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Dealing with Sensitive Issues in the Classroom

Part of our Classroom Conversations Series

Many jobs demand multiple skills. But the skills teachers and SLT (senior leadership team) have to demonstrate on a daily basis are, quite frankly, mind-boggling. Let's try to list some of them: communication, negotiation, wisdom, humour, patience, target setting, motivation, managing a budget, all while maintaining specialist subject knowledge.

The list could go on.

All these skills, plus more, are needed when dealing with the inevitable, controversial issues that teachers will either actively bring up in Tutor time, or during a Citizenship or SMSC lesson or will spontaneously face.

As a teacher, you may feel anxious, uncomfortable, or even fearful when teaching difficult topics. You may worry about how students will react, whether you'll be able to answer tough questions, or if you'll be able to convey the information effectively. You may also feel pressure to cover difficult topics in a certain way or to meet expectations from parents, administrators, or society. Teaching difficult topics can be challenging, but with preparation and support, you can approach them with confidence and provide a valuable learning experience for your students. With that in mind, here are our top 8 tips for tackling any controversial issue in the classroom:

1. A safe and inclusive classroom environment

where students feel comfortable discussing sensitive topics

You often hear this in teaching: create an environment conducive to learning, create a safe space for conversations, etc. But what does that look like? We all know that if you create a classroom where "anything goes," then you'll spend the next six months trying to regain control. On the other hand, an orderly classroom that reminds you of those you see in old-school films can also stifle the confidence of having those tricky conversations. It's a fine line to balance.

When it comes to creating a safe and inclusive classroom environment, rules are your friend. Establishing ground rules such as respecting each other's opinions, listening to each other, and not interrupting will go a long way in creating the type of environment where tricky conversations can flourish.

A positive tone will also help create the environment you're searching for. Growth mindset may have fallen off the latest trendy teacher vocabulary, but the principle is true. A positive tone, modelling respectful behaviour, and being open to feedback encourages a more inclusive environment and lets students feel comfortable coming to you with any concerns or issues they may have.

2. Be prepared and knowledgeable about the topic you're teaching.

Where possible, knowledge will save you. Being caught off guard with a question about a recent news scandal or awkward sex scenario happens to all of us, but having some background knowledge up your sleeve can save you a lot of embarrassment.

Approach the situation with factual knowledge wherever possible, and don't feel bad for arranging a different time to speak about the issue with your class. A simple "That's a great question. When we've got some time, perhaps later on/tomorrow afternoon, we'll discuss that properly." A statement like this shows that you're taking your class's concerns and queries seriously, and gives you time to prepare your explanation.

3. Be open and honest with your students.

Avoid using language or framing the topic in a way that may shame or stigmatise them.

Answering questions without a thought-out plan can sometimes send lessons awry. A fine example of this can be seen in the conversations teachers are having surrounding Andrew Tate: many teachers have tried to discuss him with their students and explain that he is not a good role model, only to be met with resistance and a doubling-down of their pupils' support for him. Our post on "Talking about Andrew Tate, Misogyny and Incel Culture" can guide you through this minefield.

For this reason, it is important to think carefully about your students' current views and misconceptions, and consider how you can broaden their understanding without shaming or stigmatizing them. After all, we all remember how difficult our younger years were and how frustrating it was to feel misunderstood.

Following this approach will help to create a safe environment where students feel understood and comfortable discussing their concerns in the classroom.

4. Make it a regular thing

If you're the type of class that rarely talks about controversial issues, then suddenly springing into a spiel about the need to get consent from a sexual partner is bound to make everyone in the room cringe, including you. However, like all things that are scary, awkward, or worrisome, exposure takes the fear away.

Instead of waiting for an event to happen to have a difficult conversation, make them a part of the routine. Here at VotesforSchools, we create a new lesson every week discussing a new and/or relevant news story. This model has led us to hundreds of thousands of young people discussing tricky topics, from human rights debates in Qatar to the impact that the internet is having on sex & relationships, and means that the young people taking part no longer bat an eyelid at the mention of an awkward conversation.

5. Provide resources and support

for students who may need extra help or guidance on the topic.

We've all been in that situation where you replay a conversation in your head a million times, wishing you'd said something different or asked a question, and feeling too awkward to bring the subject up again. Your question remains unanswered.

Personally, I don't remember much of my sex-education lessons in school. I remember the stinging awkwardness, and of course I remember putting a condom on a plastic green penis. However, the content is lost to me; I couldn't concentrate on learning in that environment.

I do, however, remember a little booklet I was given called "4Girls: a guide to the female body." It's been 15 years since I last read it, but I still remember the cartoon drawings and little explanations and all of the little things I learned from it.

How to put a condom on a banana graphic - sex education - VotesforSchools

6. Be sensitive and have awareness

of the different backgrounds, experiences, and beliefs of your students.

We're all different, and we're all triggered by different things, including young people. There are obvious pitfalls, often covered in various safeguarding training, but you should also be ready for the unexpected: it's often the little things that remind us of our most distressing memories.

Now, you can't avoid every trigger for every person, but you can be conscious of it and watch your students a little more closely for any signs of distress or need for support.

7. Use age-appropriate and inclusive language and materials.

Here at VotesforSchools, we can attest to the difficulty of turning complex topics into age-appropriate lessons. We've lost count of the number of meetings we've had trying to figure out exactly how to explain the economy to KS2 (Key Stage 2) pupils, or how to discuss the Ukraine war without leading young people to believe a world war is coming (you can see some examples of how we do it in our lessons).

It can be tricky, but it's worth it. There's no point in planning to explain a big topic to someone if you're going to lose them in the introduction, so careful consideration of vocabulary is a must.

8. Follow up and check in with students

after teaching a difficult topic to see how they are doing and if they have any additional questions or concerns.

Resources that provide extra information and support are well worth creating and can help structure a follow-up lesson where young people can ask questions about the content that have only occurred to them later (an anonymous questions box can be very useful here too!)

In conclusion, teaching difficult or controversial topics can be challenging, but with preparation, knowledge, and an inclusive and safe classroom environment, it is possible to approach these topics with confidence and provide a valuable learning experience for students. By establishing ground rules, maintaining a positive tone, and being aware of students' current views and triggers, teachers can facilitate open and respectful discussions about controversial issues. Additionally, providing extra resources and follow-up opportunities can help ensure that students have the support and information they need to fully engage with and understand these complex topics.