Despite your best intentions and at any point in your teaching career, you may encounter a moment in class when you face a difficult situation or challenging student. What to do?

Controversy in the Classroom

Controversy in the classroom can arise not only because controversial or sensitive topics are part of the curriculum but also because of student or instructor behavior. Occasionally, of course, the former can spark the latter.

Universities exist to provide a setting where students, staff members, and instructors can explore a wide array of topics in a safe and respectful setting. If sensitive material is an integral part of your course, educate your students about the reasons for studying such topics and the methods for tackling them during the course. Students whose minds are prepared to address controversial material are more likely to be open to participate in fruitful analysis and evaluation.

Remember that many students are in their late teens and likely do not have your experience or sophistication. They might feel uncomfortable with and even complain about course content of a sexual, religious, political, or cultural nature. Let them know early in the semester that controversy and reasonable conflict are important aspects of the educational process.

Heated discussion can remain within the bounds of appropriate intellectual exercise. If, however, a discussion becomes so emotionally charged that it becomes personal or students lose sight of the intellectual value of the content, call a time-out and invite everyone to relax. Discussing the passion rather the content might be useful. Beware of being drawn into taking sides.

A particularly helpful approach to defusing a discussion that has gotten off track is to ask everyone to write their thoughts, ideas, and feelings for five minutes. You then can ask them to step back from what they think and feel and write about why they think and believe the way they do. Alternatively, ask them to write down something that “the other side” said that seems legitimate.

Emotional Moments

Of course, even without the spark of controversy, emotions in a classroom can run high. Just like you, students have rich and challenging lives beyond the classroom. On rare occasions, emotions may spill over into the classroom.

In situations where a national or world event has widespread emotional impact, consider taking time from the regular schedule and invite students to discuss the event. If you can link it to course content in a meaningful way, do so. And after a reasonable length of time—it may not be until the next class period—gently steer the conversation back to the learning task at hand.

If an individual student seems upset about something personal, you can quietly acknowledge their distress and invite them to talk to you after class. Once you can talk in private, tell the student that you have noticed unusual behavior and express your concern in a nonjudgmental way. Listen to both the factual and emotional content of their response and show you are concerned. Offer hope.

Be polite and express concern, but keep in mind the limits of your own expertise or ability to help. It’s unlikely you are trained in crisis management, and even if you were, your relationship with students is as an instructor, not a counselor. Tell them candidly about your limits to assist, but try to work with them to identify resources that can better help them address specific concerns. Such resources include their departmental advisor, the Office of Academic Support and Retention, the Academic Advising Center, University Counseling Services, or Student Health & Wellness. At a later time, check back with them to see if they have followed through with the referral or otherwise begun to address the problem.