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Having Difficult Conversations with Students

Many teachers would acknowledge, if you can inspire students to be engaged in a topic, they are more likely to learn and are often eager to learn more. Depending on the subjects we teach, finding this key to engagement can be challenging. Talk to students about the shows they are watching or the music they listen to and you have little difficulty getting them to engage. Switch the conversation to literary devices or solving equations, and not so much.


As the media is saturated with news and commentary about mass shootings, hate-based violence, wide-spread public protest, terrorist attacks, and vitriolic political debate, regardless of the subject one teaches, and especially for certain age groups, conversation about these events often makes its way into our classrooms. It is easy to see that students have questions about what is going on in the world. They have thoughts they want to share, and their emotions about these events are raw. Regardless of the perspective from which they connect with these topics, many are engaged and ready to talk. In fact, many have a real need to process and reflect with educators and peers.


Yet, when it comes to talking about these topics, which are intimately connected to social justice issues, some teachers avoid having these challenging conversations with students. Sometimes this avoidance comes from a fear of saying the wrong thing or worry about not being able to provide the “right” answer to a difficult question. For teachers who want to make space for these discussions, in the current context of teaching, remote learning raises concerns about recordings or family members listening into discussions. This impacts a teacher's ability to create the trust and privacy necessary for many students to feel open to engaging in these conversations. Other teachers would prefer to focus on the subject they are there to teach and don’t feel that talking about these issues with students is part of the job they ought to be performing in their classroom.


Whose job is it in schools to have these conversations with students?


When it isn’t every teacher’s job, not only are many educators missing out on critical teaching moments, we also risk doing harm by conveying the message to students that these are conversations to be avoided or that they are secondary to our other educational goals.


Often supporting students in these conversations unofficially falls to teachers who students identify as being safe adults to speak with about difficult topics. However, it is problematic when the same few teachers in a school are the primary providers of this kind of support, especially if those teachers are members of marginalized communities in the teaching profession.


The term “cultural taxation”, coined by Amado Padilla (1994), describes the extra labour provided by teachers who represent underrepresented identities within the institutions where they teach. Padilla was writing about post-secondary education and teachers of colour in particular, but the concept of “cultural taxation” or “identity taxation” is a phenomenon that can be found at all levels of education and that applies to teachers from a variety of underrepresented groups in education.


When having difficult conversations with students is work taken up by only some educators, not only is this extra burden of labour taxing on those teachers’ emotions, it also conveys the message that the school community as a whole is not up to the challenge of supporting students as they process how events in the world impact them individually and as members of school, local, national, and global communities.



In Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, Beverly Daniel Tatum (2017) suggests that “You can’t fix what you can’t talk about” (p. 228). And you certainly won’t fix what you don’t talk about.


“Learning how to have these conversations is a necessary part of moving forward as a healthy society.” (Tatum, 2017, p. 228)

This kind of learning should be an integral part of the education we are providing in schools.


Students bring their experiences and feelings with them into every classroom regardless of the subject or a teacher’s inclination to engage. And when students’ thoughts and emotions are focused on unsettling or traumatic events happening in the world beyond the classroom, it is unlikely their attention is going to be effectively focused on the classroom subject without addressing the topics that are at the forefront of their minds. Moreover, avoiding conversations that speak to the impact of these events on our students’ lives can compound feelings of confusion, anger, fear, frustration, isolation, or hopelessness that these events produce or exacerbate.


For teachers who want to talk to students about these challenging topics, how does one address the fear of not getting these conversations “right”? How does one facilitate these discussions without the risk of creating further harm? And how can we address the concern of having these difficult conversations in remote teaching environments?


Next week, Part 2 of “Having Difficult Conversations with Students” will offer tips and resources we have found helpful in facilitating these important discussions.


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