Greens Farms Academy is a PreK-12, coed school in Westport, CT

Welcoming Challenging Conversations

By Ben Gott
MS English, Equity and Inclusion Coordinator

My friend and colleague in the Middle School, Kathleen Nicholson, often talks about the fact that she refers to herself as a “middle school teacher,” not a “science teacher.” Though we all consider our subject matter to be an important part of the work we do each day, Middle School teachers often find ourselves engaging with students’ joys, concerns, problems, and successes as much as we find ourselves teaching them math, science, or English. 

As the Middle School Coordinator for Equity & Inclusion, I am overjoyed to be working with a group of colleagues who are committed to helping all of our students feel welcome, accepted, and included for who they are. Particularly during this moment of uncertainty, the commitment that GFA is making to real, meaningful reflection and change, sets us apart.

During our opening faculty meeting, GFA’s Director of Equity & Inclusion Shanelle Henry and I took the opportunity to suggest a framework for the important conversations we are having this year. Using our Mission Statement and core values as our guide, we suggested that we might welcome challenging conversations — not fear them. As a follow-up, I recently sent out some resources for Middle School teachers looking to find ways to open up lines of communication, allow students to learn from the consequences of their actions, and support the message that GFA is an innovative, inclusive, and globally minded community for all.

Perhaps you have been engaging in these crucial conversations yourselves but are not always sure how to respond in the moment. I can heartily recommend that you download and devour the Teaching Tolerance pamphlet, “Speak Up At School: How to Respond to Everyday Prejudices and Stereotypes.” Though many of these scenarios are specific to schools, there is actually a lot that all of us can use—both in conversations with our children and with other adults.

For example: Say you’re sitting around with some friends or family members (in a socially distanced setting!), and the conversation turns topical. Somebody makes a comment that doesn’t sit well with you. On one hand, you don’t want to rock the boat. On the other hand, you very much want to speak up. Often, it seems easier to be silent. So what should you do?

You can start by restating or reiterating the other person’s words: “Did you just say ___________?” By doing this, you are both clarifying what you heard while at the same time echoing the other person’s words—an important step in helping them understand the impact of what they said.

This also gives you the opportunity to engage in a conversation that, as Teaching Tolerance notes, “[focuses] on challenging the statement rather than the person who said it.” Perhaps you could ask, “Tell me more. What did you mean by that?” By opening up the lines of communication in a clear, affirming way, you are allowing everyone the opportunity to think through their responses—while also making your own boundaries clear. 

You also shouldn’t feel the need to respond right away. Reaching out to a trusted friend or family member for advice and support allows you to take some time to collect yourself and to work in partnership to formulate a plan. There is nothing wrong with following up with an email, text, or phone call saying, “You know, that comment you made a few days ago didn’t sit well with me. Could we talk about it?”

And always remember: if the comment is particularly egregious, you always have the option of simply saying: “Stop,” or “I don’t find that funny,” or “Why would you say something like that?” Remember: “It is not your ‘job’ to educate everyone else about bias…Self-education—the realization that one lacks knowledge on a subject and will seek it out on one’s own—is vital.”

Oftentimes, when dealing with our own children, we default to a response like, “That isn’t the way we talk in this family.” But such a response, while understandable (particularly in the moment), tends to shut the conversation down. The more you can approach your follow-up conversations from a place of questioning and affirming your own specific family values, the more likely it is that your child will be able to make the connection between what we believe and how we act.

GFA will continue to engage in these challenging conversations this year in order to become the most innovative, inclusive, and globally minded community we can be. We look forward to doing this important work together!