Tackling the Tough Teaching Conversations When You Don’t Know What to Say

As instructors, I believe we have an obligation to acknowledge what is going on in the world and to provide an outlet for our students to talk about it. I was a student during Columbine and 9/11 and have been a professor through the Boston Marathon bombings, the too numerous mass shootings of the past few years, and the rise of #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, and #Time’s Up. We can’t just plow ahead with course objectives, pretending that these moments of tragedy and injustice don’t exist.

As a white woman, I am not the right person to speak about the murder of George Floyd and worldwide Civil Rights protests, except to say that such injustice should never happen and I fully support the movement. I will never pretend to understand what it is like to be a person of color in the United States. In my role as an instructor, however, it is my duty to create a space for students to discuss what’s going on. So how do we lead a conversation without overstepping or feigning an insider view that we may not have?

In a face-to-face class, our conversation would have happened organically, as I could have gauged the need to talk in our initial chit-chat. It’s so much more difficult teaching remotely. Everything feels like a big deal, like a big agenda item in which I cannot pre-assess the vibe of the classroom.

I struggled with how to approach my summer class, but ultimately decided that I had to give the group the opportunity to talk. I invited students to an optional Zoom session to talk about current events. I didn’t know how many would show up or what to expect.

Only a few students chose to do the Zoom session. The small, yet diverse, group actually worked to our advantage as each person opened up. I did not lead, except to open up the discussion, ask what was on the participants’ minds, and call on people. I won’t share the details, but the conversation flowed naturally from the protests to related topics of representation.

It was honestly one of the best, most honest, reflective discussions that I’ve experienced in my teaching career. I did little to make it that way. I just set the table, sent the invitations, and welcomed the group–the extent to which I felt comfortable doing. In other words, I created the space. The students filled it.

I realize this could have gone poorly. I’m not usually a fan of unstructured class discussion, which are prone to tangents and the injection of personal agendas that may conflict with our class diversity policy. If we had started to have issues, I obviously would have stepped in. I’m glad I didn’t have to do this.

We can’t shy away from topics that make us uncomfortable or that we don’t know how to address. As educators, we can provide a safe space for students to reflect and make sense of what is currently going on, even if it’s only for a few minutes. We are not leading so much as creating the opportunity and protecting the conversation.

Our engaging class session prompted me to add more to the itinerary, beyond what was already on the agenda. In person, this would be easy. Online, everything has to be so much more scheduled. If students are looking to connect, especially in the current climate, I want to be there to support them and listen.