You know what they never prepare you for in grad school? Classroom management strategies for when discussions in your classroom go there. And there, of course, can be any number of uncomfortable topics. (Including, as you’ll see below, Hitler.)

And the reasons we teachers become uncomfortable? It’s not that there’s anything taboo about the questions. It’s that we’re afraid we’ll answer them wrong or sound stupid. And we’re deeply afraid that in our stammering, red-faced awkwardness, word will get out to our students’ parents that we made a gaffe. (And those parents will, in our mind, complain to our principal, other parents, and the superintendent. And, oh yes, they will call the news stations, who will camp in front of our house in droves. We will, of course, lose our job, and will die penniless and homeless, forever known as the teacher who said “such-and-such.”)

The good news? Despite our worst fears, it typically doesn’t play out this way. Thank. Goodness.

Classroom management strategies: when someone brings up Hitler

Often the most useful way to learn how to traverse these murky waters of nervous uncertainty is to glean knowledge from the experiences of other teachers. (And chime in with your own examples in the comments, as it will be instructive to all of us!)

My first big moment was my initial year of teaching third grade. We were talking about something innocuous, when I heard one of my little charges say, “That reminds me of Hitler!” I absorbed that for moment, thinking of how to respond when his friend asked, “Who’s Hitler?” And before I could steer the conversation elsewhere, another kid piped up, “He was this really bad guy in World War II who killed, like, TONS of Jews. He put them in gas chambers.” A lot of the students (many Jewish) nodded their heads knowingly, while others murmured, “Why?” or “What’s a gas chamber?” and even, “They killed some of my family.”

Woah.

Responding in the moment

I gave the signal for quiet and all eyes turned to me. I gulped and began, “I can see how you made that connection, ___. I think some people are not familiar with Hitler and — ” [the same student raised his hand eagerly so he could try to further explain] “– I can give you some basic background.” They all stared while I thought, “Oh man. Think, brain, THINK!” {One of the best classroom management strategies is to perfect that wise teacher look of thoughtful silence while you try to figure out what on earth you’re going to say next.}

After a long pause, I gave them the basics. “Hitler was a man with an unhealthy brain who ran the country of Germany a long time ago. And he did hate many people, and yes he killed many people. He’s not alive anymore. It’s a very sad part of history you’ll learn more about as you get older. When we learn from it, we can find ways of working with people instead of hurting them.”

“I won’t, however, be sharing the details today on what Hitler did. I know some of you know a lot about him. And many of you don’t know about him yet. Your families will want to talk to you about this. And they’ll know what you’re ready to hear. Because when we learn things before our brains are ready, it can be very upsetting. It’s kind of like watching scary movies. Anybody every get nightmares from watching something scary?” [a few hands raise, and I raise my own] “Our families know us pretty well and will know how much information our brains can take without getting too scared.”

I told them I’d write to their parents to let them know about the conversation we had had. And then we moved on. (And I sent an email out right after school.)

Classroom Management Strategies: Where do babies come from?

This has only happened once in my room, and it was pretty darned cute.

I was lining up our pick-up/walk-home kids for Friday dismissal. The kids who went to afterschool programs and buses had already left, so there were only about eight kids in line. Our classroom aide had told me earlier that he was celebrating his baby daughter’s birthday that weekend, and as I walked out the door with the kids, I called back to him “Oh! Have fun at your daughter’s birthday, Mr. _____!” The kids looked at each other and said, “Mr. ___ has a daughter?”

I heard them chatter behind me as we walked toward the front door of the school, and one of the girls said, “But he’s not married! So how does he have a daughter? I thought babies only came if you were married? So where do babies come from?” I quickly turned about and said, “Hey! Let’s play Walking Simon Says! Simon says, ‘Show bunny ears!’ …”

In a minute we were outside and the waiting parents collected their kids. I pulled the confused girl’s mother aside and said, “Hey can we talk in private for a quick second? It’s nothing bad!” I said, noting the concern on her face. “It’s actually pretty cute.” So I related the story and added, “Sorry if I inadvertently brought about the talk.” Mom was a love. She giggled and said, “Yes. She has been getting very curious lately! I keep putting it off!”

Had it been a whole class situation, I would have sent a quick email home with the crux of what I said so that parents would have some point of reference in case their kiddo brought up the baby question.

Sexual orientation: Classroom management strategies for supporting your kids

Like supportive classroom conversations, this LGBT rainbow flag shows gay students that they are normal and embraced for who they are. One of the best classroom management strategies is helping all your students feel valued.

Photo by Peter Hershey

This is an area I don’t shy away from. And while I don’t get into the specifics of how people show love, regardless of orientation, I openly use the terms gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender.

To those who disagree with this approach, here is something to consider: according to the latest Gallup Poll, in 2016, 4.1 % of United States adults identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. (LGBT) (And this percentage has been increasing with each successive poll.) If you have a classroom of twenty-five students, therefore, it is very likely that at least one of your students will ultimately identify as LGBT.

Further, suicide rates among the LGBT community (especially youth) are FOUR TIMES HIGHER than that of their straight counterparts. Think about that. Four. times. higher. People who feel loved and accepted by their peers and by the adults in their life do not typically hurt themselves. This figure speaks volumes for how our LGBT youth feel.

