting the tone appropriately on the first day of class - this might look like community building through icebreakers where students get to know each other, and having students taken ownership of what they want discussions to look like.
It may also be beneficial to understand where students might be “coming from” with questions, insensitive comments, or becoming defensive/argumentative. For many, college is a new experience where their previously held beliefs are challenged or turned upside-down for the first time in their life, possibly creating cognitive dissonance. Other students simply may not understand that what they said or did was inappropriate. This is an opportunity for you as the instructor to help scaffold the way they reflect on what was said or done. Not everyone in your classes will be prepared or have the skills to navigate uncomfortable experiences, so it may be your job to help create a space where learning and growth is prioritized (because everyone is human and makes mistakes).
In the moment, when conversations become charged, you might remind students to take a breath and a moment to attempt to understand the other person’s perspective before responding. Another strategy is to have students take a moment to journal or do a quick write about their feelings before continuing with the discussion. For additional strategies, please visit the September GSTA Corner, http://teachpsych.org/GSTA-Corner/10980787
Despite the best possible preparation, you could ever do as an instructor, there will always be unexpected moments, questions, or events that were unavoidable or unanticipated. These events are not a poor reflection of your preparedness, but the very nature of teaching. In the moments where something unexpected happens, take a moment to collect yourself or formulate a response, utilize your training, and proceed with the knowledge you have gained throughout your education. It may be beneficial to reflect following the question or event on what went well or what could have been improved. At the very least, you will get an interesting story out of the experience and it will help you be more prepared in the future.
*All information adapted from: https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/difficult-dialogues/
Some great resources: https://www.carleton.edu/doc/ai-seminars/climate/activities/ https://www.learningforjustice.org/magazine/teaching-while-white