Conversations Worth Having: Navigating Controversial Topics in the Classroom

March 1, 2022

Some of the best parts of my day as a teacher are the interactions and conversations that I get to have with my students. I think most teachers would agree with me on that. For many, that is the reason they keep coming back, day after day, facing increasingly difficult conditions. As a high school teacher working with 11th– and 12th-grade students in a public school, these discussions can be particularly rich and worthwhile. However, while student interaction is a sustaining factor during this turbulent time in our profession, there are certain conversations that many teachers wish to avoid. You know “those topics,” the difficult ones that tend to be highly charged, political or moral in nature and result in name-calling more times than not when they get discussed. Such topics include abortion, immigration and gun control, to name a few.

One of the courses that I teach every year is called Participation in Government, a required course for all students to take in their senior year. It is an issues-driven course in which students are asked to interact with each other in a productive manner while discussing a wide variety of topics, some mundane and others highly charged. There is only so much excitement that can be elicited when discussing “riveting” topics such as the Electoral College, but what is a teacher to do when the difficult topics come up?

First, a Disclaimer

I strongly believe that no conversation should be shied away from if the context is right. Students must be prepared to enter the “real world” when they leave high school, and that includes being able to discuss a wide variety of topics in a civil and productive way. One perk of teaching in a small-town school like I do is that I get to see all of the students in the district for two consecutive years, both as juniors in U.S. History and then as seniors in this class, so I benefit from having a pre-established rapport with most of my students by their senior year. That rapport helps with this quest, but there are still topics that I choose not to talk about in certain classes due to the make-up of the class and the students in the room. This is more about “feel” than any specific indicator, and teachers should do what they think is best because they know their students best. Students’ maturity and personalities play a lot into this decision. Certain topics that undoubtedly fall into the “third rail” category should be approached with caution, but if and when the time is right, go for it!

Wait, Other People Have Opinions Too?

I tend to open any conversation on a controversial topic by explaining to my students that people don’t arrive at their positions on moral issues on a whim. The truth is that the vast majority of people hold the beliefs they do because they have actually spent time thinking about the issue at hand. While they may feel pressure to follow the lead of their friends or family publicly, they still possess thoughts in their innermost being, regardless of whether they express it to others. These beliefs, our strongly held passions and moral positions, are the things we can’t bear to see challenged. When that happens, the metaphorical walls go up. We start questioning the other person’s positions, which, if the passion is shared, results in the same wall-building exercise from them. Next thing you know, insults are being hurled at each other, and real damage is caused to any personal relationship that may have been present between the two individuals. In the end, we are not actually talking to each other but rather talking past each other. This is a dangerous and destructive place at which to arrive, but it is unfortunately all too common when having such conversations as these. Beginning a difficult conversation with the simple acknowledgement of the validity of one another’s opinion-making process tempers the charged nature of the discussion at hand and makes it easier to understand what each person actually thinks on the topic.

No “Winners” in This Debate

One of the challenges of engaging in difficult discussions with students is the fact that students rarely see positive examples of discourse in their lives. Upon hearing that they get to “have debates” in my course, many students assume that means they will be able to beat up on each other verbally in an effort to “win.” I believe this is another unfortunate consequence of the political climate we live in. To counteract this, I attempt to approach arguments in a different frame of mind and encourage my students to do the same. Instead of approaching a debate or conversation on a topic with the goal of winning a convert to my side of the issue, I encourage my students to approach it with the intended (and frequently even stated) purpose of understanding the view of the person they are talking to, not making any concerted effort to try to change their mind. This helps shape the purpose of the conversation and change the narrative from “winning” the debate to seeking a deeper understanding on the different viewpoints in play.

Resist the Big Temptation

The final piece of advice I would give to a teacher looking to engage their students in difficult conversations is to keep your opinion out of the debate. When I was in high school, I had many teachers who made a habit of sharing their opinions. Even when they didn’t openly share, their opinions were easy to read, allowing me to see very clearly what they thought on any given topic that came up in class. I always felt a sense of pressure to agree with my teachers, regardless of whether the pressure was truly there or not. I think that is an unfair position to put a student in, however tempting the opportunity is for a teacher, and, as such, I specifically do not openly tell my students about my political leanings or preferences. I try to ensure that all perspectives on a given topic are presented, either by the students themselves or by myself if students don’t bring them up. This approach frequently forces me to verbally support positions that I do not actually agree with on occasion, but presenting all sides of an issue in an unbiased way also allows me to state my own beliefs without biasing the discussion.

A Worthwhile Endeavor

In the complex political and societal climate we are living through right now, our students need to be as equipped as possible to engage in the difficult conversations we are having. Being a part of a supportive learning community like the one I engaged in while at Houghton University will uniquely prepare you to approach these difficult conversations in your classroom with confidence. While the challenges associated with this may seem insurmountable at times, fostering opportunities for students to think a bit more deeply about the world around them is undoubtedly a worthwhile endeavor that will reap benefits in our communities for years to come.

About the Author

Tyler Miller is a 2014 graduate of Houghton University, where he majored in Adolescent Education and History. He currently teaches Regents U.S. History, AP U.S. History, and Participation in Government in his hometown at Moravia High School in Central New York.