Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Handle difficult Moments with Respect & Sensitivity

Difficult dialogues in the classroom can happen in any discipline. They are often uncomfortable for both instructors and students. However, instructors must move past the discomfort and address the raised issues with respect and sensitivity.

cmu classroom image

The following will focus on three different types of difficult dialogues that can emerge in your classroom.

“Microaggressions are brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial, gender, sexual orientation, and religious slights and insults to the target person or group” (Sue, 2010: 5).

Of course we as educators are not out to intentionally exclude anybody from the educational experience. However, many researchers report small unconscious behaviors – “microinequities” – that certain student groups experience repeatedly. For instance, women report that instructors tend to interrupt them more often than men, ignore them more often, call on them less often, ask them more recall questions and fewer analytical questions, acknowledge their contributions less, and build on their answers less (Hall, 1982). These microinequities add up and have a highly discouraging effect on those students.

Microaggressions are often unintentional and tend to be harder for dominant groups to spot (in part because they are often the perpetrators). They have a mental, emotional, and physical effect on targets, which over time can impact long-term health and well-being. Both instructors and students can commit microaggressions in the classroom (for examples, see Sue et al., 2009).

To explore different types of microaggressions, check out a project created by CMU students, showing different types of everyday microaggressions experienced by students: Mind field

Strategies for Inclusive Teaching


Hall, R. (1982). The classroom climate: A chilly one for women? Washington, D.C.: Association of American Colleges.

Sue, D. W., Lin, A. I., Torino, G. C., Capodilupo, C. M., & Rivera, D. P. (2009). Racial microaggressions and difficult dialogues on race in the classroom. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 15(2), 183-190.

Sue, D. W. 2010. Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation, John Wiley & Sons.

Hot moments are instances where conversation gets heated in the classroom. They can arise from microaggressions, or discussions of controversial topics. (Sue et al., 2009). Hot moments can be instigated by both students and instructors, either by a comment or an action that causes offense or hurt. Such moments often seem to spiral out of control and can be very intimidating to instructors and students alike.

How instructors react in those situations is crucial to classroom climate and future student learning. (Sue et al, 2009). Students rated using humor or shutting down dialogue as the least effective ways to deal with hot moments, while rating de-escalation and reflective activities as more effective ways to deal with hot moments (Burton & Furr, 2014). Students appreciated instructors who stepped into the discussion, legitimized the issue, and were willing to accept students’ differing realities (Sue et al., 2009).

 Strategies for Inclusive Teaching


Burton, S., & Furr, S. (2014). Conflict in multicultural classes: Approaches to resolving difficult dialogues. Counselor Education And Supervision, 53(2), 97-110

Sue, D. W., Lin, A. I., Torino, G. C., Capodilupo, C. M., & Rivera, D. P. (2009). Racial microaggressions and difficult dialogues on race in the classroom. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 15(2), 183-190.

Teaching and learning can be difficult for both instructors and students following a local, national or international tragedy. Tragic events may take an emotional and cognitive toll on students, disrupt their lives, and interfere with learning for extended periods of time. Students’ proximity to a tragic event does not always determine their response. For example, students may be seriously affected by events that involve total strangers. Additionally, students’ surface responses may not be indicative of the actual effect.

As an instructor, it’s important to consider the impacts such events have on students as human beings and learners. What can instructors do to support students in the wake of tragedy or crisis, regardless of what they are teaching in their courses?

 Strategies for Inclusive Teaching


Huston, T. A., & DiPietro, M. (2007). In the eye of the storm: Students perceptions of helpful faculty actions following a collective tragedy. In D. R. Robertson & L. B. Nilson (Eds.) To Improve the Academy. Vol 25. Resources for faculty, instructional, and organizational development (pp. 207-224). Bolton, MA: Anker.