Challenging and Caring for Learners in DEI Classrooms

Author(s): Diana Samu-Visser

I’m not the first facilitator to have a crisis in my classroom, and I won’t be the last.

As I read over McLean & Company’s 2021 HR Trends Report, I was reminded that, while crisis can give rise to disaster, it can also generate radical, positive transformation. Before I joined McLean & Company, most of my facilitation took place in-person in humanities classrooms. Over the course of my classes, my students and I discussed literature that grappled with racism, sexism, homophobia, colonialism, and acts of physical and psychological violence. And my role as a facilitator was to model how to approach these stories and themes with the compassion and critical thought they deserved. However, there was often friction between students with differing experiences and perspectives, and in rare cases, discussions risked harming the environment of psychological safety we had worked so hard to build in that classroom. For instance, during a discussion about Toni Morrison’s Beloved—a novel deeply engaged with the psychological effects of slavery and trauma—a white male student’s interpretation of a scene in the novel included a comment that generalized the character of Black men. A Black female student challenged him, rightfully angry at his words. In moments of crisis like this, how do we attend quickly and thoughtfully to the unique needs of individual learners?

When teaching and facilitating discussions on sensitive topics like anti-racism, anti-oppression, allyship, and inclusion in a workplace setting, our key responsibilities are to support learners in becoming better critical thinkers, active participants in their own ongoing development, and emotionally intelligent human beings while nurturing a psychologically safe learning environment. But when these discussions reach a crisis point, it’s an opportunity to think differently about what psychological safety entails for individual learners with different experiences. M.J. Ryan and Dawna Markova’s Comfort-Stretch-Panic Model can help educators visualize the nuances of psychological safety to both challenge and care for their learners.

A diagram representing the zones in Ryan and Markova's Comfort-Stretch-Panic Model

Source: Adapted from Ryan and Markova, 2006

In this model, the comfort zone represents a state in which learners are relaxed, secure, and stable. Here, learners are unchallenged and at ease. There are no unfamiliar or discomforting ideas to disrupt the comfort of their worldview, and they may even be so relaxed that they become bored. Conversely, learners’ emotional responses to entering the panic zone when confronted with new ideas and experiences may include feelings of disconnection, exhaustion, anger, fear, and anxiety. Between these two states lies the stretch zone—a region of experience in which exposure to unfamiliar concepts can be an opportunity for growth. Here, learners feel neither safe nor overwhelmed. This unfamiliar territory can create feelings of nervousness and uncertainty, but learners may also feel challenged, willing to take risks, energized, and curious.

Imagine critical thinking and compassion as a muscle, like a bicep. If this muscle never encounters any resistance or is asked to do any work, not only does it not grow, but it can atrophy over time. If the muscle is overloaded, such as with repetitive strain or too much weight, there’s a risk of injury to the muscle and it will need rest. Carefully executed work in the stretch zone, however, allows the muscle to build up strength and capacity for larger loads over time. Similarly, challenging students to confront discomfort, nerves, and unfamiliar perspectives creates a greater capacity for empathy and critical thought over time. And although this is especially relevant to teaching difficult topics, most learning moments takes place outside of the comfort zone and all learning has an emotional dimension.

In the facilitation scenario I discussed earlier, there are two perspectives in this crisis moment I need to have in mind as an educator: the perspective of a learner whose privilege allows him to be ambivalent or who becomes oppositional, and the perspective of a learner who has lived experience of marginalization, oppression, and violence related to the topic of discussion. The learner with privilege needs to be supported into the stretch zone, where he is neither ambivalent nor fearful but challenged and curious. The learner with lived experiences of racism and sexism needs to be supported into the comfort zone where she can regain a sense of security and psychological safety and feel empowered to enter the stretch zone when and where she feels comfortable doing so.

There are strategies educators can use to balance the needs of learners with different perspectives. In some cases, these strategies are more suitable for ongoing, long-term environments such as a three-month training course, but many strategies can be implemented for short-term scenarios such as a lunch-and-learn, workshop, or single seminar.

To care for learners who have lived experiences of marginalization, oppression, and violence:

  • Take your cue from trauma- and violence-informed care. First and foremost, this means understanding that your interactions with learners are not just teaching moments – they are care encounters in which you can reduce harm and serve the learner’s unique needs.
  • Be non-judgmental and make it clear to the student that they deserve your care.
  • Privilege the learner’s voice by actively listening and holding space for their experience.
  • Acknowledge the effects of the learner’s lived experience on their engagement with the subject matter.
  • Develop a strong working knowledge of internal and external resources available to learners such as employee resource groups, employee assistance programs, and policies and processes at your organization that protect employees’ psychological safety and wellbeing.
  • Know when to consult or involve HR, for example, if a learner harasses another learner or uses a slur in the classroom.
  • Reach out and connect if you suspect a student is struggling. This can be as simple as, “I noticed you were quiet in today’s session. I wanted to remind you that I’m here if you want to debrief after our online sessions and that my door is always open.”

To challenge learners whose privilege affords them the ability to be ambivalent in the safety of the comfort zone, or who become oppositional or agitated in the panic zone:

  • Explain why “devil’s advocate”-style provocation is harmful and model how to engage in genuine, thoughtful discussion.
  • Confirm that new ideas and discomfort about privilege are parts of growth and development. It is common for students with privilege to feel defensive at first, and that feeling isn’t wrong or unusual.
  • Introduce learners to the importance of allyship and what allyship looks like in practice.
  • Model how to handle making mistakes and how to genuinely apologize. Demonstrate what integrating new information and skills after learning from your mistakes looks like in practice.
  • Clarify to these learners that teachable moments cannot come at the expense of the safety and wellbeing of other students. This may mean interrupting an important discussion to prioritize the care and safety of students with lived experiences of marginalization, oppression, and violence.
  • Be prepared to reach out and have difficult conversations with learners who have harmed others.

To care for all learners:

  • Acknowledge the effects of interpersonal violence, discrimination, and marginalization as tangible experiences, not just theories or abstract ideas that are disconnected from real life.
  • Coach learners to become more aware of communication in virtual environments. It can be difficult to see body language on a webcam or read tone in a classroom chat. Remind your learners to be both attentive to how their communication may be received and mindful of how they interpret other learners’ communication.
  • Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know how to make this a safe and productive discussion right now, so we’re going to come back to it once I’ve had time to think about it.”
  • Develop and confirm expectations together so that everyone has a hand in creating the environment and is accountable to those conditions. This might look like a code of conduct or guidelines for discussions that are created collaboratively at the beginning of a long-term learning experience or articulating three key expectations for short-term or single-instance learning experiences. This should also include what your role and responsibilities are as a facilitator.
  • Show your hand and explain your philosophy of how to handle moments of crisis. If the Comfort-Stretch-Panic Model or other tools inform your teaching, explain these to your learners early on when creating the classroom environment together.
  • Offer one-on-one discussion time and avenues for feedback and maintain an open-door policy. In the context of the virtual classroom, it’s especially important to arrange a few different ways for learners to bring their concerns to you directly or anonymously. Consider using an anonymous digital exit survey to ask learners what they would like to see you start, stop, or continue doing in your classroom.

By Diana Samu-Visser

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