Addressing Critical Current Events and Holding Difficult Conversations in the Classroom

This guide has been adapted with permission from a teaching guide developed by the UCLA Teaching & Learning Center.

Critical current events that evoke feelings of fear, uncertainty, or any sense of harm among those in our community can have significant and adverse impacts on teaching and learning. Research demonstrates that students, instructors, and TAs do not need to be directly involved in a harmful situation to experience anxiety and trauma. Research also shows that students generally appreciate it when their teaching team acknowledges or discusses traumatic events—recognizing that learning happens in the context of lived experiences, both historical and contemporary. How we structure discussions around critical current events matters to both instructor and student well-being.

This guide aims to offer strategies for establishing and sustaining an inclusive learning community that supports students during times of crisis—while simultaneously attending to instructors’ and TAs’ well-being, which involves accounting for how each person’s positionality will shape their instructional choices. 

For a more in-depth resource, please see TLC’s guide to Trauma-Aware and Wellness-Oriented Teaching Practices
Instructional teams may also find it helpful to review UCSC’s Principles of Community, the UCSC Code of Student Conduct, Regents’ Policy 2301 on Course Content, and the UCSC Academic Senate statement on Academic Freedom to understand relevant campus policies around classroom discourse.

1. Pause and Self-Reflect

As educators, it is crucial that we first take time to process our own emotions and reflect on how our own identities and experiences shape the perspectives we hold before taking action to address critical current events with students. Facing History & Ourselves offers the following reflection questions for educators related to historical and current events:

  • What emotions does the event raise for you? What questions are you grappling with?
  • What perspectives will you bring to your reflection on these events with your students? 
  • What emotions might your students bring to your discussion? How can you respond to
  • these emotions?
  • As the situation develops, how will you continue to learn alongside your students?

The Antiracist Discussion Pedagogy Booklet (Chew, Houston, Cooper 2020), a Brave Community approach (De Novais 2019), and UCI’s Pedagogical Wellness Initiative suggest further questions:

  • Have I learned enough to confidently support this conversation?
  • What “grounding” (course content, news and academic sources, facilitation skills) do I have to work with and draw from?
  • How do my own identities intersect with those of my students, and how does this shape how I might approach the topic? 
  • Am I ready to facilitate, rather than dictate, the conversation? (This entails a willingness to be wrong, to listen, to learn from students, and to make mistakes; it also entails using questions and redirects to center student learning.)
  • How will I handle potentially challenging scenarios? (For a list of scenarios, see the Antiracist Discussion Pedagogy Booklet.)
  • How will I practice self- and community-care during the discussion?

If, after working through these questions, you don’t feel able to address the scenario in the moment, consider what you might say to your students to acknowledge your awareness (A) that it needs to be addressed and/or (B) commit to a time in the future when you can make space to talk about it.

2. Acknowledge Current Events

Acknowledgement at the beginning of class can be a small but meaningful way to signal awareness, compassion, and empathy, and to demonstrate a recognition that we are living through difficult times and that some of us are suffering deeply. 

Here is some sample text, crowdsourced from UCLA Faculty Equity Advisors:

  • “I realize that with everything that is currently happening in the world, it is hard to focus on coursework. Thank you for coming to class.”
  • “I understand that people have strong feelings about what’s going on in the world, and it is difficult to continue with business as usual.”
  • “I am hurting and upset with everything that is happening in [location], and I imagine some of you may be feeling similarly.”
  • “We live in a challenging time. I acknowledge the profound emotions many of you are feeling. Know that I am here for anyone who needs support in processing all that is happening. I will listen and do my best to connect you with the appropriate campus resources if the support you need falls outside of what I can offer as your instructor.”
  • “I want to acknowledge the difficulty I am having in processing current events, and I want to create a space for comments and discussion before we delve into our studies.” Note: Before opening up space for discussion, review the considerations below and make a facilitation plan.

3. (Re-)Establish or Strengthen an Inclusive Learning Community that Affirms the Diverse Lived Experiences of Students

Develop or Revisit Community Agreements

Establishing and consistently revisiting community agreements with students can help reinforce expectations for engaged, critical, and equitable discourse during class.

Community agreements can be framed around broad questions:

  • What behaviors, actions, and practices help students feel supported to contribute to a learning space?
  • How can instructors and students demonstrate respect and dignity in the classroom?
  • How can instructors and students collaboratively define and practice confidentiality?
  • How can instructors and students exercise active listening, especially during moments of disagreement? 

