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Having Difficult Conversations with Students (Part II)

Last week we wrote about why some teachers are hesitant to have difficult conversations about current events connected to social justice topics (read Part 1). We also touched upon the reality that providing space for this learning and support for students all too often falls to particular teachers rather than being taken up as a responsibility for all members of the school community.


Meanwhile, between then and now, as the trial for George Floyd's murder continues, we watch as more news unfolds of police shootings and violence impacting communities of colour in the United States and those processing these events from afar. We also hear Jamilah Pitt's (2016) reminder to educators reiterated, that failing to talk about these events in our classrooms sends a clear message to students: "Silence speaks volumes. Our students are listening" ("Don't Say Nothing"). Yet, needing to be informed, sensitive, and intentional in our approach to difficult conversations with students is also imperative: "when addressing these acts of violence, make sure you're aware of students who may be experiencing trauma related to these events" (Learning for Justice, 2021).


We ended our last blog post with a series of questions:


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?



Today, we want to respond to these questions by offering tips and resources that we find helpful in supporting us when having difficult conversations with students and that we have learned through reflecting with other educators.


Setting the Stage

  1. Build relationships with your students by getting to know who is in your classroom. Focusing on understanding our students both in and out of the classroom is key to being able to enter into these brave conversations. Without having strong relationships with our students that are developed in advance, it is unlikely they will feel comfortable wading into conversations about difficult topics with us and each other. Having an awareness of our students’ identities allows us to have greater empathy for their perspectives and feelings, and more informed lens through which to examine the questions and assumptions they may bring into the conversation.

  2. Make time and space for these conversations. When you open the opportunity for discussion, it might be possible that students don’t want to talk or aren’t ready to talk about distressing current events. However, even if students aren’t comfortable having this discussion with you, the fact that you have opened space for these kinds of conversations conveys a significant message that talking about these issues matters and that you are open to these kinds of discussions when students are ready. It also signals to students that they can reach out to you individually to talk if and when they are in need.

  3. As much as possible, be informed about what is happening in the world. Read, watch, or listen to credible news sources about current events as well as informed commentary about how these events are resonating with or affecting different communities. Being informed and thinking about current events from perspectives beyond your own with a lens of anti-oppression at the forefront of your mind will help you feel more prepared to engage with difficult questions, emotionally charged feelings, and problematic responses that might arise in discussion. It will also help you be more aware of how your own conscious and unconscious biases and lived experience shape your understanding and feelings about the same events.

  4. Practice having your own difficult conversations. Affinity groups enable people to practice having these conversations in settings where there is less relationship history along with facilitated prompts that encourage focused reflection on challenging topics (join an affinity group). Difficult conversations don’t just become easier with practice, they become a welcome opportunity to support our students when they are feeling helpless, vulnerable, confused, or angry about the world in which they live and, maybe, they even can help make that same world better.

  5. Enter discussions understanding that systemic oppression joins us in these conversations as well. Create an objective for the discussion that you can articulate to students. Also, plan to talk to them about the power structures and histories that frame any discussion, that influence the biases that we bring to our interpretation of events, who is likely to feel more or less comfortable speaking about what and with whom, and who will be inclined to take up more space in a given conversation.

Navigating the Conversational Space

  1. Establish conversational norms. It is rarely possible for difficult discussions to be safe for all participants, but we can strive to make them safer by setting some ground rules. The resources we have shared below, including TT4C’s conversational norms for affinity group discussions, can help you develop discussion guidelines that are appropriate for your teaching context.

  2. You are likely not a social justice expert, and that’s okay. Practice ways to have discussions with students where you listen and facilitate without having to be the expert in the room. Not only does this open up more space for students to explore their own identities, feelings, and opinions in connection to the topic, it alleviates the fear of needing to be the person with all the answers. There isn’t one right answer to every question when it comes to difficult conversations on emotionally or politically charged issues. We learn so much from our students in all settings, and this is especially true of these conversational spaces. Decentering ourselves as the person with all the knowledge and answers enables authentic and honest sharing, encourages questions, and fosters the ability to continue learning and unlearning together.

  3. Encourage students to speak from the “I” perspective; don’t ask anyone to speak for an entire group; and don’t put anyone on the spot by asking them to contribute when they have not chosen to do so.

  4. Use discussion techniques like serial sharing to allow students to share the discussion space more equitably or think, pair, shares to allow students different ways to participate. Beginning a discussion with a journaling prompt or a free writing activity can offer all students the space for intentional reflection and processing even if they decide not to contribute to the group discussion (a short version of free writing instructions can be found here). Providing opportunities for reflection through writing can also be a safer way in online environments to give students the chance to reflect where they don’t have to worry about being recorded or overheard. In an online context where unmuting to share can be challenging, offering other platforms (Jamboard, Padlet, Mentimeter, etc.) to share thoughts and questions can also help get conversations started or keep them going.

