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How to Facilitate Difficult Conversations in the Classroom

Last week I attended an online webinar about social safety and how to deal with anxieties in the classroom organised by ‘School and Safety. Since the development of the war between Ukraine and Russia and Israel en Hamas tutors are encountering difficult conversations in the classroom.  Minister Dijkgraaf visited Leiden University in November to discuss this topic. Since the war’s outbreak, managing classroom tensions has become a pressing issue. Teachers grapple with questions like how to engage in difficult conversations about the conflict and whether to reveal their personal position.

 

The aim of conversations in class about the Israel-Hamas conflict should not be to debate or find a simple truth, but rather to learn from each other about maintaining dialogue on sensitive topics. It’s not about determining who’s right or most angry; instead, the focus is on having democratic discussions where all narratives are heard. Such conversations are important and align with schools’ mission to prepare students for societal challenges. Interestingly, the webinar noted that schools might be one of the few places where students encounter diverse perspectives. Post-school professional environments tend to be more homogeneous.

 

Facilitating these difficult conversations requires from tutors to adopt a ‘meta-position’ and to feel comfortable in allowing space for emotions and anger among students. Tutors need to accommodate raw emotions and transcend mere opinions, but also add knowledge to the conversation. Prior knowledge of the group aids in navigating these conversations.

 

One of the challenges for tutors is to remain neutral. To park their own position and to focus on diverse student stories. Attention in these conversation easily leans towards the more extroverted students. Minority students are more likely to speak up with teachers who are approachable and offer equal opportunities. Building the necessary trust for these conversations takes time, and regular practice of these type of conversation to strengthen relationships.  Additionally, it’s possible to practice transfer conversations. These are discussions about similar complex challenges that don’t affect us as directly but share the same characteristics. By avoiding strong emotions, more thoughtful consideration is possible, and people become more receptive to others. In this way, students can gradually learn to regulate their emotions and manage conflicts.

 

The webinar also advised on handling unexpected discussions when teachers are less familiar with students:

  1. Start by establishing safety agreements prior to the conversation. “How do we want this conversation to be?”
  2. Avoid jumping into emotional content; begin with facts and encourage knowledge sharing without dictating it. “What do we know about this topic that we can all agree on?”
  3. Explore opinions beyond the main for-and-against views. “Which perspectives have we not yet heard in this room?”
  4. Request explanations for each opinion. “can you explain why you believe that?”
  5. Use a meta-perspective to reflect on listening experiences when opinions differ: “what have we learned?”

 

Addressing inappropriate remarks (e.g., racist comments) during the conversation involves clarifying the limits of free speech without shutting down the conversation. Tutors should norm what’s acceptable. At the same time, there is a reason for this use of language. A follow-up question shows that you are open to the message: “Apparently, you have something very important to say; can you elaborate on that?”

 

Finally, the webinar emphasized team dynamics among colleagues. Regular check-ins and acknowledging emotions within teams are crucial. Recognizing the emotional impact of educational work and learning to manage these emotions, especially in a pedagogical context, is essential. Tutors must also establish personal boundaries and space, a prerequisite to effectively supporting others. The recurring theme within the context of social safety to me is the importance of self-care to be fully present for others.

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