Instructors can co-create community agreements with students, or offer a draft of guidelines and then invite students to suggest additions and amendments. Some instructors at UCSC have found that students appreciate adapting and adding to community guidelines that previous students (from a previous iteration of a course) have created. Seeing what peers have developed in the past and adding to a resource for future students can be a meaningful, relevant experience for students and can encourage their own motivation to practice the agreements.

The following resources can support TAs and Instructors with developing and establishing community guidelines:

Especially in times of high stress on campus or in a larger national or global context, the following agreements can be particularly beneficial:

  • We recognize that our own social positionality and lived experiences (our experiences with racialization, gender identity, sexuality, citizenship status, disability, and more) informs each of our perspectives. We aim to reflect on how our experiences and identities shape our contributions to the discussion.
  • We will aim to speak using “I” statements. We will avoid making assumptions and generalizations of other people or groups of people. By using “I,” we will be held accountable for the locations and lived experiences from which we think, speak, and understand.
  • We aim to recognize the difference between comfort and safety, and recognize that productive discomfort is necessary for learning, especially for those members of the group who are not directly impacted by the topics being discussed.
  • We commit to responding to and critically engaging with ideas, which differs from criticizing or making judgments about an individual—their character or identity. While disagreement with ideas, opinions, or arguments is expected and generative towards building discourse, different viewpoints from one’s own do not render someone’s personhood “wrong” or “right.” At the same time, we acknowledge that sharing ideas about peoples’ lived experiences and identities may be experienced as harm.
  • We agree to maintain a “learner’s mindset,” which means: being open to new ways of thinking, and considering how we will integrate new information and feedback we receive during the discussion. Relatedly, we will make space for others to change their minds as they continue to build knowledge. 
  • We respect confidentiality. We consent to sharing our learning beyond the classroom but we agree to keep confidential any information that identifies others or exposes them to potential harm, in person or online.
  • We recognize the difference between intention and impact. We will remember that even if someone did not intend to say or do something hurtful, taking responsibility for the impact of one’s actions and respecting the experiences and feelings of those impacted is critical for relational trust.

It is never too late to establish community agreements; if this is not something you did at the start of the quarter, pause at the start of your next class and let students know you would like to take some time to clarify the expectations you have for one another to help ensure the classroom is a space that fosters deep learning and belonging.

Community agreements work best when they apply to everyone involved in a class, including the instructors and TAs. Agreements can include special responsibilities for facilitators as well. It can be helpful to remember that having one’s ideas challenged by students can be uncomfortable and may trigger defensive responses; being cognizant of our own response patterns ahead of time is crucial.  At the same time, we acknowledge that instructor positionality (and students’ own biases, such as internalized racism and sexism) may shape how students respond to instructors with marginalized identities in the academy. For discussions of instructor identity and classroom interactions, see: “Women of Color in the Academy: Where’s Our Authority in the Classroom?” (Johnson-Bailey & Lee 2005) and  Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia (ed. Gutiérrez y Muhs et al. 2012).

4. (Re-)Calibrate Your Classroom for Critical Discourse

Consider Pedagogical Wellness in Your Course Design and Lesson Plans

Consider elements of trauma awareness and pedagogical wellness you can apply in your course design and lesson plans. These will help you approach lectures and discussions with care and respect for students’ diverse lived experiences while attending to your own well-being and workload. While these practices apply to courses in any discipline, those who teach course content that explicitly addresses conflict, trauma, race and racism, or related topics may find it helpful to incorporate teaching strategies that anticipate the need for flexibility and accessibility while protecting instructor workload and emotional labor, and while mitigating exposure to experiences that might retraumatize both students and instructors. 

It is not necessary to open up space for discussion of emotionally charged current events in every course–and attempting to do so if you do not feel prepared to facilitate the conversation may escalate an already-tense situation, particularly for students and instructors already experiencing stress and trauma associated with the event. An instructor’s social positionality may also influence how students respond to and engage in emotionally charged discussions. This can leave students and instructors vulnerable to microaggressions, biases, and other forms of discrimination at the intersections of race/ethnicity, gender, nationality, religion, language, disability, and more. Strategies such as offering a brief acknowledgment of current events or holding space for private reflection and journaling at the start of class also demonstrate care for students as well as awareness that learning happens in complex social contexts.

