This is an edited version of an article originally published on: Al Kingsley

“My nan says gays shouldn’t be allowed to marry”

“My dad reckons there’s too many immigrants now”

“Who did you vote for, Miss?”

“Do you believe in God?”

“Have you ever smoked drugs?”

Dealing with hot-button issues is an inevitability for anyone working in the colourful world of education, but even the most experienced are occasionally caught off-guard. Contentious issues can certainly form part of a structured debate or similarly planned learning activity, but will more typically arise some cloudy Thursday afternoon during an otherwise uneventful lesson on integers.

Whether the teacher seizes every opportunity to stoke a lively debate or inwardly dreads any sentence that begins with “my uncle reckons”, these moments can be formative in a child’s development. Together with subject content delivery, assessment, differentiation, behaviour management and some myriad other duties, negotiating sensitive, awkward and important conversations comes as part of the job.

Recent tragedies in Manchester and London Bridge remind us of the responsibility shouldered by educators everywhere. As students tearfully piled into classrooms, struggling to understand why terrorists would target pop concerts and restaurants, their teachers were left to respond quickly in the face of disturbing news updates and social media speculation.

Advice to educators following the attacks was to allow students to discuss their feelings and stress that attacks are thankfully rare, which is why they attract media attention. Schools were advised to reassure students that school life would continue as normal and consider providing healthy outlets for their distress, like supporting students to organise a fund-raising event for the victims. Above all, teachers were advised to communicate calmly as young people will naturally look to adults for direction.

The way a teacher chooses to approach a delicate or controversial subject in the classroom will largely depend on the context: the age of the students, their relative maturity, background, classroom relationships, time of year, particular subject under discussion and number of students in the class. There is clearly no ‘one size fits all’ but below are six key messages that educators might find helpful.

Create a safe space

A psychologically safe classroom is one where everyone can ask questions and participate without fear of threat. Many find it helpful to outline age appropriate rules at the beginning of the academic year so that students are clear on expectations surrounding behaviour from the outset. Some involve the students in creating class rules and will display them prominently, referring back whenever needed.

Depending on the group, students might need occasional reminders to listen respectfully and refrain from interrupting others. If debate becomes uncomfortably heated, it’s helpful to pause the conversation to remind everyone of the rules and, as always, check for any signs of student discomfort.

Plan proactively

With a bit of forethought, challenging conversations can sometimes be anticipated before they arise. When collaboratively planning a new unit, for instance, consider how students might respond to topics covered and identify potential strategies ahead of time: perhaps an opportunity to incorporate an alternative point of view or activity to foster critical thinking.

Equally important is a willingness to adapt plans if anticipating a tricky discussion with a particular group. For instance, if preparing a learning activity on LGBT rights with a group of year nine boys whose current insult of choice is ‘gay’, it’s helpful to consider your approach in advance.

Model behaviour

Skilled educators model the behaviour expected from their students, particularly when a conversation becomes heated. Teachers, of course, have their own hot-button issues and triggers so it’s useful to be aware of this too.

Listening carefully without interruption, maintaining a calm demeanour and non-defensive body language can go a long way to cultivating a respectful atmosphere. Try to maintain an even tone of voice and thank all students for sharing their point of view.

Open the debate

Introduce new perspectives by inviting guest speakers into the classroom, such as mental health awareness experts, LGBT advocates, community leaders and political party representatives. Teach students to welcome different opinions and encourage questioning.

In a class of 30 plus students, it isn’t always easy to make sure everyone’s voice is heard but discussions dominated by the same few students can become monotonous. Encourage wider participation by opening the debate to any class member who hasn’t spoken or consider experimenting with ‘silent debate’ by asking students to respond to each other in writing. Better still, make use of technology to assign students to online chat groups using NetSupport School so everyone is guaranteed a chance to contribute.

Cultivate Listening Skills

Activities like ‘the goldfish bowl’ are already common in secondary English classes, but it’s always useful to cultivate strong listening skills, regardless of subject area. It’s easy to overlook the quieter students, but make efforts to praise those who listen carefully.

Know your students

Consider in advance whether particular topics might be triggering or otherwise problematic for any of your students and how this might inform your approach. For this reason, many prefer tackling the more challenging topics later in the year when students are better-known and relationships more firmly established. Debate is more likely to intensify when teaching students from completely different backgrounds, but this can often make for the most engaging discussions.

Regardless of your approach, it’s reassuring to remember the advice from Winston’s Wish that a ‘super teacher’ in this context does not exist. Difficult discussions can certainly form the kind of ‘teachable moments’ your students will forever remember, but realistically, we can only do the best we can, with the students we have, in the moment.

Article written by Natalie Nezhati, Educational content consultant for NetSupport Limited.

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