SMJ Back to School Series: Having the Tough Conversations with Students

It seems almost impossible to avoid discussing uncomfortable topics these days, especially with children who have questions about why things are the way they are. As educators, kids look to you to have the answers they (or even their parents or guardians) may not have – and we understand that is a tall task given everything else you’re asked to manage. Here are some tips for navigating tough political, societal and ideological conversations that will more than likely come up during this school year.

Seek To Understand

Being an educator means being as prepared as possible for anything your students may ask or be curious about, because it matters to them. Understanding why your students may have a question about topics like the ongoing pandemic or the banning of books goes a long way in engaging them in healthy and informative discussions. To do this, spend some time researching topics with trusted sources to prepare for when a student has a question or concern about particular topics.

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Find yourself on the same page

You may not completely agree with a student’s opinion, but there are some areas of agreement that you can use to affirm their choices and thought processes. Engage your students in a way that helps them believe that you understand their point of view and demonstrates that you’re not there to take that away from them or influence their beliefs.

Focus on your students’ rights and opportunities

As the world becomes more diverse and open, there are countless points of view, ideals and beliefs that a teacher must navigate when having discussions with students about worldly topics. The key is to be clear that in a diverse classroom, your students can be free to be themselves in all ways. Stifling thought and expression does not help students, or teachers for that matter. Everyone has a right to be heard.

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Have a plan for your discussions

Along with preparation, planning is a critical part of engaging with students on difficult topics. Set aside some time for your students to ask questions about different topics and have them engage in healthy dialogue. It’s important that you as a teacher be an active participant and moderator in these discussions to keep them on track. Also, setting ground rules for politeness and courtesy along with having a cool-down period post-discussion helps students reflect and then move on with the rest of their day.

Be clear and consistent in your messaging

It is important to keep your message consistent with the core values and mission of your school and classroom while having these discussions. In the spirit of diversity, equity and inclusion, no student should leave a discussion feeling as if their concerns weren’t heard, weren’t valid or that they didn’t have a place in the discussion at all. Making sure that the students you are teaching and their parents and guardians made the right decision sending their children there is the most important part of the process.

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