Provide Skills and Practice for Student Dialogue 

Use Reflective Journaling

Reflective journaling, used in specific lesson plans or consistently throughout a course, can encourage self-reflection and provide students with time to process information or prepare for discussions. Students can prepare for dialogue by first responding to prompts in their reflection journals, in brief writing exercises that invite them to collect their thoughts before speaking in discussion. Reflection prompts can also be utilized when an instructor or TA wants to create space to process an interaction that occurs in the classroom. These reflections can be ungraded and private to each student, and can be used as important tools for processing learning and for students to gain more insight into their own thought processes and emotional responses to course content and classroom interactions (Chew, Houston, and Cooper 2020). 

Provide or Co-Create Models for Dialogue

Before engaging in classroom dialogue, it can be helpful to remember that students can benefit from models and examples of productive discussion and active listening, learning-focused questions, and language that helps them describe responses that might come up for them. 

  • Nagda, Gurin, Rodriguez & Maxwell (2008) provide a handout on Comparing Debate, Discussion, and Dialogue that can support students to distinguish between the processes and outcomes of different forms of participation.
  • The University of Michigan’s Program on Intergroup Relations provides handouts that can be helpful for students to use during discussion and dialogue, including guidance for active listening.

Providing or co-creating conversation starters can help students practice critical dialogue skills with more support, and these skills are transferable to a number of different settings.

  • The National Museum of African American History & Culture provides prompts to promote a “questioning frame of mind” in relation to different conversation goals:
    • Seek clarity: “Tell me more about __________.”
    • Offer an alternative perspective: “Have you ever considered __________.”
    • Speak your truth: “I don’t see it the way you do. I see it as __________.”
    • Find common ground: “We don’t agree on __________ but we can agree on __________.”
    • Give yourself the time and space you need: “Could we revisit the conversation about __________ tomorrow.”
    • Set boundaries. “Please do not say __________ again to me or around me.

Prepare to Facilitate: Transforming “Hot Moments” into Teachable Moments

Prepare to manage “hot moments” and potential conflict in the classroom, including the possibility that you or your students may experience bias or harmful comments. 

“Hot moments” are traditionally understood as instances of emerging tension or conflict in the classroom when the emotions of students and/or instructors escalate. Such moments might be triggered by a question about a sensitive issue; by negative, deficit-minded comments that evoke feelings of exclusion; by a comment that reveals an under-informed or simplistic view of a complex topic; by resistance to a discussion because it brings attention to power and positionality; and more. As scholars of social justice pedagogy point out, powerful emotions are inherent to our lived experiences and efforts to learn about many social and political topics, and instructional teams can engage the affective dimensions of learning strategically.

Many instances of tension in the classroom can be reframed as “teachable moments.” This section provides some possible (non-exhaustive) strategies you can consider for addressing these moments. An important takeaway is to construct a plan to navigate difficult conversations and conflict that could arise in your classroom.

For students, faculty, or TAs seeking support during unresolved “hot moments,” UCSC’s Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion can respond to reports of bias or perceived bias by providing resources, guidance, facilitation, and conflict resolution aimed at restoring trust in the classroom.

Direct Response: Strategic Empathy

Drawing from social justice teaching scholarship and the science of learning, instructional teams can consider how learning is more likely to take place when students can identify their own misconceptions or gaps in understanding and actively construct new understanding. The practice of “strategic empathy” invites instructors to “resist the urge to correct misinformation” and instead to “adopt a stance of inquiry into the complex and contradictory motivations of students in order to promote self-reflection and critical thinking” (Zembylas 2012, cited in Harbin, Thurber & Bandy 2019). This practice can involve engaging a student’s argument, even when it is misinformed or flawed, by using a line of questioning such as the following from Harbin, Thurber & Bandy (2019):

  • “I heard you say ___. Tell me more about what you mean by that.”
  • “It sounds like you have strong views on this—have you had some personal experience that might help us understand where you are coming from?”
  • “I’m glad you brought this up, because this sentiment is something we hear a lot in popular culture, and it’s important to understand and unpack. What are the concerns underlying this statement?”

It can be helpful to practice transparency by sharing with students why this technique is important to one’s pedagogical approach, such as how it can facilitate transformative learning and critical reflection.

