Sensitive Topics in the Classroom

Addressing Religion, Politics, Race, Sexual Orientation, and References to Violence in the Classroom

Teaching Requires a Complex Interpersonal Balance

Sometimes, we agree to disagree. Sometimes, we remain silent. And very rarely, we have to call security. Or even 911.

We're teachers — our jobs require a careful balance between open dialogue, freedom of student expression, and the assurance of safety and equal access for all students. To establish a positive and welcoming atmosphere, you have to strike a balance between these sometimes contradictory goals and requirements. So, first, let's consider the requirements. Though these are specific to the United States and to Heartland Community College in particular, similar regulations like apply in other countries:

Legal Requirements

Additional Ethical Imperatives

Education is a rapidly changing field — as we recognize issues that affect student access and perpetuate discrimination, it may take time before state or federal law also recognizes these issues. The Civil Rights movement is a prime example of this, as the historical context of "I Have a Dream" shows. It took decades before purposeful segregation was finally outlawed in the United States, but economic segregation that corresponds with historical racial divides is an ongoing problem.

Additionally, the interpretation of laws and policies is a key teaching responsibility — in many cases, an instructor may be the first and only campus employee to hear or witness troublesome behavior between students.

With this in mind, here are are other issues you must contend with:

  • Navigate the difference between free speech and hate speech. As the ACLU writes, "the First Amendment does not protect the use of nonverbal symbols to directly threaten an individual." As the classroom is a public-yet-private space, this differentiation of is crucial importance.
  • Avoid privileging one political perspective over another. Regardless of your beliefs as a teacher, you must accept that some of your students will hold beliefs anathema to your own. Some of your students will support politicians whom you strongly disagree with. But within the classroom, you are the "ruling party" — you control the grade book and the disciplinary policies. If you voice personal political beliefs, you can force some students to avoid classroom discussions, or you might inadvertently promote bullying or even nonattendance.
  • Understand the boundary between political belief and human rights. That said, there are ideologies that promote hate and discrimination, and there are some politicians who support these policies. As teachers, we must recognize that our own government may engage in actions that are morally and ethically wrong — including actions that violate international law. If these discussions arise in class, we must never dismiss a human rights abuse as simply a "political" decision, or as something "we can't talk about."

Additional Ethical Recommendations

As a teacher, I am a strong proponent of social justice. I believe that every classroom should be a welcoming place, and that added effort is required if we are to ensure equity for students from marginalized groups. Additionally, I believe that American society is suffering an influx of false and misleading information regarding a variety of issues — some scientific, some cultural, and others socioeconomic.

I feel that writing courses off a unique opportunity to address these issues through research, discussion, and introducing students to a variety of perspectives. However, not every instructor is comfortable doing this. Also, it's impossible to accomplish all of these recommendations. At the end of the day, our responsibility is to teach our students the information and skills they need to continue learning and writing for the situations they'll face in the future. With this in mind, here are topics I recommend bringing up in your classroom, bt

Your Classroom Must Protect Student Privacy, Accessibility, and Equal Rights

Federal Privacy Guidelines in the United States

Here, I'll be discussing policies as they apply to a college classroom and at public institutions in the United States. In a K-12 setting, the rules are somewhat different in regards to parental access to student information, and specific institutions (particularly military or religious-affiliated institutions) may apply these guidelines in ways that I'm unaware of. I am not a lawyer and I am not a legal expert, and FERPA's policies are complex. The Student Press Law Center offers a comprehensive guide to FERPA policies and case histories. Also, these laws are specific to the United States — other countries will have different privacy laws, though the practices of protecting student privacy may be similar.

Also, please note that laws, policies, and internet security protocols regularly change, and that your institution may have specific requirements that differ from information provided online — you should always read and understand institutional guidance. If your institution provides guidance that appears incorrect or potentially unlawful, you speak with campus administrators to ensure student privacy is protected.

  • Under FERPA in a college setting, you cannot share student grades with anyone except that student. You may not share grades with the student's parents, regardless of whether the parent is paying the student's tuition, unless the student provides you with a written and signed authorization to do so.
  • You cannot use e-mail to share student grades. You don't have any assurance that the student will be the one who accesses the e-mail, as a music student at McGill learned.
  • Additionally, you may only track grades in a FERPA-compliant information system. Paper records in a locked file cabinet, digital files on a password-protected computer, your institution-sanctioned Course Management System, Microsoft Enterprise Services, and GSuite for Education provide sufficient privacy protections to meet FERPA guidelines.
  • Consumer online storage might not meet FERPA guidelines, so always use institution-sanctioned servers. Although I regularly recommend Google Docs as an excellent teaching tool, I will never record grades on a Google Sheets document, let alone use a Google Doc to share those grades, because I use a consumer Google account. With a consumer account, it's possible that Google could mine my personal information for advertising or other purposes, including any student information located there. Yes, I have dual sign-in on my account, and it is extremely unlikely that Google would "steal" student grades, but "likely safe" is not at all the same thing as legally protected. Besides which, there's the chances of accidentally sharing your gradebook — if you drag it to a new folder by accident, it's suddenly shared with everyone else who has access.