How to Have Difficult Conversations in the Classroom

Martin Luther King Jr. day falls on Monday, January 21st this year. I have lived in Charlottesville, Virginia for the last four years, and based on my experiences here, I have come to believe one of the best ways to honor his legacy is to keep having conversations, no matter how difficult. As Dr. King said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

For us teachers this means having difficult conversations in the classroom with our students. But many teachers are scared to take on controversial topics for many reasons. They fear the conversation will get out of hand, or on the flip side, that students won’t participate meaningfully. They worry they will get in trouble with parents who don’t want other adults influencing their children’s views on certain topics. This leads many teachers to avoid tough discussions altogether. But when we do this we lose an opportunity to 1) learn more about our students and for them to learn more about each other; 2) help students become more informed citizens; 3) model active listening and questioning techniques to help students learn respectful ways to communicate, especially when they don’t agree with someone: a skill that is sorely lacking in our country right now.

Luckily, there are good resources out there to provide direction for when and how to facilitate such discussions with students.

When to Discuss

First, if you want students to be able to meaningfully discuss, they need to have enough background information on the topic. Often if doesn’t make sense to discuss until they have completed some research on the topic first, being mindful not to look at biased opinions, but instead refer to verified facts.

Furthermore, if you want to discuss an emotional topic, such as something tragic that has happened, it may NOT be best to discuss right after the event. Often we need time to digest what has happened and learn the facts of the situation before we are ready to talk. I found this out the hard way in the weeks after August 12, 2017 when white supremacist groups rallied here in Charlottesville, resulting in clashes with counter-protesters, multiple injuries and the death of Heather Heyer.

I tried to lead a discussion in my English class, which was comprised of half African American and half White students, about a month after the event. I used an article from the New York Times Upfront magazine as a primer for the discussion. The article provided multiple perspectives on the removal of confederate statues, referencing what happened in Charlottesville. I also set ground rules for how we should talk to one another (there’s more on setting rules to come). It still went very wrong, to the point where I had to quickly end the conversation because students were not being respectful to each other. I then had to follow up with individual conversations with students. It was, in all honesty, a big mess.

My discussion failed for several reasons. First, I was relatively new to Charlottesville, having only lived in the city for two years, and did not fully understand the painful past that existed for African Americans in the city. I also didn’t fully understand how my own White privilege clouded my ability to clearly comprehend the significance of the removal of the Confederate statue at the heart of the rally. Most importantly, my students’ feelings were so raw, they were not ready to rationally discuss with each other. A year and a half later, we are still having difficult conversations around this event in Charlottesville and hopefully will continue to do so for years to come.

How to Discuss

One excellent resource for how to have meaningful discussions is Difficult Conversations by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen. The authors of the book stress that we must make the purpose of the conversation clear from the start. Is the goal to learn about a different perspective? Is it to learn more about each other? Is it to find solutions to a problem? Be specific with students before the conversation happens.

Also, if it is an especially controversial topic, it may be best to let parents know ahead of time that you will be having the conversation and explain your goal. Let parents know you are open to answering any questions they may have and allow students to opt out of the conversation if their parents really aren’t comfortable with them participating.

Another great resource is from Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching, which stresses the need to also set ground rules before the conversation begins. Some examples of ground rules they provide are

  • Always use a respectful tone.
  • No interrupting or yelling.
  • No name-calling or other character attacks.
  • Ask questions when you do not understand; do not assume you know what others are thinking.
  • Maintain confidentiality (what is said in the classroom stays in the classroom.)

This resource also points out that once the conversation begins, it is important to model active listening and provide students with questions to ask. For example, if you want to know more about why a person feels the way they do you can ask “Can you tell me more about why you think that?” or “What has led you to believe that?” If you want to check to make sure you correctly understood a person you can ask “So what I’m hearing you say is ____. Is that correct?” Finally, if you disagree with someone, you can respectfully voice your opinion by asking “Do you mind if I offer another perspective? or by saying, “I now understand why you feel that way, but my experience has led me to believe ____ instead.”

If the conversation gets heated, the Derek Bok Center at Harvard is a final, valuable resource that suggests you pause and reflect, stating “You can offer everyone some time to think, write, or even leave the room for a bit.” They also say to stay calm and “…observe your own reactions to what is happening. Try to distinguish between what you are experiencing, what is actually being said or done…” This sounds easier to do than it actually is, but it can be improved with practice. Also, it’s important to allow students to give feedback on how they feel the discussion went. This could happen in an informal exit ticket or a formal survey.

There is a blog by Glennon Doyle Melton called Momastery that I have been following for years. On July 18, 2013  she wrote a blog called You Don’t Have to Agree with Me to Love Me. In it, she writes about the need to be willing to listen to each other if we ever want to find peace. She writes “I’m really not sure that peace is something we can fight each other for. I’m afraid it might be something we have to shut up a little for.” If by facilitating difficult conversations we teach our students to “shut up a little,” to really hear things from each other’s perspectives, and in doing so maybe find some common ground, I think that would definitely honor Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy.

Megan PanekCo-Owner, Pampered Teacher


Megan Panek is a secondary Language Arts teacher and instructional coach. She currently teaches and coaches at a career and technical education (CTE) center in Virginia and believes in CTE with all her heart. She considers herself a life-long learner and is always looking to improve her craft.”

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