Last week I shared with you some of what I have learned from when things go sideways in the classroom, when mistakes are made and you have the opportunity to be a role model in working through a problem. Today we deal with the 2nd part, a more sensitive issue, what happens when someone, even you, says something terrible. Maybe a student referred to another student by a sexist name under his/her breath. Maybe a slip of the tongue resulted in you saying something racist. Maybe you realized what you thought was good-natured candor, turned out to a pattern of homophobic harassment directed at another student. Maybe you realize a student does not speak up because they are being bullied away from the classroom.
What do you do now?
There are lots of options, but you can probably guess my first piece of advice will not be “pretend like it never happened.”
The first thing to realize is that you are not alone. The Cross Cultural Leadership Center, the University Diversity Council, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, Student Judicial Affairs, the California Faculty Association, the Title IX contacts, and your colleagues are all resources to help you figure out what you need to do to help your students.
The second thing is not a course of action as much as it is a mentality. Realize you might be partially to blame. We all have work to do in creating an atmosphere of inclusion in the classroom and no one ever “has it down.” Open your mind to what you might do differently in the future and make a note of it, maybe even share it with the class.
The third thing to do is realize that, unfortunately, this happens all the time. A 2013 publication in the Journal of Diversity in Higher Education reports on great research and highlights some best practices. Click here for the short version or here for the full version. Some great starting points include “Reactive usage: Turning overt conflict into a learning opportunity” and “Proactive usage: surfacing underlying or covert conflicts for learning.”
We would never give our students the problem solving advice “ignore it and it will go away,” so let us practice what we preach and engage the difficult problems in our classrooms, even when they make us feel uncomfortable.
Prior to this year, I taught the large lecture public speaking class which includes a live streamed/recorded version of the lecture. Everything I said was public and viewable in an archive. We had a string of technical problems until one day I thought everything was going well, I even commented on how well things were going in the lecture. Then I realized no one was complaining because all the online students were locked out. There was no one to complain because they could not get in.
I lost it.
I got red in the face and let loose a stream of profanity more befitting an Oakland Raiders practice or 1970s basic training. I did this in the middle of a recorded lecture, a lecture on public speaking. We have all said things in the classroom we wish we could take back. The question is: What do you do next?
Fortunately I have done something like this enough times (I am not kidding; it is a bit of a problem for me) to have developed a system for this:
- Realize your class is looking at you to model behavior for them. Mistakes are made and the wrong words come out all the time. Think of what you would want them to do and let that inform your subsequent behavior.
- Acknowledge that something happened in the moment if you collect yourself in time. This is one of the best ways to defuse a situation and sometimes turns into a teachable moment where you can reflect on a mistake with the class.
- Follow up with a class announcement through Blackboard if the situation warrants it. This is an easy way to document your response to a mistake and model good behavior for your class by dealing with it rather than ignoring it.
- Follow up with your chair or supervisor if necessary. If what you said is likely to result in a student complaint or if you would like some advice, get in touch with the people you work with and let them know.
- Move on. We have all caught ourselves dwelling on that one bad student evaluation or that one mistake. The students are here because they want an education and you can help them with that. Deal with the problem and move on; don’t spend your semester reliving one moment.
Got a great teaching idea of your own? Showcase at the CELT Conference in a SLAM session (10/8 at 9:30am) facilitated by Ben Seipel or be on the lookout for a poster session invitation. Remember to Register!
Got an idea for a tip? Pass it on to us!