At some point as a teacher, you’ll be faced with conversations that need to be dealt with carefully. You may have prepared a stand for success which is great. But how do you deal with uncomfortable topics without causing disagreement or making students angry, hurt, and upset?
As an educator, you want your students to be able to handle sensitive topics that are centered on good values. This is a critical part of learning as you need to discern the sort of impact it may have on the dynamics of the class.
The suggestions below emphasize pre-planned discussions, but you can apply the techniques to issues that may just crop up out of the blue.
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How Do You Deal with Uncomfortable Topics in the Classroom
1) Set Clear Goals Why You Are Discussing the Topic
Begin things by making it clear why you are having a dialogue. Emphasize what learning outcomes you expect including proper bearing and responding. When things go beyond the reef of your objectives, be ready to bring back the discussion to your goal.
Students may be resistant and persist in their own actions. Leading with a clear purpose allows you to appraise the discussion with corrective contexts. A clear goal will set everyone’s focus back to the safety brink where they will see and understand the value of a good argument.
2) Expect Different Strong Viewpoints
In most cases, students’ viewpoints are related to their personal behavioral traits, influences from family and community, spiritual beliefs, and life experiences. So it’s not possible that some may strongly dwell on their opinions even when such things are not objectively true.
Encourage the class to think and weigh deeper origins. Considering each other’s stand helps recognize that each person has the right to his or her opinions and that each deserves respect for that perspective.
When students learn the need to be understood, they will also learn to treat others the way they want to be treated. Even when disapproval springs up, they will adhere to keeping the comments on the topic, and off of their classmates.
3) Facilitate Civilly with Empathy
A good facilitator has the ability to create meaningful conversations even if the topic is not comfortable. The reason for such discussions is to talk about what truly matters. What’s the point of discourse if the talk does not encourage other ideas and interaction with other people?
Inspire your class to voice out, listen to the perspective of others, and acknowledge the differences. Even if conversations do not go smoothly, which is expected, you are able to work together as a class.
It may take some practice to master leading discussions with uncomfortable topics. You don’t even need to do it perfectly as long as you stick to the rules and have everybody tread the delicate line with compassion.
4) Be Ready with High Emotions
Handling emotional students can be demanding as your role is to ease the anger or commotion. The topic you are discussing may even arise more sensitive issues during the discussion.
Do not take the angry students’ words personally, but create a safe setting instead. Explain that life faces many circumstances and a good way to think through is to turn the situation into a learning experience.
Help the student/s to regain calmness as you direct them to be aware of their feelings. If you have ground rules for heated moments, it can remind them of those agreements, help them slow down, compose back, and return to your common base.
5) Avoid Sarcasm & Reprimanding
There’s no need to resort to using reprimands to stop disruptive behavior, particularly in the middle of a sensitive discussion. Reprimands prove less effective and only decrease performance levels. If you entertain even a bit of a reproving response, things might escalate and challenge you to overreact.
“Stop that!” “Why are you like that?” “Can’t you understand?” These are examples of feedback that indirectly hurts and decreases a student’s worth. It might be a matter of just rephrasing the comment into something positive. Belittling students is never OK.
6) Make Sure Everything is Okay
Even without dominating, relating, and intervening, you can use powerful ways to respond. Provide a safe and structured setting by leading to pay full attention to each student speaking and allow each the opportunity to articulate opinions.
Pay attention to body language. Students are good at showing what they exactly are feeling. When someone starts to show defensiveness, anger, withdrawal, or any sudden change in behavior, quickly make sure that everything is OK. This shows that you are open to multiple takes which means more learning on their part.
7) Summarize and Thank the Class After
Students hearing their teacher thanking them for participating in the activity engages them more. They would be looking forward to discussing another tough issue that matters in life.
Don’t forget to synthesize key insights to help your class summarize findings and clarify underlying pressures. Ask them what they learned and how they felt about the topic. Questions like these will help your class reflect especially on ideas they do not agree with.
It’s normal to feel skeptical about discussing sensitive topics in the classroom. Imagine the different beliefs that must be subdued. But if you have both the entry and exit strategies, you will not only achieve agreement at the end of the discussion but broaden everyone’s thinking.
Uncomfortable issues help students learn to think reasonably, and your ability to neutralize the situation is essential for their personal and professional growth.
Lastly, if you want to include controversial topics, you must always be ready to plan, anticipate, and prepare for difficult and emotional discussions. Remember, your role is to facilitate a comprehensive exchange of opinions so make it clear right from the start.
What about you? How do you deal with uncomfortable topics in the classroom? Share them with us in the comments.