And since many of these students know they are gay by 9 or 10  — and often much earlier — it doesn’t make sense to sweep such an important part of who they are (or who their friend/parent/aunt is) under the rug. It’s not advocating a lifestyle, just as talking about a woman marrying a man isn’t advocating a lifestyle. It’s just stating a fact. There are gay people. There are straight people. There are bisexual people. And there are transgender people. It’s not a matter of right or wrong. It just … is. Just as each shade of skin color is.

So how do you explain it?

Gay/Lesbian

Honestly, I don’t say that much. The simpler, the better. These days, most of my fourth graders already understand the words gay and straight, and a few know the term bisexual. If someone does ask what gay means, though, I’ll usually say, “That is when a man is in love with a man or a woman is in love with a woman. Not like a friendship love, but like when you have a crush on someone.” I treat it like the no-big-deal-fact it is. Because our kids our listening to us and watching us. If they are LGBT, the message they get is that they are normal. If they self-identify as straight, the message is that their LGBT friends and peers are normal. It has zero to do with sex and everything to do with identity.

If, of course, something serious comes up, such as the phrase “That’s so gay!”* or an incident of bullying, we’ll dive deeper, and always on a level that they can relate to.

Transgender

Last year I got a transgender question for the first time. One kid brought the word up and another asked, “What does that mean?” I paused again for a long time, then answered it this way: “Transgender is something I don’t have as much knowledge or experience with, but I’ve read a lot by people who are transgender so that I can understand it better. As I understand it now, it’s when you feel like your brain is female but your body is male. Or when your brain is male, but your body is female.”

They were still confused, so I said, “Okay. I need a couple of brave souls. Are there any boys here who really feel like, ‘Yes. I am definitely a boy!’ Or any girls here who feel like ‘Yes. I’m definitely a girl.'”

Many kids raised their hands and I asked one boy if I could call on him. He agreed and I asked, “Okay. You feel like you are a boy?” And he nodded vigorously. “Are you sure your brain is a boy’s brain?” and he giggled and said, “Yea!” So I asked, “What if you had a girl’s body?” He screwed up his face and said, “Ewww!” I nodded my head and said, “That is, as I understand it, how transgender people often feel. Like their body doesn’t match their brain. And they often have that feeling of ‘Ewww!’ as well. So they’ll often get help from their doctor so that their body better matches their brain.” This visceral reaction usually connect with kids.

What if parents complain?

Honestly? This has never happened for me around this topic. But the first thing to do when a parent complains about anything is openly listen. What is the crux of what has upset them? Sometimes, a student may misreport or misinterpret what you said. Listen with a relaxed body and heart. (Read here for more on running a positive parent teacher conference.)

If someone continued to be upset, though, I would likely say this:

“I hear your frustration. As I understand it, you feel _______ because _____.”

“My job, however, is to teach and support all my students. Since four percent of the population identifies as LGBT, that means I have many gay students passing through my classroom.

All my students, including yours, will hear from me that they matter and that they are normal and capable of making the world better. I’m not advocating that students be gay or straight. I’m advocating that they be who they are and make the world better for everybody.”

One of the best classroom management strategies is advocating that students be who they are and make the world better for everybody.

I’m advocating that they be who they are and make the world better for everybody.    (Photo by Sam Headland)

If this doesn’t work — and it might not — and they go to your principal or your superintendent? So be it. Even if I lost my job — which would be very unlikely in such a case — I’d know that I had let my students feel that they mattered. Life’s too short to compromise on who we are. And I’m not just saying that to be glib. Why else are we here than to make the world a better and kinder place? What’s the point, otherwise?

I’d rather take another job than let my LGBT students go home feeling like they shouldn’t exist.

When in doubt

Regardless of the topic at hand, when you’re not sure what to do — which will be the case quite often! — this reply will always serve you:

“This is an excellent question/point, _______. I want to talk more about it, but I need to think first so that I’m giving you the best information. Give me a day to think about this and I’ll circle back to it tomorrow. And thank you for asking such a brave/big question!”

In this way, you communicate three things:

  1. Their question is relevant.
  2. Sometimes we all need to take time to think about things before we can answer.
  3. You value the question asker and the rest of the class; you want to give them the best information possible.

Then you can touch base with colleagues, your principal, and/or your teacher Facebook groups. Be sure to check in with someone seasoned from your school, though. They will have the advantage of knowing the culture and history of the school and community, which will help you in framing your response.

Remember, great teachers often practice these classroom management strategies of saying:

  • I don’t know.
  • I’m not sure.
  • I have no idea.
  • Let me find out.
  • Let me think on that.
Of the the best classroom management strategies is advocating for all students so that, as they pass through your room, they know they are valued.

Photo by Jonathan Weiss

Other areas that make us teachers anxious

There are, of course, many more areas of sensitive conversation. Race and racism is a huge one that I will touch upon in the future, as is the topic of differing political beliefs.

Other important classroom discussions I’ll delve deeper into are how to enable your kids to support classmates and schoolmates who have noticeable behavior difficulties, learning disabilities, and physical differences. To change the world, we can begin with the fantastic world that is our classroom.

Your Turn

Let’s hear from you! What challenging dicussions have come up in your classroom and how did you handle it? (Or how would you handle it next time?) Or. What are you deeply afraid will come up?

Have a lovely week and keep making the world better! You got this!

Toodles, ~Katrina

*Interestingly, when I began teaching over a decade ago, the term “That’s so gay!” was something we heard a lot and addressed directly. In the past few years, though, it hasn’t come up once. The kids have stopped saying it — a very good sign!

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