The Center for Teaching and Learning

Challenging Conversation Resources

We will all, at some point, need to work through difficult and emotional situations in our classes. Sometimes these moments are built into the fabric of the class itself; many faculty teach sensitive materials and engage with students on subjects that can be challenging to discuss.  Sometimes these moments are surprises, emerging unexpectedly in response to events on campus or in broader local, national, or global contexts.  In both cases, thinking and planning intentionally for how you might respond is crucial to facilitating difficult conversations.  

Before any challenging situations even arise, think about yourself, your boundaries, and your biases.

  • What do you envision as your position in the classroom?  What words do you want students to use to describe your teaching style? What kinds of power do you hold in your classroom space? How might your position as instructor influence how you grapple with challenging moments in the classroom?
  • What makes teaching meaningful and rewarding for you? How do you envision the relationship between your work in the classroom and the outside world? Do you think of yourself as preparing students for engaging with contemporary issues or events, as encouraging students to develop as citizens, as helping students become better critical thinkers/writers/practitioners of a discipline?  How might that vision for how and why you teach influence how you react to moments of crisis in the classroom, on campus, or in your community? 
  • What topics make you feel uncomfortable? Why? Are there people on campus that you can talk about that discomfort with, or resources that can help you think through that discomfort?  What will your approach be if those topics come up in your classroom?
  • How have you handled challenging conversations in the past? What can you learn from those experiences?

Consider these resources:

Navigating Heated, Offensive, or Tense (“HOT”) moments in the classroom (Columbia University)
This useful page lays out actions to take to prepare for challenging conversations, to facilitate those conversations, and to follow up on them. 

Handling “Hot Moments” (University of Michigan)
This is a great step-by-step resource for handling unplanned controversial discussions.  A few things to note in particular: take time to breathe, and give yourself and your students time to process what’s going on; asking students to take a few minutes to write will give both you and them time to reflect before speaking.

Responding to Racial Trauma (Harvard Graduate School of Education)
This resource identifies three key actions for responding to racial traumas and other harmful or disruptive events: acknowledge, connect, and integrate. 

Community Building Circles (Reed’s Restorative Justice Coalition)
This resource outlines how community-building circles can help, first, build relationships in the classroom, and second, work through possible disagreements or tensions in the classroom.  These circles can be used both before hard conversations (as a way of establishing shared values and building connections) and to facilitate hard conversations (by providing a space for everyone to be heard).  

Finally, after a hard conversation: check in with yourself.  How are you doing?  Is there anyone on campus that you want to follow up with (the CTL, the OID, the Dean or Associate Dean, your chair, a trusted friend or colleague)?  

Want to chat about these ideas, resources, or your own preparations for and experiences with challenging conversations in the classroom?  The CTL will be hosting open conversations and drop-in meetings with the CTL Director periodically throughout the semester. Please contact the CTL Director,