Talking About Social Issues with Your Students

There is so much news and controversy and division in the world right now, and as an educator, it can be tough to find the line when it comes to bringing up current issues in a class setting.

I first realized this on September 11, 2001. I was teaching in New York at the time, and I remember being struck with horror when I heard the news of the terrorist attacks. I knew my students were probably even more scared than I was, and I remember thinking it was my responsibility to show a brave face and make my students feel calm and safe by treating it like a normal school day.

I wish I hadn’t.

While my students were definitely scared, I still wish I had talked about the terrorist attack with them. As educators, we often have no control of what is going on in the world around us, but we can be there to inform our students of what is happening, provide emotional support and sometimes even draw teachable moments from these events.

This is just as true now as it was 17 years ago. One way in which I have worked to talk to my students about real world issues is by serving as an advisor at my school for a student group called S.i.D.A. — the group is centered around Social Awareness, Inclusion, Diversity and Acceptance. During our meetings, the students talk about a variety of issues like gender bias, police brutality and sexual harassment. They also plan events for the school to spread awareness and foster a more inclusive environment.

It’s really valuable for the students, giving them a space to learn more about world issues and see different perspectives, but it can be challenging as an educator.

We obviously want to foster these conversations, but we are also public employees, and it’s important to stay as neutral as possible in order to promote truth seeking and balanced, fair debate on all sides of any issue.

Recently, my students organized a sit in to start a conversation about gun violence in schools. As an advisor, I was there as they were making signs and I offered advice, but I was sure to stick to the facts, and let them draw their own conclusions and opinions. I wanted to inform my students about the legislation and history of American gun ownership, but knew it would be an overstep to share my own opinions on the matter.

It isn’t always easy, but the most important thing to do is provide guidance and a safe space for these conversations to begin.

Instead of preaching, I let the students discuss the merits and pitfalls of any argument, and only step in if something is disrespectful or seems like it needs further study or clarification.

While not every student or educator in the school shared this group’s views, students across the school have started having conversations about gun violence, which is a solid step forward. And it’s setting a positive example. The school as a whole is beginning to talk about other issues like this, and students are beginning to start healthy dialogues.

As educators, it is our responsibility to prepare our students for the real world, and that means we need to have conversations about real social issues. Students may not need to know your political views, but they do need to be aware of current events. Creating a space to discuss and debate world issues is instrumental for these children to become engaged citizens. Whether you help foster these conversations by advising a student club or by finding ways to talk about the news in your classroom, be sure to constructively engage with what is happening in the world. Remember, your students will find out anyway.

Harry Gee

Harry has been teaching in Reynoldsburg, Ohio for Reynoldsburg City Schools since 2001. He started teaching at-risk teens English Language Arts in an alternative career-based program called Trailblazers and then collaborated in the formation of eSTEM Academy, a STEM program, where he teaches presently. He has taken on more leadership roles and his goal is to help create a strong culture in his building of academic achievement, global citizenship and fun for all stakeholders.