Hot Moments in the Classroom

No matter how hard we try to guarantee that our classrooms are places in which all students feel welcome and appreciated, there is always a possibility that a discussion—particularly if it treats a sensitive or controversial topic, or touches in some way upon the identity of the students in the room—could give rise to a "hot moment," in which a student (or group of students) says or does something that threatens to rupture the social fabric you have worked to create.

As an instructor, you have a duty to respond to a hot moment and do what you can to restore the fabric of your classroom.

A Protocol for Handling Hot Moments

originally developed by Lee Warren

While there is no single "right" response to a hot moment, rehearsing the following four steps can prepare you to react to a disruptive moment in a way that feels intentional and demonstrates care for your students.

  1. Attend to your own response. We often forget that in a hot moment  a primary task is to find ways to manage ourselves in the midst of confusion. This means:
    • Hold Steady. If you can hold steady and not be visibly rattled by the hot moment, the students will be better able to steady themselves as well and even learn something from the moment. Your behavior provides a holding environment for the students. They can feel safe when you appear to be in control; this enables them to explore the issues. Your behavior also provides a model for the students.
    • Breathe deeply. Take a moment. Collect yourself. Take time if you need it. Silence is useful -- if you can show that you are comfortable with it. A pause will also permit students to reflect on the issues raised. Deep breathing is an ancient and highly effective technique for calming adrenaline rushes and restoring one's capacity to think.
    • Don't personalize remarks. Don't take remarks personally, even when they come as personal attacks. Such attacks are most likely made against you in your role as teacher or authority figure. Remembering to separate self from role can enable you to see what a student is saying more clearly and to actually discuss the issue. It's not about you. It's about the student and his or her feelings and thoughts, though often articulated clumsily and from an as yet unthought through position. Don't let yourself get caught up in a personal reaction to the individual who has made some unpleasant remark. It's easy to want to tear into a student who is personally offensive to you. To do so is to fail to see what that student and his or her ideas represent in the classroom and in the larger world. If you take the remarks personally, chances are you will not be able to find what there is to learn from them.
    • Know yourself. Know your biases, know what will push your buttons and what will cause your mind to stop. Every one of us has areas in which we are vulnerable to strong feelings. Knowing what those areas are in advance can diminish the element of surprise. This self-knowledge can enable you to devise in advance strategies for managing yourself and the class when such a moment arises. You will have thought about what you need to do in order to enable your mind to work again. 
  2. Understand the situation. It is possible that, in the heat of the moment, a student has spoken poorly, or you have failed to hear what he or she has said. Your students may be in the same situation, wondering whether they've heard and understood correctly or not It's important, as you consider your response, to make sure that your understanding of the situation is both accurate (insofar as that is possible) and sensitive to the multiple different perspectives from which your students might have perceived the possible rupture. If it seems possible in the moment, you may wish to follow up with the student who has made the comment in question. You might try reflecting back the comment or its logical implications as neutrally as possible—not as an accusation, but to allow the student to clarify his or her meaning.
  3. Deliver a short-term response. Though it may seem daunting in the moment, you have an obligation to respond to the problematic comment or situation quickly and as clearly as possible. It's important, when doing so, to try to separate as much as possible the offending speech act from the speaker, and make it clear that the offensive act is unwelcome in your classroom without condemning the student per se. As noted above, the dynamics at play in a conversation of 15 people with many different perspectives is complicated, and you should not presume to know why or how a particular student came to make a hurtful comment. Perhaps the students did not understand why such a comment could be offensive. It is your job to try to make your classroom a place that is optimized for learning, and this generally requires reducing tension and keeping all students engaged.
  4. Consider your long-term options. While you have a duty to respond to hot moments when they happen, the words you say and/or actions you take in the moment needn't be your only response. Depending on the precise nature of the moment, it might be a good idea to meet the student(s) who precipitated the hot moment outside of class, to explain more fully why the moment was problematic. It's possible that a student who has made an unintentionally hurtful comment will feel harm him- or herself. Likewise, you may wish to check in with any students who felt harmed by the hot moment. Is there anything that you as the instructor can do to make sure that they don't feel singled out or unwelcome in the class?

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