Tools and Strategies for ‘Hot Topics’ – Part 1 of 3



Before Class

Regardless of the discipline in which you teach, undoubtedly you have encountered comments or topics in your classroom that have been opinion-/value- and/or emotion-laden. In those moments perhaps your heart quickened and you felt panicked trying to decide what to do. In this three-part series, we’re going to explore some possible tools and strategies for managing “hot topics” in the classroom.

Whether you have planned to address or discuss a controversial topic in your class, or whether you just know from experience that incendiary comments can emerge with seemingly no provocation, the one advantage you have is that you have time to plan ahead.

Imagine our weather this past couple of weeks. Two weeks ago, I was walking barefoot in a field with my dogs. Last week, I had to pull out my parka and big winter boots. I had boots, coats, hats, and gloves at the ready, even though I didn’t know when winter would first hit. As a result, I was able to be properly dressed, and even though the weather turned lousy, I was warm and reasonably comfortable. We must equally prepare ourselves for how we will manage classroom comments and discussions that warn of, or become ‘stormy.’ Adequately prepared, we will be able to ensure that discussions are safe and constructive learning experiences for everyone in the classroom. And having planned ahead, we will feel confident in our abilities to do so.

The first way you can prepare is to think about your course content and activities. Even before you set foot in the classroom, identify which topics might elicit emotional or confrontational responses from the students. Imagine what strategies you will use. Think about how you feel and what you believe so that you are mindful of your own possible biases. What comments might you anticipate? Where might students lack the knowledge or experience to make informed arguments? How will you prepare these students? Being prepared beforehand significantly lessens the chance that you will feel flustered and unsure what to do when the moment arises.

The second strategy is one that many are familiar with, but few of us actually get around to implementing. Creating guides for conduct on the first day of class establishes the tenor, mutual respect, and civility needed in a safe classroom. Conduct guides co-created with the students are typically most effective, although you may include some non-negotiable items. Some of these might include:

  • Always use a respectful tone.
  • No interrupting or yelling.
  • No name-calling or other character attacks.
  • Ask questions when you do not understand; do not assume you know what others are thinking.
  • Try to see the issue from the other person’s perspective before stating your opinion.
  • Maintain confidentiality (what is said in the classroom stays in the classroom.)

(The above is borrowed from Vanderbilt University)

One last thing you can do in advance is to familiarize yourself with the ‘in-the-moment’ strategies discussed in Part Two of this series, which includes the “Oops and Ouch” strategy. Watch for it next week.

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