Responding to Insensitive Student Comments

By Liana Loewus — August 30, 2012 1 min read
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In a thought-provoking post, middle school teacher and writer Heather Wolpert-Gawron describes her approach to answering a weighty and potentially offensive question from a student. It’s a technique that some teachers will be eager to adopt, while others, I’ve no doubt, will find morally objectionable.

After explaining to her class that she’d be absent for the Jewish holidays, a student raised his hand and asked his teacher, with all sincerity, if she had horns. She replied that she did not, and he continued, “So, if you’re Jewish, does that mean you’re going to hell?”

Wolpert-Gawron writes:

So I thought about my goal as a teacher to create independent learners and thinkers, and I responded the only way I could. I said, "I'll let you decide that, Eduardo." He crossed his arms, nodded at me thoughtfully and ... [w]e continued on our merry way.

The story hit close to home for me. As a teacher in Phoenix, I had many discussions about my faith with my students, the majority of whom had never met a Jew before. But none of those conversations were quite so provocative as this one. And while I understand Wolpert-Gawron’s effort to be sensitive to students’ socialization and push them to think for themselves, if that had happened in my room I’m not sure I could have let that teachable moment go. Wolpert-Gawron explains her reasoning:

Being a teacher isn't about blowing a kid's beliefs out of the water by pretending my opinion is the authority opinion in the room. Being a teacher is about guiding them to find their own answers in as unbiased a way as possible.

But I have to ask: How would Wolpert-Gawron have responded if the student had directed that question—even out of genuine curiosity—to a classmate who was gay? Or someone for whom the inconsiderate remark might have caused emotional damage? Would her laissez-faire policy have applied there as well?

In the case of Eduardo, Wolpert-Gawron’s approach worked out for the best (the ending to the story is almost too perfect). But I wonder if teachers wouldn’t want to think carefully about their own classrooms before adopting it wholesale.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.