Having recently written a new curriculum for pastoral care, I’ve considered how we can raise difficult conversations in the classroom. These conversations could be related to race, social justice, ethnicity or class, and many more.

As an educator, I think curricula should challenge students to think beyond their immediate circumstances and positions. This is particularly true for the humanities, but even aspects of science can facilitate this. This is especially important for those working in international schools where students may be more likely to go on to live and work in nations across the world. If they are to be successful citizens anywhere, it is incumbent upon leaders to prepare students to hold court in any social setting without being offensive or culturally blind to the perspectives and worldviews of others.

This post will share some practical strategies on raising difficult conversations within the classroom.

Train staff in managing discussions around challenging topics.

This is critical. It’s not ok to assume everyone, by virtue of being an adult, is able to manage challenging conversations. Training can take the form of scenarios and case studies where real life situations are simulated and teachers work through solutions and troubleshoot such challenging models. This approach allows teachers to preempt some of the difficulties that may arise.

Model vulnerability

School leaders and teaching staff should model the kind of openness they want to develop in their pupils. This can be done by sharing anecdotes detailing personal experiences. Short assemblies are great for this. I can clearly remember an occasion when I shared a story of my own personal journey and a student thanked me and remarked how inspiring it is to hear the personal stories of their teachers.

Be explicit about expectations

This is an obvious one, but can be easily overlooked. In a haste to dive head first into meaty topics, I’ve sometimes left this part out. Setting the ground rules gives you something to come back to and reset expectations should students fail to meet them. Not only this, by establishing expectations beforehand it creates a sense of psychological safety. Some students may not feel safe to be vulnerable in a group setting, therefore, setting standards lets them know that they will be protected.

Get Socratic

The method of Socratic inquiry is perfect for teasing out ideas and creating an environment where dialogue and classroom talk are rich and full of depth. The best teachers who model the Socratic method make it look easy but it’s far from light work. Questions are perfectly planned in advance whilst making room to attentively respond to serendipitous moments. This is an art, which if used well can allow students to explore areas they may have never encountered or considered

Finally, the classroom should be a safe space for the school community to open up and share. It’s only through trying to see the world through the eyes of others that we can develop empathy and understanding. As the late Steven Covey stated: seek first to understand before being understood.