by Lee  Warren, Derek Bok Center

 Sometimes things seem to  explode in the classroom, and what do we do then? Knowing strategies for  turning difficult encounters into learning opportunities enables us to  address important, but hot, topics -- religion, politics, race, class, gender  -- in our classroom discussions.

Hot moments occur when people's feelings -- often conflictual -- rise to a  point that threatens teaching and learning. They can occur during the  discussion of issues people feel deeply about, or as a result of classroom  dynamics in any field.

For some instructors, hot moments are the very stuff of classroom life.  They thrive on such moments, encourage them, and use them for pointed  learning. Others abhor hot moments and do everything possible to prevent or  stifle them. For them, conflict prevents learning.

Fortunately all of us can develop techniques to handle the unavoidable  difficult moments. Using them can open doors to topics formerly avoided and  classroom dynamics formerly neglected. Most importantly, exploring these  tensions can lead to deep learning.

The challenges of dealing with hot moments are 1) to manage ourselves so  as to make them useful and 2) to find the teaching opportunities to help  students learn in and from the moment.

Strategies suggested here rest upon the assumption that it is the  teacher's responsibility both to help students learn something from the  moment and to care for and protect all the participants, perhaps particularly  the student(s) who has generated the hot moment. This does not mean that  discomfort can be avoided: sometimes learning about hot topics is difficult  and uncomfortable. But no one should be scapegoated. Everyone should be  protected so that learning can happen.


"We were ten weeks into Introduction to Afro-Am and were discussing  Louis Farrakhan." a young instructor told me. "Near the end of  section, a very smart Jewish woman said, 'Only uneducated black men would  believe in Farrakhan.' Six black men in the class turned on her and attacked.  "Class ended, and she ran out of the room, down the hall, in tears."

"I went after her and told her that if she was ever going to  understand this stuff she had to go back the next time and listen very hard  to what those guys, highly educated, say about why they might believe in  Farrakhan.

"I then went back into the classroom. Luckily the men were still  there, still talking about the incident. I told them that if they were ever  going to get it, they had to listen very hard to why a Jewish woman might  think that only the uneducated would believe in Farrakhan."

This young man was able to turn a hot moment into a profound learning  opportunity for his students. He did it by keeping his head, not taking  sides, and letting both groups know that they would gain immeasurably by  understanding the arguments of the other side.


It's not easy to see the teaching opportunity when a student says she  doesn't think the U.S. should have gone to war to prevent the Holocaust  "because they weren't Christians" -- or when a male student makes a  joke about irrational numbers being female -- or when one student heatedly  says, "The trouble with you is you talk all the time and never  listen!" -- or when the Jewish student says that only uneducated black  men would believe Louis Farrakhan.

How we think about the moment
    ¿     The first route to making  such unanticipated and difficult occurrences productive lies in how we  think about the moment -- as instructors. If we can get out of our own emotional confusion, we can begin to see the heat as an opportunity to  explore different views about the topic. In the case above, for example,  it could be helpful to students to examine why someone might think that  religious affiliation was a reason to go or not to go to war.
    ¿     We can also use the image  of leaving the dance floor of the discussion and our emotions and going  up to the balcony. From there we can look for a relevant meta-level  issue that the hot moment raises. Often the difficult statement  illustrates the complexity of questions being discussed, as in the instance  of the Jewish student's remarks about Farrakhan. Such a comment presents  an immediate example of Jewish/African-American political difficulties.
    ¿     It helps sometimes to  think about listening for "the song beneath the words" of the  student. What is the sub-text? What is the student really saying? Why is  this coming up at all, and why at this time? Often students can't  articulate clearly what they are thinking. After double-checking our  impressions with the student, we can use this information to further the  conversation.

For example, the student in the holocaust story  was African-American. Her sub-text might have been that we needed to deal  with the United States' own race issues before taking on those of other  nations. That idea is certainly a valid one for discussion in contemporary  international politics. Had the instructor been able to bring this to the surface, rather than avoiding her remarks altogether, the class would have  come away with enriched understanding.

Helping the students think about it
    ¿     To help students think  productively about issues raised during hot moments, establish  discussion norms early in the term, or at the moment if necessary. Don't  permit personal attacks. Model norms that encourage an open discussion  of difficult material -- by being open to multiple perspectives and by  asking all students to argue their point responsibly.
    ¿     We can take the issue off  the student who has made the offensive remark and put it on the table as  a topic for general discussion. Say something like: "Many people  think this way. Why do they hold such views? What are their  reasons?" and then, "Why do those who disagree hold other  views?" This protects the student while also encouraging others who  disagree to understand a view they dislike and then to argue their  position later.
    ¿     Another strategy is to  require that all students seek to understand each other's perspectives,  as a prerequisite to understanding the subject at all. Ask them to  listen carefully to the other point of view, to ask questions, and then to  be able to restate or argue for that position. This can work for the  hottest of subjects.
    ¿     Ask students to write about  the issue, either in class, as a reflective and hopefully calming  exercise followed by discussion, or outside of class. You can ask them  to do some research on the subject and write a more balanced essay. You  might require them to argue the position they most disagreed with.
    ¿     Sometimes it is important  to talk with students outside of class, particularly those who have been  most embroiled in the hot moment. Help them to learn something substantive from the experience -- about themselves, about others, about  possible positions, about the topic as a whole, and about how to voice  their thoughts so that they can be heard, even by those who disagree.  These conversations can save a student and keep them coming to class  with an open and learning mind.
    ¿     If a student breaks  down as a result of the original outburst, acknowledge it, and ask them if  they would like to remain in the classroom or leave for a while. At the  end of class, find the student and ask if you can be of any assistance.  In extreme cases, urge them to see a counselor.

