Advice for Managing Challenging Classroom Conversations

Dr. Sarah Levy

Teachers and administrators at Jewish day schools want their students to be ethical and moral people who care about the world around them. They want them to be thoughtful, think deeply and take action. They want them to be motivated by their learning to make a difference. When cultivating these attributes, however, difficult conversations in the classroom are inevitable, and these difficult conversations can be challenging to manage and facilitate.

In speaking with teachers around the country, I’ve found that these challenges can largely be broken into three major categories: balancing conflicting values, giving students a safe space to share and the opportunity to explore the issues on their own, and determining the role of the teacher’s opinion and view.

Challenge #1: Balancing conflicting values

Most often, what makes a conversation difficult is that at least two important values are in conflict, with no clear resolution. Abortion is a challenging topic, for example, because it pits the value of life against the value of choice. Gun control is controversial because it brings the value of the Second Amendment against communal safety. Tefilah in a non-denominational school is challenging because the value of community may go up against the value of Halachah. One teacher shared, “The problem is, everything is so important to these kids, and they don’t see that most issues in life mean that a compromise has to be made somewhere or something has to be sacrificed in order to get to a resolution. They don’t want to seem like bad people, and sometimes they can’t see both sides, so it’s really hard for them.” None of these values is objectively more important than any other value, and yet we all prioritize these values when determining our stance on these and other issues. Following are some strategies for dealing with these conflicts.

Strategy 1: Identify and name the conflicting values.

Be transparent with your students and help them identify the competing values at play. One teacher explained, “I always help students break down the issues before discussing them. It adds dimension to the conversation, and I find that it includes more of the students because even if they can’t all speak to the specific topic, they can all relate to the values.” By naming the conflicting values, it helps establish that there is no easy or correct answer to the conversation and helps students understand the complexities of the issue.

Strategy 2: Ensure the conversation stays about the values and topic and not the people in the class.

Difficult conversations can very easily turn into personal attacks. In order to avoid this, make clear that the conversation is about the values and the topics and not the specific people involved in the conversation. Do not allow David to be criticized in class for his personal views, for example. Instead, encourage students to analyze David’s argument or to identity which values David is prioritizing. Then students can articulate a counterargument that does not insult David as a person.

Strategy 3: Accept lack of consensus (and work with your students to be okay with it too).

Concluding a conversation without determining the “right” answer is often challenging for students (and teachers), but with many conversations, a conclusion is just not possible. Establish in advance with students that exploring the topic, rather than finding one solution, is the purpose of engaging in the conversation. One teacher suggested, “My students and I have an understanding. At the end of a conversation like this, I’ll say, ‘We’re done,’ and then we all say, ‘for today.’ It helps them to understand that I know we didn’t reach a conclusion, and we all know it will probably never happen, but it helps them to feel acknowledged. It also means I can set a time limit on the conversation without offending anyone.”

Challenge #2: Giving students a safe space in which to share and the opportunity to explore issues on their own

As student-centered learning becomes more prevalent in our classrooms, the role of the teacher is constantly shifting, from “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side.” Still, the teacher plays an important role in setting up the environment of the classroom, facilitating the learning and being accountable for what happens. As one teacher said, “I want to give my students voice and ownership over the conversation, but, at the same time, if they walk out of my classroom thinking slavery is right, I haven’t done my job.” Strategies for this challenge include:

Strategy 1: Set communal norms.

At the beginning of the year when setting expectations with students, make sure to build in discussion about the kinds of conversations you will have in class and what the role of everyone in class is for those conversations. One teacher shared, “I set a ‘Vegas rule,’ so that what happens in our classroom stays in our classroom.” Other teachers have set protocols for challenging conversations, including think/pair/share, or asking students to paraphrase what the last person said before speaking, or asking students to spend half of the time advocating one stance and the other half of the time advocating the opposite. Taking time at the beginning of class to set communal norms and acquaint students with protocols will streamline difficult conversations in the future.

Strategy 2: Base the conversation on sources.

Rather than basing the conversation on what students have heard at home or in the hallways, consider sharing sources with the students to use a springboard for challenging conversations. By providing sources to the students, teachers can control for misinformation and help involve students who are less familiar with the topics and/or less comfortable sharing their own opinions. Using sources as a basis also gives students the opportunity to hone their analysis skills. Alternatively, depending on the time allotted for the conversation, invite students to find their own sources to bring to the conversation.

Strategy 3: Determine your line.

No matter the conversation, it is still your classroom, so you should be the one setting the boundaries and guidelines for the conversation, whether they are articulated to the students or just kept in mind. If organizing a protest is not an option for your school, steer the conversation away from that. If students start to express approval of slavery, ask probing questions to guide the conversation in a more appropriate direction. If the conversation isn’t allowing for all voices to be heard in an authentic way, introduce a protocol to ensure that happens. As one teacher noted, “I am the one held accountable for what happens in my class, so, at the end of the day, I need to be okay with the conversation.”

Challenge #3: Determining the role of the teacher’s opinion and view

For many, this is the greatest challenge when managing a difficult conversation, and teachers have disparate opinions regarding this challenge. One teacher stated, “My opinions are irrelevant; I am merely a facilitator of student opinions.” Another said, “I was hired to be a role model for the students, and the best way I can do that is to clearly articulate what I stand for and why.”

Strategy 1: Be clear about the school’s mission and values.

As a teacher, in most cases, your job is to promote the school’s articulated mission and values. Ensure that you are familiar with any guiding documents the school uses (vision, middot, portrait of a graduate) and ask questions if their meaning is ambiguous. Ultimately, the role of the teacher is to promote and advance the school’s mission, so this is an essential step.

Strategy 2: Consult with administration.

Different schools have different perceptions of the role of the teacher, so make sure you are clear about what the expectations are for you before engaging in any challenging conversation with your students. Is it okay with the administration if students know your perspective on authorship of the Torah or for whom you voted in the last election or your stance on the school’s dress code? If your school prefers that you not share you views with students in this way, it impacts how you manage difficult conversations in the classroom, and you need to be aware of that.

Strategy 3: Consider your goals as a teacher.

Most teachers would say that their top goal in the classroom is to maximize student growth, but ideas vary as to how to accomplish that. Spend some time thinking about what you want for your students in the classroom and how these difficult conversations play a role. Do you aim to give your students a place to explore their questions? Do you want to help students find answers? Do you want to focus on the curriculum and minimize time spent on side conversations?

The way you manage difficult conversations in your classroom should be reflective of those goals. One teacher shared, “I have found that often when students ask me a question, they don’t really want to know my opinion; they just want an opportunity to share their thinking, and my goal is to always give them that kind of opportunity, so whenever students ask me a question, I answer with, ‘What do you think?’ or ‘Why are you asking?’”

Educator Todd Whitaker once said, “The best thing about being a teacher is that it matters. The hardest thing about being a teacher is that it matters every day.” Ultimately, what is most important is for teachers to keep their students’ best interests in mind and consider how to maximize their growth through these conversations.

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HaYidion In These Times Winter 2019
In These Times
Winter 2019