Never thought about what you’d do with hurtful remarks from students? Here are some practical approaches to consider

Pupils sitting on the floor around a teacher with their hands up

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Few classroom activities are more powerful than a whole-class discussion. This is particularly true when an expert teacher artfully facilitates conversations that deepen content knowledge and critical thinking. There is another implicit benefit of these exchanges: students view teachers as moral authorities, pointing the way towards civility, and illuminating the difference between right and wrong.

You might have experienced a discussion interrupted by a student offering a xenophobic, misogynistic, homophobic or racist contribution, relevant or irrelevant to the topic in hand. Although fully prepared to discuss and challenge any scientific detail, you might be unsure what to do when this kind of comment surfaces.

When a student hijacks classroom conversation with bald intolerance or hate, you can be forgiven for indecision. Do I ask the speaker to leave the classroom? Bark at the student to demonstrate my authority and set an example? Try to turn the situation into a teachable moment? These encounters can be handled in a number of ways.


If you aren’t 100% certain you heard something offensive, verify you understood the comment correctly. Even when confident in your appraisal of the situation, asking ‘What did you say?’ with your eye intensity set on stun will often send a signal that the remark has no place in your room. Most likely, the speaker will respond with, ‘Nothing.’ And in two seconds, the whole class receives your message.

Shut it down

In situations where a bully is attempting to show dominance (which is different to mere ignorance), brevity is better than getting into a debate. Simply state the rules: ‘This conversation is over.’ And mean it. I’ve also emphatically responded to racist remarks by saying, ‘That’s crazy!’ Like the above, the chief attribute of this tactic is no-nonsense efficiency.

Target the speech, not the person

When working with young learners, taking the opportunity to turn an ugly comment into a teachable moment communicates that your classroom is a protected space for everyone. Regardless of how aggravated you feel, remain cool. Then dispassionately address the language – ‘That term degrades women, so it is banned in this classroom.’ – not the speaker – ‘You’re being a misogynist.’

Focus on the costs

Instead of getting entangled in a semantic argument, talk about how the student’s comments impact:

• You – ‘That kind of talk interrupts my concentration when I’m trying to teach.’

• Fellow students – ‘Those terms make other students feel angry and unsafe, which disturbs their learning.’

• Society – ‘We have big problems in our world. Divisive talk that makes others feel lesser, fragments us when we need everybody to be united against challenges and threats.’

• The agitator – ‘Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Hate is too great a burden.” I invite you to seek out ways to respect others and show everyone your best self.’

If they say ‘just kidding’

When reprimanded, learners sometimes attempt to save face by declaring, ‘Just kidding.’ That response is a cue that the student desires your approval. Although you might want to return everyone’s attention back to the lesson, don’t let the student off so quickly. Take time to help the instigator see the difference between friendly kidding and maliciousness under the facade of teasing.

Rosalind Wiseman recommends you explain the difference between three types of teasing. The first, friendly teasing, strengthens social bonds. The second, annoying teasing, arises when the speaker is insensitive to how their comments might hurt someone’s feelings. The last, malicious teasing, is intentionally designed to humiliate the target of remarks. One characteristic of malicious teasing is that it is often repeated.


The second or third week of school is a good time to introduce classroom expectations, or norms, through group talk. Norms, rather than rules set by teachers, are agreed by all in the classroom. They set out how people in the group will treat each other. Richard Curwin, a classroom management expert, suggests small groups of students discuss:

• Who decides what constitutes intolerant speech?

• Is stereotyping the same as hating?

• Does the intention of the speaker matter?

• Define teasing, sarcasm, insulting, and hateful speech.

Follow those conversations with a whole class discussion – one that concludes with agreed upon rules of communication.

Don’t be surprised that some students need to relearn the golden rule. And don’t feel like you need to have a perfect response to every manifestation of hateful speech. But before intolerance and hate – demons born of ignorance – menace your class, have a plan in place, as well as the conviction to implement it immediately, if needed.

Todd Finley is a professor of English education at East Carolina University, US