Helping Students Respect Others

It requires finesse to balance the various elements that create an open, respectful discussion of sometimes emotionally charged subjects, and to do so in a way that all students continue to feel comfortable voicing their opinions and expressing their ideas. On rare occasions, however, a student may make a stereotypic or offensive comment in class that sparks high emotion. Suddenly, discussion becomes personal and ventures far astray from the learning task at hand.

  • Be prepared for that possibility and think ahead about how you can react appropriately.

  • Early in the semester, be proactive with your class by encouraging students to establish a brief set of ground rules for interaction that they agree to abide by during discussion and debate. At least one of the ground rules should address the issue of inappropriate or offensive speech.

  • Be willing to accept a certain amount of high emotion and conflict as long as students continue to pursue intellectual, not personal, agendas.

  • If someone does say something offensive, don’t ignore it. Racist, sexist, or other offensive comments or behaviors have no place in a classroom.

  • On the other hand, don’t assume the speaker intended the comment to be offensive. Students—particularly those who may never have been away from home—may not even recognize that something they say (and perhaps have heard elsewhere) would be offensive to someone else. Let the student know that what was said might be considered offensive, and reframe the discussion to get it back on track.