Navigating Difficult Moments in the Classroom

You make a remark that instigates a strong emotional reaction in a student or group of students. A student offers a comment that marginalizes a range of people and perspectives. Someone is wearing a piece of clothing or taking up space in a way that surfaces ideological disagreement. Now what?

While there’s often no single “right” response, as the instructor, how you address difficult moments in the classroom has implications for learning. Your response can communicate indifference or even hostility; alternatively, it can show that you’re aware of your classroom’s dynamics, you aim to promote learning even through struggle, and you care about your students’ well-being. Here are some tips for helping you to respond productively.

  1. Attend to your own reactions. Take a moment to steady yourself. A couple deep breaths can be helpful here. Though it may be challenging, holding steady while navigating a difficult moment can help others feel safe, less reactive, and better able to slow down and explore the dynamics at work in the situation. There are likely many different, complicated responses playing out in the room. What are you feeling? Allow yourself a pause; you can even invite everyone in the room to pause along with you. How are others reacting to what is happening? You can offer everyone some time to think, write, or even leave the room for a bit. Observe your own reactions to what is happening. Try to distinguish between what you are experiencing, what is actually being said or done, and the various possible interpretations of what is happening. There’s a lot going on in this moment! Attending to your reactions is a skill to be practiced.
  2. Understand the situation. It’s possible that, in the heat and complexity of the moment, there has been some misunderstanding. Maybe someone has misspoken or you’ve mistaken their meaning. Others in the room may be in the same situation, wondering whether they've heard and understood a comment correctly, for instance. It's important to make sure that your understanding of the situation is as accurate as possible and sensitive to the different perspectives present in the room. It may be fitting to ask the person or people involved for further explanation or clarification. If the difficult moment was sparked by a comment, you could try repeating back the comment or its logical implications – not as an accusation, but to allow the speaker to clarify their meaning. You might ask: “What makes you say that?” or “Can you say more about what you mean?” Try to discern if there is a learning opportunity here, or perhaps a need for articulating boundaries.
  3. Deepen and nuance your short-term response. You’ve slowed down the situation, attended to your reactions, and asked for further explanation or clarification as needed. As noted above, the dynamics at play in this moment are complex! How can you deepen and nuance your response in the short-term? For one, try and separate the utterance, idea, or action from the person who articulated or performed it. Hold people accountable for what they say and do; also recognize that a single offensive or even harmful act doesn’t reveal the entirety of someone’s character and motives. You can make it clear that a comment or act is unwelcome in the classroom, even while admitting you’re not sure precisely why or how it came about. For another, you might acknowledge the various emotional responses in the room as material that can contribute meaningfully to class discussion. Can these responses reveal something interesting about a concept that is being studied or a method being practiced? This move can both validate the different kinds of responses unfolding for individuals in the room and communicate that lived experience is relevant for classroom learning.
  4. Consider your long-term response. Your short-term response to a difficult moment need not be your only response. Do you think the moment requires follow-up action so that future classes aren’t negatively affected? Would it be helpful to check-in with the class or certain individuals either via email or during the next class meeting? If you perceived harm being done or unease being instigated, you may offer to talk with a student or students after class, over email or in-person. You may also consider how chances for feedback and communication of personal experience might be incorporated in the ongoing class structure. Perhaps invite everyone to write or share exit notes at the end of every class, or maybe you collect feedback at several points throughout the semester. Regular opportunities to articulate one’s experience in a course can do much toward alleviating the pressure placed on any one emotionally intense moment; they also help cultivate a practice of reflection and self-awareness.