I am Afraid to Address Controversial Topics in My Classes

Worried Teacher- https://study.com/blog/how-to-have-a-great-first-day-as-a-substitute-teacher.html

Dr. David J. Childs, Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University

Teaching in a Divided Nation
With the US being divided and polarized along ideological, social, racial and political lines the idea of addressing controversial topics may seem very intimidating to teachers. Indeed, with many hot button issues being at the forefront of all of our minds, many teachers choose to barely even broach certain subjects. In fact, some teachers may avoid controversial subjects altogether. They tip-toe around topics such as racism, sexual assault, censorship, abortion, gay marriage or gender equality out of fear that they will get into trouble with their administrators or receive backlash from parents. Or teachers feel inadequately prepared to delve into certain topics. However, students often are confronted with these issues everyday and they need some sort of outlet, platform or safe space to process all that is going on around them. And what better space to deal with these topics than a middle grades or high school classroom.

Good Teaching Can be Messy
Good teaching can often be messy but that does not mean it is bad teaching. When approached the right way “classrooms can be welcoming spaces for students to test-drive their ideas and to see disagreement as an opportunity to learn, not as a form of conflict.” Social studies, language arts and even journalism classrooms can be “ideal incubators for facilitating constructive dialogue on today’s most divisive issues—from immigration… to religious and cultural tolerance… to the relative powers and functions of our three branches of government.”

A Roadmap for Controversial Teaching
I-Civics has prepared materials to address controversial topics. Teachers will find helpful resources in the section called Your Roadmap for Teaching Controversial Issues. I-Civics has created “five Teacher Guides and a series of brief informational videos” that equip teachers to address controversial topics in their classrooms.

Discussion Questions
A. How early should teachers introduce controversial topics in class? Are elementary students too young? Is Kindergarten too young? Why or why not?

B. What are some real obstacles or barriers for teachers as it relates to teaching controversial topics in class?

C. In what ways can controversial topics be integrated into a science or math curriculum?


  1. This was an interesting read and one such line which stuck out to me the most referred to some teachers fears of being “inadequately prepared” to discuss contentious issues. Where I consider myself knowledgeable about most subjects, contentious or otherwise, I don’t consider myself to be “qualified” to speak on all matters. I may “know” about the trials and tribulations of African-American citizens, or victims of sexual abuse, or xenophobia etc. However, my knowledge of such issues does not (and should not) qualify me to speak on behalf of said people. How am I to lead a class in a subject matter that I, myself am qualified for? This was a great read and certainly offered some food for thought!

  2. Hello,
    Awesome article! Growing up in rural Indiana, nothing controversial was talked about in class. Whether it would be out of politeness or purely because it did not align with the educators personal beliefs, this discussions did not happen. Because of that, many students grow up not knowing about different beliefs and this (usually) ultimately leads them to believe that their beliefs are superior in a way, because their beliefs the only ones discussed. One of the most human things to do is to disagree, but still learn/understand what you are disagreeing with. As educators in such a rampant age, I think that this is one of the most important skills we can teach our students.

  3. I agree that high school and even middle grades are appropriate times to start a dialogue around controversial topics. I feel that as an educator, you must know your audience. Of course, you’re not going to go into a rural school and start trashing Donald Trump. However, you can open up a healthy dialogue about certain statements he has made or policies he has pushed that aren’t intended to benefit certain groups and why that is. There could be that one student in your classroom that had felt ostracized from his peers and now is more comfortable and tuned into your class. Last semester I was placed at a bit more of a rural school, where the teacher was a football coach so he had built that relationship with his students and players in and outside of the classroom. He told me that one of his players had stated “I’m the whitest black guy you know” and he simply had a conversation with the student in private and addressed the underlying assumptions behind a statement like that. It can be as simple as that. I don’t speak for everyone, but I attended an urban high school and benefited from knowing about the world around me before I stepped foot onto a more “liberal” campus. One of the first classes I walked into my Junior year, my professor had a dry-erase mug that read something along the lines of, “the past is political” and I’ve never smiled harder.