Direct Response: Calling Out While Drawing In

Another option for engaging students’ flawed or incorrect argumentation is what Harbin, Thurber, and Bandy (2019) term “calling out while drawing in,” which involves being more direct in identifying flaws or misinformation in a student’s comment. Since both “strategic empathy” and “calling out while drawing in” are strategies found to be effective in teaching scholarship, instructional teams can consider in advance which situations may be better suited to “strategic empathy” and which may be better suited to a more direct approach to correcting misinformation, and the benefits and drawbacks to using each.

In using “calling out while drawing in,” an instructor or TA might respond to a student by offering contrary evidence from the course content and then following up with a question asking the student to consider why the perspective they shared might persist in popular culture despite the evidence. The goal of this strategy is to “meet students, but not leave them, where they are” (Harbin, Thurber, & Bandy 2019).

Direct Response: Interrupt, Repair, and Redirect

It may be appropriate to interrupt further conversation if a comment is dehumanizing, malicious, or directly harmful to students in the course. Some statements that might be appropriate include: 

  • “That type of language violates our learning community agreement and UCSC’s Principles of Community.”
  • “I’m having a response to what you just said, and my response is ____.”
  • “I’m uncomfortable with what you just said because this is how it’s landing for me: ____.”
  • “That comment/word has been historically harmful to ____ group and has been used to dehumanize them. This learning space does not seek to perpetuate further harm or negative stereotypes, so I invite you to consider reframing your comment or withdrawing it. I would be open to discussing this further with you.”
  • “I need to interrupt to keep us on track with our learning. That comment isn’t accurate/is off topic.”
  • “We need to stay on track with discussing [TOPIC]; let’s return to the original question.”

The following additional resources below may help instructors and TAs navigate and de-escalate incidents of bias in the classroom. Whether it’s in the moment or at a later date, it is important to actively listen and validate the experiences of individuals who have been harmed and express care about the impact of the biased behavior or comment.

Respond & Open Up: Dig In and Discuss

Dig in and discuss an incident when: 1) the idea raised by the comment or question is clearly related to course content; 2) you can carve out enough time to hear multiple perspectives; and 3) you have a strong learning community agreement in place to help you facilitate a critical dialogue. A helpful approach can be to direct attention away from the particular individual and toward the idea or topic, focusing on that idea or topic with the larger class. 

Consider using statements such as: 

  • “I’m not sure I understand your comment or question. [Opening up to the class:] How might our course materials or current text/author offer us some responses to this comment?”
  • “While some people hold these views, that is not necessarily true for everyone. I’d like us all to pause and do a quick write about this topic before we discuss the complexity of the issue as a class.” 
  • Follow up by asking open-ended questions that promote divergent thinking. For instance, “What do others think? Why do you think that? What can we learn from these perspectives?”

Pause and Regroup

Pause and regroup at a later date if you and/or your students need time to prepare to engage or if you were unable to intervene in the moment. Try using statements such as:

  • “That doesn’t sound accurate to me. Let me gather some resources on this topic to share in our next class.”
  • “I noticed that [INCIDENT] happened in our last class and I would like to revisit it in order to restore our learning community agreement,” and then offer resources or pivot to dig in and discuss if appropriate. (Note: Ideally, revisiting an incident will take place after a private discussion with the student(s) to address concerns and facilitate a restorative process that includes them in the classroom community.)

5. Connect with Campus Support 

You and your students are not alone in navigating challenging situations that arise from local, national, and world events. Please take advantage of supportive services and encourage students and others in our community to do so when needed.

  • TLC’s Campus Resources for Supporting Students Guide: To support instructors and TAs in their capacity to compassionately refer students to appropriate resources, this guide provides a list of student-facing campus resources related to academic support, basic needs, community, mental health, and more.
  • Bias Response: Offered through UCSC’s Office for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, this bias reporting structure is intended to connect students and instructional teams with people who may be able to help them to repair, or acquire skills or support, outside of the power relations of the classroom.
  • Campus Mobile Crisis Team: Offered through Counseling & Psychological Services (CAPS), this is the group to call if you are concerned about yourself or someone around you and feel they may be having a behavioral health crisis. Dial 831-502-9988 to reach the team. They aim to provide culturally competent responses and utilize escalation techniques in addition to performing wellness checks and coordinating referrals to CAPS.
  • Behavioral Intervention Team: The Behavioral Intervention Team (BIT) is a multidisciplinary, rapid response team for evaluating incidents of potential or actual violence within the UCSC community. Email or use the anonymous reporting form on the BIT website. Please note that BIT is not an emergency response system.
Last modified: May 09, 2024