Strategies for Managing Difficult Classroom Conversations

Managing the Moment: Stop, Drop, and Roll

1. Stop the class

  • If you ignore the moment and carry on, the speaker learns this language or attitude is acceptable and all listeners learn that this behavior will be tolerated, potentially even at their expense.
  • While it can be painful to give up time not directly related to the subject matter, you are modeling how an expert in this field reacts to the inappropriate treatment of members of the community.

If you let the moment or language go unaddressed, then the student in need of learning does not learn, and the students in need of support are left unsupported.

2. Drop teaching for a moment

  • Give yourself space as a human in a difficult situation. Take a moment to breathe before responding. 
  • Remember this is challenging work, and it can easily make us feel unprepared or even defensive.
  • Do your best to separate your sense of self from the role of teacher. Try to not take remarks personally and not get caught up in your own reaction to what's happening.

Uncomfortable as it might feel, this an opportunity moment when you can demonstrate how to move forward calmly and model grace under pressure.

3. Roll with the conversation

  • This doesn’t mean that you relinquish control of the conversation. Instead, position yourself as an active facilitator who is inviting multiple voices to contribute where you are not a participant on one side or another.
  • Demonstrate that you are still in control of the classroom but are giving them space to explore and learn.

Consider yourself as a conductor who is aware of the dynamics and conflicts at work, and who can initiate the finale when the conversation has reached.

Always remember that if the conversation continues to intensify, you can share that you also need time to reflect on how to proceed. Encourage them to speak to you after class or at a later time, and consider asking them to write further on the issue as an impromptu homework or extra credit assignment. Consult with other institutional resources if you would like guidance, including campus police if you are concerned about safety or escalation. Come with strategies for discussion for your next meeting. Preparation and further time in class, however brief, demonstrates you take these occurrences seriously.

Managing the Conversation: ACE (Acknowledge, Clarify, and Encourage)

1. Acknowledge the moment

  • Acknowledge clearly that this is a hot moment and that everyone is probably uncomfortable right now.
  • Articulate that everyone brings their own sets of expectations, interpretations, and biases based on their individual life experiences. This potentially includes a lack of exposure or understanding about different ways of being.
  • Remind the class that this is a moment for learning just as much as the content in the syllabus.

Highlight the opportunity to normalize discomfort and respectful discourse in order to support folks of all kinds in this learning community.

2. Clarify intent

  • Clarify what the student said. It’s possible there has been a misunderstanding about what the speaker meant and/or how listeners have interpreted the intent. Slowly repeat what you heard them say.
  • Use a calm tone and encourage them to reflect on their statement. If they don’t take the opportunity to reflect or revise, you might ask “What makes you say that?” or “Can you say more about what you mean?” Hold them accountable but encourage reflection.
  • Where possible, pivot to focus on what can be learned in this moment about difference, and why these conversations matter.

Frame follow up to focus on the statement itself rather than speaker: “When a person says X, that could make other people feel Y.”

3. Encourage engagement

  • Encourage exploration and articulation of the feelings, questions, and conversations this moment has brought up with the entire class. Prompt reflection on how everyone in the room has had different experiences, despite apparent commonalities, and how those differences inform reactions.
  • Try to zoom out from the original speaker or statement to focus on patterns or attitudes.
  • Writing can be an effective focusing technique, allowing them to find words beyond their initial reaction. Sharing out first also provides space for students who are quieter or less confident.

Make space for a variety of voices, including the original speaker, to share a greater diversity of ideas in the room.


Resource drafted by Dr. Jenna Morton-Aiken, Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning, Brown University
June 2022

Content informed by Warren, L. (2006). Managing hot moments in the classroom, Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, Harvard University; “Navigating Difficult Moments” (2022), Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, Harvard University; and Frederick, P. (1995). “Walking on eggs: Mastering the dreaded diversity discussion.” College Teaching, 43(3), 83–92