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:

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.