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Amanda Stead: Creating Classroom Community and Buy-In for Difficult Topics

Teaching Difficult Topics

On a short list of topics that make people uncomfortable, death and dying is likely to be near the top. Most of us try not to think about death, much less talk about it, so leading students through meaningful encounters with difficult material like death and dying is no easy task. Yet CSD professor, Amanda Stead, does it for four weeks straight in her Communication and Aging course. Her students (like most of us) have “all kinds of messy feelings” about death and dying, and Amanda knows that if they don’t have an opportunity to confront and process their own relationships with the topic in the classroom, their judgment will be colluded by those emotions later in their work with patients.

Asking students to wade into a swamp of emotions and past experiences can be a risky venture for everyone. Amanda has discovered that building class community and securing student buy-in are critical to ensure that her students come out the other side having achieved the objective distance necessary to engage in the academic and professional tasks that await them. This is important whether we’re training health care practitioners or undergraduate political science majors.

Watch the video below to hear Amanda talk about how she builds community and student buy-in when she teaches difficult topics.

How do you get student buy-in and create classroom community? You plan for it. If difficult content is coming, students need to know about it early, and be reminded often why it’s important. If you’re asking them to engage emotions and/or recall experiences that might be uncomfortable or upsetting, they deserve to know why. The syllabus or the first class meeting is a good opportunity to explain exactly why this hard work is necessary for achieving the course learning outcomes. In most cases, once you get students to understand the why, you’ll have their buy-in.

Of course, all the buy-in in the world doesn’t matter if the learning environment doesn’t feel safe to students. Transforming twenty-plus strangers into a safe and supportive classroom community requires careful planning and diligent attention. It’s hard to trust someone you don’t know, so a first step is helping the students learn about each other. This means doing more than the typical Day One icebreakers. Students need to see each other as complex, vulnerable people who share many of the same hopes, fears, and concerns. They also need to practice trusting each other with small stuff–stories from childhood, daily challenges and victories, etc.–so that relationship groundwork will be in place when it comes to the big stuff that will inevitably come up when they get to the difficult topics. You can model the kind of trusting and supporting you want your students to do yourself in the early days. Once they see what it looks like to be vulnerable and receive support in a safe community, they can follow your lead when they interact with each other./

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