ARTICLE

Starting With Ourselves: Preparing for Tough Classroom Conversations

This school administrator offers recommendations for setting up courageous conversations in the new year, with discussions among colleagues as the first step.

Throughout 2017, news cycles were dominated by stories that were not only difficult to discuss with students, but also laden with content typically regarded as improper for the classroom. Impossible to ignore, many of these stories also included behavior or language that seemed inappropriate to discuss. Reporting on the events in Charlottesville was rife with racial epithets and images of hideous violence. Coverage of familiar Hollywood figures and politicians accused of sexual misconduct has been peppered with details so explicit that, if the lines were read by actors rather than reporters, we’d never consider allowing that film near our classrooms.

Despite these challenges, educators have had to be ready to answer students’ questions and help them to understand these stories—even as we struggled to understand them ourselves. And while we can hope that the new year will bring fewer such stories to our lives and our classrooms, we cannot expect that. 

As a school co-founder and administrator, I have long believed that our goals for our students must be mirrored by our practice as adults. If we want creativity in our students, we have to give educators space to be creative. If we want our students to become critical thinkers, we must offer teachers regular opportunities to exercise thoughtful, independent judgment. And if we want our students to engage in civil discourse on sensitive, controversial topics, then we have to take the time to come together and talk as adults first.

Even when a school has a stated mission of social justice, there is no guarantee that all adults in the building are equally well equipped or equally comfortable leading discussions on sensitive issues like racism or sexual assault. Every school brings together adults from diverse backgrounds and perspectives. This diversity may be more apparent in some schools and communities, but any group of faculty and staff will bring with them a range of experience. Religious beliefs, political viewpoints, cultural backgrounds and individual identities all inform our understanding of—and responses to—the stories we see and hear in the news. Only by engaging in civil discourse as adults can we prepare to help our students wrestle with difficult issues.

Four Agreements for Courageous Conversations

1. Stay engaged.

2. Experience discomfort.

3. Speak your truth.

4. Expect and accept non-closure.

 

From Courageous Conversations About Race: A Field Guide for Achieving Equity in Schools by Glenn Singleton and Curtis Linton.

Every school staff should come together periodically, not just to plan classroom activities but also to participate in discussions about sensitive or controversial events and ideas, as adults and as members of a community. These conversations may be difficult or uncomfortable, but these steps will help.

 

Physically arrange the conversation differently from other professional development activities or meetings. 

Meet in a different space; sit in a circle. Ask everyone to put cell phones, laptops other devices and piles of grading away.

 

Plan the conversation as carefully as you would plan for a similar conversation with students. 

Select a text to read together. You might choose an overview of recent events from a major newspaper to ensure that the basic facts are clear regardless of who in the room has previously followed the story. If you want to begin a discussion about sexual harassment and assault, you might choose the text of the school district’s Title IX policy to provide agreed-upon definitions as a starting point. Another option is a TED Talk or other short video clip. Working with a shared text, whatever the text is, gives everyone a basic foundation and a shared starting point for discussion. Give staff time to write or otherwise reflect before starting the conversation, just as you might with students.

 

Thoughtfully choose a skilled facilitator to guide discussion. 

A conversation might be co-facilitated by two teachers who work well together and bring two different perspectives to the group, or an administrator might facilitate in an effort to demonstrate his or her commitment to the issue. In some instances, inviting a trusted outside facilitator might be the right choice. In each case, the choice will depend on the intersection of subject matter and the interpersonal dynamics in your school. 

 

Begin with a contract for the conversation. 

“Four Agreements for Courageous Conversations,” from Glenn Singleton and Curtis Linton’s Courageous Conversations About Race: A Field Guide for Achieving Equity in Schools, is one option. Generating a contract together is another. In either case, contracting sets the tone and reminds staff that they can enter the conversation vulnerably and honestly.

We would not ask our students to read a book we had never read, solve a problem that we felt unable to solve, or complete a lab activity we had never tried. The era in which we are living and teaching requires that our students wrestle with complex and often frightening events and ideas. If we are going to be ready to help them face these ideas, we need to first face them ourselves. The best way to do that is to face them together.

Gavrin is program director and co-founder of Connecticut’s New Haven Academy Interdistrict Magnet School, a member of the Facing History and Ourselves Partner Schools Network.