Talking About Tough Subjects in the Classroom

5 Dec 2019 | Theodore

Being a teacher means having the trust of a student to ask questions about tough subjects. Being an ESL teacher sometimes means being asked to give your opinion on these tough subjects. Whether in Korea, being asked about Korean-Japanese relations, Mainland China about your opinions on the government, USA about black rights, Japan about women’s rights, or in Hong Kong being asked about your thoughts on the protest, teachers sometimes ask—what do I say?

These topics, while sensitive, are a great way for your students to actively participate and create an engaging conversation. Just, the steps to get that are sometimes equivalent to running the gauntlet. So here are some suggestions that you can use to bridge these conversations.

1. Impartialness

As a teacher you should take the side of not taking a side. The goal for you is to encourage your students to express their thoughts and ideas in a cohesive manner. If asked “what do you think” ask them their position and why they think that. If they can’t answer why, a useful guiding question is “why should I think what you think?”.

2. Safe zone

Bringing some “PG” terminology into this, creating a safe zone where people can express ideas and opinions without fear of retaliation is a great way for your students to develop the necessary critical thinking skills.

3. Debate

Have students take the side they oppose. If they are for LGBT rights have them take the opposing side. Not only does it help solidify their arguments by seeing the opposing side they are also developing the necessary skills to articulate their thoughts and ideas and to “walk in another’s shoes”

4. Avoid using “I statements”

When talking about feelings using I statements is a great way to make it personal. When talking about political stances using I statements can mean something entirely different. Instead of saying “I think that conservation efforts are the only way to reduce global warming”, ask “if we don’t practice conservation efforts, what are other methods of battling global warming?” Students are then able to take a second and utilize the knowledge they have gained in your classes to come up with their own ideas.

5. Put biases aside

Okay and… No idea is a bad idea, which is a controversial thing to say, however, that is only because of our own personal biases. If you ask a student a question and they give you an answer you don’t personally agree with, then you may be losing that student’s trust in approaching you. If a student says the sky is green, then ask them to show you why it’s green. Many times, they will see through their own fallacies.

6. Debrief

I’ve learnt this from my time leading and directing camps, every time a sensitive topic is opened students will need time to talk over their feelings and the topics presented. The best way to do this is for you to summarize everything, have them close their eyes and ask questions about how they feel “raise your hand if hearing opposing viewpoints made you upset”, “show me on your fingers 1-3 on how much you want to continue these conversations”.


The one thing that teacher’s should take away is that every situation is an opportunity for your student to develop critical thinking skills and to build upon the information that have gained in and out of the classroom. The best thing a teacher can do is to ask a question that helps students formulate their ideas and opinions, these will be the building blocks that they will use for the rest of their lives.