Getting the students to do the work
    ¿     Ask students, when  things get hot, to step back and reflect upon what they might learn from  this moment. This can move the discussion to a level that helps everyone  see what issues have been at stake and what the clash itself might mean.

I've seen this work in a  class in which a white student and an African-American student were wrangling  at length and without apparent movement toward any understanding. When the  teacher asked all students to explore what they might learn from this, the  discussion shifted gears quickly. They began to think about the difficulties  in black-white communications when different belief systems were at work, the  reasons for those difficulties, and possible ways to bridge the gaps.
    ¿     Another strategy is to  ask students to think about how their reactions mirror the subject at  hand and what they might learn from their own behavior. Often groups act  out in their own discussion the topic under discussion. For example,  when discussing how women's remarks are often ignored in business  settings, the class or the instructor may be ignoring the remarks of  women in the class. Seeing this and talking about it in the moment can  enhance people's understanding of the issue.

Don't avoid the issue
    ¿     When hot moments  occur because of inter-student dynamics, in ways not related to the  subject matter, it can still be important to address the issue, even in  a math or physics class.

For example, if a student complains about  another's speaking behavior, it is tempting to go on as if the outburst  hadn't occurred. However, a discussion about who speaks and who doesn't and  why, and how to enable the quiet ones to make room for themselves and the  talkative ones to listen, could help every student in the room and make room  for a greater diversity of ideas in the class.

Or if a student makes a joke like the one about  irrational numbers being female, it could be useful to stop to examine why  and how men make such jokes and how they affect women's experience in math  and science classes. It might be helpful to the men to understand why the women  get upset by their good-humored jokes and to the women to understand how to  counter them. A discussion of this sort could open the classroom to far  greater collaboration the rest of the term.
    ¿     To ignore such remarks has  its own consequences. Students learn that such behavior is OK and that  they are not protected from it. They miss the opportunity to learn about their own behavior and its consequences. And they miss the opportunity  to have a more open classroom in which a wider range of ideas can be  explored.
    ¿     It is, of course,  almost always useful to talk about the moment outside of class with the  individuals involved, to give them support, and help them to learn from  the experience.

Having a fallback position

If you are unable to find a workable position in the moment, defer. Tell  students that this is an important issue and that you will take it up at a  later time. You then have time to plan strategies. This approach lets all the  students in the room know that you take such occurrences seriously.


We often forget that a primary task is to find ways to manage ourselves in  the midst of confusion.

Hold Steady. If you can hold steady and not be visibly rattled by  the hot moment, the students will be better able to steady themselves as well  and even learn something from the moment. Your behavior provides a holding  environment for the students. They can feel safe when you appear to be in  control; this enables them to explore the issues. Your behavior also provides  a model for the students.

Breathe deeply. Take a moment. Collect yourself. Take time if you  need it. Silence is useful -- if you can show that you are comfortable with  it. A pause will also permit students to reflect on the issues raised. Deep  breathing is an ancient and highly effective technique for calming adrenaline  rushes and restoring one's capacity to think.

Don't personalize remarks. Don't take remarks personally, even when  they come as personal attacks. Such attacks are most likely made against you  in your role as teacher or authority figure. Remembering to separate self  from role can enable you to see what a student is saying more clearly and to  actually discuss the issue. It's not about you. It's about the student and  his or her feelings and thoughts, though often articulated clumsily and from  an as yet unthought through position.

Don't take remarks personally when they are about issues that you feel  strongly about, or even about groups of which you are a part. Again, remember  that both you and the group will be better served if you can keep some  distance from the comments and find ways to use them to enhance people's  understanding.

Don't let yourself get caught up in a personal reaction to the individual  who has made some unpleasant remark. It's easy to want to tear into a student  who is personally offensive to you. To do so is to fail to see what that  student and his or her ideas represent in the classroom and in the larger  world. If you take the remarks personally, chances are you will not be able  to find what there is to learn from them.

Know yourself. Know your biases, know what will push your buttons  and what will cause your mind to stop. Every one of us has areas in which we  are vulnerable to strong feelings. Knowing what those areas are in advance  can diminish the element of surprise. This self-knowledge can enable you to  devise in advance strategies for managing yourself and the class when such a  moment arises. You will have thought about what you need to do in order to  enable your mind to work again.


Heifetz, R. (1994). Leadership without easy answers. Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press (especially pp.250-276),

Fisher,R., Ury, W., & Patton, P. (1981, 1991). Getting to yes.  New York: Penguin Books.

Frederick, P. (1995). "Walking on eggs: Mastering the dreaded  diversity discussion." College Teaching, Vol. 43/No. 3, pp.  83-92.

Frederick, P.(2000). "Approaches to teaching diversity." NEA  Advocate, 17, (4), pp. 5-8.

Schön, D. A. (1987). Educating the reflective practitioner: Toward a  new design for teaching and learning in the professions. San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass.

Videos. The Bok Center for Teaching and Learning at Harvard  University has made two videos that can help people process difficult moments  and develop strategies for confronting them. Each comes with a Facilitator's  Guide. See the Bok Center website for information on how to obtain these  videos:

Race in the Classroom: The Multiplicty of Experience

Women in the Classroom


A version of this "tip sheet"  appeared in the NEA Advocate, October 2000.


Copyright © 2000 by the President and  Fellows of Harvard College. Permission is granted to educational institutions  to reproduce this document for internal use provided the Bok Center's  authorship and copyright are acknowledged.

Derek  Bok Center for
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