  4. The current state of the United States certainly makes this discussion more pertinent than usual. I think the article does a good job in addressing the importance of including these topics into the classroom environment even though they may be controversial; it is a conversation that should happen. Realistically, it is also one students will encounter in real-life at some point, and they will most likely have questions or beliefs formed over them. Managing those opinions can be a delicate balancing act, but one that is absolutely imperative to an inclusive setting. As for the appropriate age level, I believe that there is not necessarily a correct answer. Reasoning can vary on a case-by-case basis, with some children being exposed to difficult concepts like death very early in their lives. Ideally, I think it is a discussion that occurs as students age–perhaps around sixth grade–but it can easily fluctuate depending on the circumstances.

  5. This article really grabbed my attention because it is one of my biggest questions/fears to not know what not to talk about in the classroom. My favorite line of this article is “…see disagreement as an opportunity to learn, not as a form of conflict.” That is another thing that I struggle with in life: constantly avoiding conflict. If I can help my students to not fear conflict, that would be really great. This was a helpful article to read in preparing for my future classroom!

  6. I think that this article addresses a very important issue that teachers face when trying to talk about current events. It is important for teachers to not choose a certain side when talking about these different issues and laying out different points from each side to further the students knowledge so that they are able to have these conversations because they have been educated on the topic. disagreements will happen and not everyone will agree on these tough topics but it is important for students to be able to have civil discussions. By teaching these tough topics it will impact how students go about talking about these subjects in their daily lives.

  7. This article was very insightful for any young teacher discussing civics or politics in the classroom. There is a thin line between discussing those topics and spreading beliefs. However, I believe teachers should provide facts for both sides of controversial topics. Then students should use those facts and do some of their own research to decide which side they stand on the topic. There is a lot that can be learned not only by the students but also by the teacher when discussing some controversial topics. Understanding how students view the world will help the teacher make connections with the students when discussing other topics in class. Also students learning to compromise and agree to disagree will really help the future of our democracy, because Americans today seem to not have those skills.

  8. Last year my kindergarten student told his teacher that Donald Trump was a bad man. She said he was not, which upset my little guy. I can understand why she couldn’t agree, parents would be all over her. I’m sure she didn’t expect 6 year olds would bring this up.

  9. This article is intriguing! Especially when I consider how controversial Social Studies and sub-topics and subjects tied-into Social Studies can be when referring to political matters. There is a clear division in our nation; we are divided based on talking points, based on belief-systems, based on ethnicity, skin color, and social and political ideologies. To a degree, I think it is fine to be controversial, to teach about subjects that some teachers may be afraid to barely touch in their classroom; although, it may take experience to understand how to approach certain ideologies and ideas in our classrooms. Controversial topics such as: gay marriage, racial divide in the nation, social and political divide, media censorship, and abortion should be avoided at the elementary level o education, but slowly introduced into the middle grades and most definitely involved with secondary education.

    I am heading into Social Studies secondary education and I believe that issues surrounding gay marriage, abortion, and racial divide should not be ignored and why is that? Well, do we want to keep repeating history with social injustice riots and protests; or do we want to encourage change and adaptation in our young students’ minds and future authority and leadership in our nation? One can be afraid of potential ‘backlash’ from administration and parents/guardians without being afraid to brush up – at least a LITTLE bit upon these issues surrounding our world, today.
    The biggest obstacle or ‘barrier’ as a teacher when relating it to teaching controversial topics in a class is that of the backlash from the parents and administration. This could hurt the credibility of some young and newly equipped middle grades and secondary teachers. I would not recommend teaching many of these topics under middle grades based on possible misunderstanding in the classroom.

    For example, I think if an elementary teacher is providing information about the current racial protests and how we as critical and civic leaders can help prevent such protests outside of the classroom; then this may not bode as well in an elementary classroom. There could be discussion involved in middle grades education, there can be role playing and projects that can portray situations to help our students understand what is happening in the world – through middle and secondary grades education, relating to such controversial topics.

    Do not get me wrong, I am terrified of losing my job based on saying the wrong controversial topic – so what will I do? Not teach the topic, until I brainstorm a way with my administration and students that could lead to a better social and political environment in the future. I want to promote civic and political justice in my classroom; all while encouraging my students to stand up for what THEY BELIEVE is right and have a clear and better understanding on how to go about promoting change in AND for their nation.

  10. I agree that it is intimidating to discuss many controversial topics in the classroom, but oftentimes I think it is necessary. Students are going to hear these conversations in other places and form their own opinions, having the outlet of a classroom to decide their stance it very beneficial.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.