  5. Recognize these discussions as part of the work that needs to be done to address systemic oppression and commit to doing that work by challenging biases, discrimination, and harmful behaviour or language if and when they enter into the discussion. These moments can feel extremely uncomfortable because it can seem like you are not supporting every student in the discussion by equally valuing and validating all opinions and feelings that enter the conversation. However, don't forget that the reason you are having these conversations with students is because they need to process events that are happening because of systemic oppression. It helps no one in the room if the same attitudes and ideas that perpetuated the trauma are allowed to circulate unquestioned and unexamined in the discussion. If this situation arises, ensure you follow up with the students later to check in with how they are feeling and managing. Focusing on nurturing relationships at every stage is critical in this work.

Following Up & Self-Care

  1. Make these conversations part of your teaching practice. Navigating difficult conversations successfully requires trust; students are more likely to develop this trust with you when they see that this discussion isn’t just a one-off, when they believe that you are committed to processing the events that are taking place in our local and global communities with them.

  2. Don’t be afraid to return to a conversation that needs further exploration. Sometimes we leave a discussion with the feeling that it didn’t go well. Perhaps something was said that doesn’t sit right with you or that you feel should have been addressed but wasn’t. Often it takes time and reflection following a discussion to recognize how or why it didn’t go well or what doesn’t feel right about the conversation. If this happens, address this concern honestly with students when you meet again. It’s likely that others in the discussion felt the same and have more to add now that there has been space for everyone to reflect. Perhaps you want to address a comment (yours or a student’s) made in the original discussion that may have been injurious or left some participants feeling vulnerable, unheard, or unseen. Maybe there were important perspectives that were not accounted for in the original discussion that risk reinforcing dominant narratives that sustain systemic oppression. Acknowledging this and doing the work at this later point is crucial in showing students that these moments or omissions in the original discussion did not go unnoticed and have not been sanctioned by silence. Not addressing what didn’t go well can be as or more harmful than what was said in the first place. Modelling the fact that reflection is an essential part of processing challenging events and how we talk about them with others, as well as showing students that there are ways to open lines of communication again if a discussion feels uncomfortable or unresolved is a fundamental lesson in navigating difficult conversations.

  3. Take care of yourself. Challenging conversations, whether as a result of the energy required for the careful facilitation of these discussions or as a consequence of the thoughts and feelings shared by students, take a lot out of you. You are going to need your own community of accomplices who can support you, help you reflect and recharge, and encourage you to remain accountable in your own learning about and commitment to anti-oppression.

The Bigger Picture

So once you feel ready to broach difficult topics with students, or for those of you already having these conversations, how do you encourage your colleagues to do the same? How do we make sure that this work does not disproportionately fall on the laps of a small number of self-motivated educators in any given school?


For you, as an individual, start talking to people in your sphere of influence about the work you are doing in your classroom to support students by having difficult conversations.


Ultimately, if we are really going to have a long-lasting impact collectively, institutional change is required to support the work that individual educators are doing on this front.


  1. Administrators and teachers need to collectively acknowledge the importance of the whole educational community supporting students in this way. As institutions, it is helpful if schools acknowledge through announcements, assemblies, and other communications to students and families the types of events that impact students beyond school as this can function as a conversation opener in the classroom.

  2. Hire for cultural competency, and make sure that those doing the hiring understand what this means and how to recognize interviewees who are really committed to anti-oppression.

  3. Finally, we must hold ourselves, our institutions, and the people who work within them to the same standards we say we expect of newly hired teachers and administrators. When we ask interviewees questions about how they show a commitment to or value for diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice in their teaching practice or leadership style, do we feel confident in what our own response to this question would be? If not, then how are we asking this question in good faith? Are these questions just filing a checklist to attempt to meet anti-oppression goals in education? Moreover, when newly hired educators and administrators enter our institutions, will they see other teachers and leaders modeling this work? Will they be supported by the institution in doing this work themselves?

Now there’s a difficult conversation topic!


Resources for Support & Inspiration

Explore resources to spark and sustain challenging conversations provided by organizations in Canada (Anti Racism Resources assembled by Experiences Canada) and across the boarder at The Program on Intergroup Relations at the University of Michigan, Learning for Justice, and Facing History and Ourselves:

Visit the resources page from the Difficult Dialogues National Resource Center.


Take a look at Talking Together for Change’s Conversational Norms for affinity group discussions:

TT4C Conversational Norms
.pdf
Download PDF • 46KB

Read Jamil Zaki’s thoughts on "Privilege and Racial Justice: How to Have Difficult Conversations with Students" or take a spin around his Empathy Gym.


Be inspired by Natalie Jesionka's article "Social justice education for toddlers: ‘You just need to have those conversations’" and Luvvie Ajayi Jones’s TED Talk "Get Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable".

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