Teaching Opinion

Being a Teacher Means Talking About Sensitive Social Issues. Here’s How

You can set the stage for conversations that benefit all students
By Laura Brady, Stephanie A. Fryberg, Hazel Rose Markus, Camilla Mutoni Griffiths, Jenny Yang, Perla Rodriguez & Laura Mannen-Martínez — February 09, 2021 5 min read
A female teacher contemplates what her students are talking about
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Editor’s note: This is the final essay in a series about using cultural knowledge to improve education drawn from the work of researchers and practitioners in the Forest Grove, Ore., school district. Read other essays in the series and find out more about the district.
How do you explain to students why a violent mob attacked the Capitol? What do you say about false claims that the presidential election was “stolen”? Where do you begin to address the relentless high-profile police killings of Black and brown Americans?

Teaching in the 21st century means contending with difficult topics. Yet many teachers shy away from discussing politically or socially sensitive issues in the classroom. They believe students are too young, fear parent pushback, or simply feel ill-equipped to lead the discussions. Virtual classrooms can create even more barriers, making it difficult for teachers to “read the room” and connect with students.

In a June 2020 survey of teachers in the Forest Grove, Ore., school district, where our team has been working, only 38 percent reported that they discussed recent high-profile cases of police violence and the resulting mass protests, many of which occurred in nearby Portland. Teachers largely avoided these discussions because they were too difficult to have virtually (32 percent) or teachers felt unprepared to lead them (31 percent).

Yet students of all ages have questions about recent distressing events. These questions will not go away if teachers ignore them. In fact, not addressing difficult topics like race and inequality can be detrimental to student development, learning, and society in general.

When teachers ignore racial and cultural differences or deny the existence of inequality, research shows that students belonging to racial or cultural minority groups often struggle to focus and question whether they belong in school. Turning a blind eye to socially significant differences can also undermine the development of critical-thinking skills, decrease sensitivity to discrimination, cramp cross-racial and cross-cultural friendships, and lead white students to minimize the role of race in society. Together, this research suggests that “colorblind” educational approaches can fuel existing inequalities.

In contrast, having conversations about race and other difficult topics bolsters academic and social development. For students of color, race- and culture-conscious conversations can support positive racial or ethnic identification and foster identity safety—the belief that they belong and can be successful in school.

Even with these benefits, teachers’ concerns about initiating difficult conversations are real and often warranted. Discussions that go the wrong way can make students feel singled out or stereotyped and exacerbate racial and cultural divisions.

Last October, our group led a workshop for the Forest Grove District Equity Team to help educators successfully address sensitive current events in the classroom. We focused on the barriers to difficult but important conversations and how to overcome these.

Barrier 1: Teachers feel unprepared for the task

Some teachers fear they don’t know enough about the issues or how to guide students through a discussion. Forest Grove teachers offer these recommendations:

  • Learn the facts about hot-button issues and consult multiple sources to understand the different perspectives students are likely to hear.
  • Frame difficult discussions as learning experiences and center student voices. You do not have to have all the answers; acknowledge when you are still processing or need to learn more. Help students work together to learn about the issues, process reactions, and develop opinions.
  • Develop go-to strategies for leading difficult conversations; for example, begin by asking students what they know or by giving the class grounding information to spark discussion. Connect difficult conversations to curriculum. Ask students to apply skills and concepts they learn in class to the issues and allow them to direct their own learning through task boards or similar activities.

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Barrier 2: Classroom norms don’t yet support these conversations

Students are often ready and willing to talk about difficult topics, but teachers have to set the stage for inclusive, productive conversations by making it safe for all students to participate:

  • Establish guidelines for respectful listening and responding.
  • Ensure all students can participate without feeling hypervisible or singled out. For example, allow students to submit anonymous questions and comments.
  • Ask students to speak from their own experiences and not on behalf of their group (for example, speaking for all Black Americans or immigrants).
  • Make room for multiple perspectives. This does not mean allowing hate speech. Rather, it involves helping students understand that different perspectives arise from people’s experiences in relation to the issues. For example, even among recently immigrated families, families that include undocumented immigrants may feel differently about immigration issues from those that include naturalized citizens or permanent residents. Encourage critical thinking and empathy by focusing on the reasons underlying different viewpoints more than the differences themselves.

Barrier 3: Teachers fear negative reactions from families

Sometimes families ask teachers not to discuss sensitive issues with their children, and teachers often anticipate negative reactions from families, a concern that may be heightened because many parents are supervising distance learning. The way teachers engage families can make a difference in how families respond to classroom activities:

  • Build relationships and create identity safety for families. Understanding families and their experiences allows educators to anticipate and address concerns. Moreover, when families have good relationships with teachers, they trust them to help their children process difficult topics.
  • Front-load the conversation. Some families worry that teachers have “an agenda” in discussing sensitive issues. Alleviate these worries by explaining that your goal is to use age-appropriate discussions to help students master the curriculum and develop the critical-thinking skills they need to thrive in a complex and changing society.
  • Get parents involved in the discussion. Ask students to find out what their families think or work with their families to learn about the issue.
  • Share resources with parents. Direct parents to trustworthy sources that they can use to learn about the issue.

Rather than shying away from challenging conversations, teachers have a responsibility to lean in with empathy and provide the support students need to process complex events. With effective planning, teachers can use difficult conversations to enhance learning and help students become engaged citizens.

A version of this article appeared in the February 24, 2021 edition of Education Week as Teaching Means Talking About Socially Sensitive Topics


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