There are times when course material can unexpectedly ignite charged classroom discussions that leave both students and teachers feeling unprepared and overwhelmed. It is incumbent upon instructors to approach these types of discussions with care by creating a classroom atmosphere based on respect, open dialogue, and active engagement. The following guide offers tips and ideas for how to handle those “hot moments,” offensive remarks, or emotionally laden classroom discussions that educators may not be prepared for.
From the very beginning of the course, it is essential to establish a civil classroom culture by setting clear ground rules. Students should be prepared to listen respectfully to the various perspectives of their classmates and refrain from interrupting or making personal attacks. Fear of judgment should have no place in classroom discussions. Laying the foundation for a civil classroom culture will go a long way toward making challenging discussions less stressful and more productive.
Before walking into the classroom, teachers should have a thorough understanding not only of the course material but of tangential issues related to the topics that will be covered in class that day. Instructors should anticipate any potential areas of controversy or sensitivity that might arise from the content. Fielding tough questions and navigating heated discussions is less intimidating for educators who have a solid grasp of the material they are covering.
Teachable moments and opportunities for critical thinking can sometimes be found in the midst of a charged discussion. Students do not necessarily realize that teachers, too, are continually learning and growing. If a heated discussion leads to a change in perspective or understanding, instructors should not hesitate to share that with their students. Modeling how to stay humble and open-minded during a passionate debate sets a powerful example for students to follow.
Instructors should always stay neutral and objective during classroom discussions. Their job is to steer the conversation but avoid pushing their own beliefs onto students. Asking questions and modeling active listening when students express their thoughts allow them to feel heard and clarify their positions. Educators should strive to foster a nonjudgmental classroom where diverse backgrounds and perspectives coexist peacefully – an environment that encourages thoughtful dialogue and values every student’s voice.
Teachers should listen attentively to what students are saying, even if opinions differ from their own and especially if the discussion becomes emotionally charged. Listening and paying close attention when students speak is a subtle, but effective way to demonstrate civil dialogue. Paraphrasing what the students say in their own words allows instructors to confirm their understanding and show they’re actively processing the information. Validating students’ thoughts and ideas will encourage them to continue to engage in classroom discussions.
While open dialogue should be encouraged, there should be boundaries in place to prevent discussions from spiraling into unproductive or offensive territory. If a conversation becomes disrespectful or veers off-topic, teachers should gently redirect the discussion back to the core issues and remind students of the ground rules for respectful communication. Establishing a supportive classroom culture early in the class helps ensure that discussions remain civil and productive.
Demonstrating how to regulate strong emotions during a challenging discussion is another important role of instructors. If students make inflammatory remarks or launch personal attacks, educators should remind them of the rules of respectful discourse and encourage them to take a break and a few deep breaths. When emotions run high, it’s also okay for teachers to give the whole class a break and to take a moment to gather themselves.
Instructors should explain the value of diverse opinions and varied perspectives. The goal is not to make everyone in the class agree on a given issue but rather to have a constructive conversation. Reminding students – frequently – of the importance of active listening is vital. Educators could even role-play how to discuss controversial topics in a constructive manner and how to disagree respectfully. Students are empowered to engage in meaningful discussions when they have been taught the skills to do so by supportive teachers.
Heated discussions can be triggered by topics related to power and privilege. Issues of privilege and marginalization should be approached with sensitivity and by acknowledging the experiences of those affected. Students should be encouraged to think about their own biases and consider viewpoints that contrast with their own. A willingness to challenge one’s own beliefs is essential for constructive discourse.
Once a discussion has concluded, teachers should take the opportunity to debrief with the class. The debriefing should include a summary of the various perspectives that came up during the discussion as well as points of agreement. In the aftermath of an intense discussion, some students may have lingering questions or concerns they don’t feel comfortable raising in the larger group. Instructors should make time to connect with students individually, whether through office hours, email, or private discussions, to provide a space for more personalized conversations. After a challenging classroom discussion, educators should also take some time to privately reflect on what went well and what could be improved.
Course material can spark passionate discussions that teachers may not have anticipated. Navigating emotionally charged classroom discussions can feel scary and overwhelming in the moment but there are ways to turn these unexpected conversations into a positive experience for both students and instructors. In a classroom culture centered around civil discourse even heated discussions can become valuable opportunities for learning and growth.
Dr. Dunja “Dee” Trunk, a professor of psychology at Bloomfield College of Montclair State University, has a passion for teaching and a genuine belief in the transformative power of education.