Ask a Teacher: Delicate Conversations in the Classroom
Q: Hi! I was just wondering what you do when you're teaching or discussing something in class that brings up something that's going on in a student's personal life at the time? My friend's mum is in hospital with cancer and we're reading a novel in English that is about a woman with cancer—she ran out of the room crying and I think the teacher found it really awkward, she kind of ignored her. So I was wondering how you deal with this kind of thing? Thanks.
A: In the biology class I taught last year, I included a lesson on cancer. I knew that the topic had the potential to spark strong emotions, so I prefaced it with a short and sober discussion of the realities of cancer. I polled the class, asking how many of them knew someone who'd had the disease, and nearly everyone raised their hands, including me. I expected that, and while we were mostly going to be talking about the biological mechanisms behind the disease, I knew that there was a possibility that emotions would run kind of high. So I told the class that if anyone needed to go see the counselor or social worker at any time during the lesson, that would be fine. No one took advantage of that option, but I'm glad I opened the door.
I don't envy your teacher's position. While any class is likely to touch on some sensitive subjects, I think English and Literature courses are probably the ones that hit those subjects most often and most intensely. Novels are designed to provoke emotions far more than biological descriptions of runaway mitosis. So it surprises me a little that your teacher was caught off-guard when those emotions were provoked. Whether you're teaching cells or Shakespeare, it's important to have a plan for handling the likely uncomfortable topics. Here's what I usually do:
Plan ahead: One place where all teachers struggle from time to time is how our lessons are going to be received by our students. We grew out of our high school shoes awhile ago, and it's hard to put them on and walk around in them again, to imagine what aspects of the lesson are going to be the most confusing, the most time-consuming, or the most emotionally-affecting. But taking the time to try to anticipate those things is worthwhile, and I think I've gotten better at it as I've gained a little more experience.
Open the door: When delicate topics come up on the Internet, you sometimes find articles or posts prefaced with a "Trigger Warning." Just as spoiler warnings let people know that there's going to be discussion of who died on "Walking Dead" last night, trigger warnings let people know that there's going to be discussions of emotionally-charged, potentially painful topics. The "trigger" term comes from the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder; people with PTSD can sometimes experience flashbacks or panic attacks when something—a "trigger"—reminds them of their traumatic experiences. Warning people about that content allows them to make an informed decision about how to proceed. They can mentally prepare themselves and keep reading, or they can close the tab and look at LOLcats. This was what I tried to do with my cancer lesson: I warned the students ahead of time that there might be some painful content, and gave them a way out if it got too intense.
Break the barriers: I can imagine that the only thing worse than having an emotional meltdown in class is having to draw attention to it by raising your hand to ask if you can leave. Some people have a hard enough time being the center of attention; if it's compounded with a lot of emotional trauma, they might choose to suffer silently instead, getting more and more upset as the lecture goes on. I don't want my classroom to be a place where suffering occurs, except during final exams, so I try to make escape as easy as possible in those delicate scenarios.
Deal with it: When a student is obviously upset, I usually try to wrap up the current topic or activity, so I can get the class generally occupied on some task. I then, quickly and quietly, ask the upset student if he/she is okay, and if that student would like to see the counselor or social worker. I try not to draw any excess attention to them, and to make it clear that they don't have to be in class if it's upsetting them.
Rely on the support structure: Most schools have people in place to handle these difficult emotional issues—social workers, school psychologists, or counselors. Much as I care, much as I'd like to help out, my time is split between the student with the breakdown and the other twenty-odd students in the class. So I rely on the personnel my school has in place.
Move on: Teaching is, in part, a kind of performance, and the show must go on. If I try to dwell too much on one student, chances are that chaos will ensue among the others. This is part of why it's important to have a clear plan, so that you know what to do if something goes wrong, and so you have something to get back to when the storm is over.
If I were going into a lesson that I expected to be emotionally challenging, I'd be putting some serious consideration into all of those steps. I might even fire a message off to the counselors to let them know or ask if they have any advice.
That said, I've been caught flat-footed myself. Last year, around the same time as the cancer lesson, I put together a new seating chart in a different class. Now, new seating charts are usually cause for complaint and consternation for a day or two, but rarely much more than that. But this time, about halfway through the period, one girl broke into tears. I didn't know what exactly caused it, but I asked what was wrong and if she needed to see the counselor and so forth, stumbling my way through the plan I outlined above. Eventually I found out, from another student, that I'd placed her next to her ex-boyfriend, right after a messy breakup. The next day, I gave her a new seat and everything was fine, but it didn't change the bad day that I made worse.
Most of this article has been about what I do as a teacher, but that incident allows me to give a bit of advice to you as students, which is to speak up. You know more about the ins and outs of each other's lives than we do. So if something personal is bothering you or a friend, there's a pretty good chance that we're clueless about it. Speak up, and you might find that some problems have really simple solutions.
How do your teachers deal with delicate topics in the classroom?
Do you have a question for Mr. Foss or another teacher? Leave it in the comments!